Opinion | Mainstream pop is ruining great songs

By Sarah Liez, For The Pitt News

On her 2020 album “Manic,” singer Halsey included a snippet of a voicemail at the end of the track “3am.” This message, sent by famous singer-songwriter John Mayer, tells Halsey that her best song is on the radio and is about to be a massive hit, if it isn’t already.

When I first heard this, I did a quick Google search to discover the song in question — ”Without Me.” While this electro-pop track was certainly one of her most popular songs, it didn’t resonate with me as her best work. It wasn’t until I listened to “Without Me (Stripped)” that I realized John Mayer was right.

Performing the ballad using her voice and an electric guitar alone, the true quality of the song can be heard. Halsey’s voice is raw, emotional and alive with feeling. The guitar is minimal, yet an effective addition to her voice that emphasizes the intensity of the song. The work transitioned from a synthesized pop hit to a powerful story about love and anger and strength.

I couldn’t understand how amazing this song was until I listened to the stripped version because most popular music today is dominated by distracting elements that take away ingenuity so they may appeal to a larger audience. By being able to listen to the singer’s voice, words and the instruments without outside interference, the listener can finally recognize the work for what it is and assess its genuine quality.

It’s not a purely evil disdain for artistry that motivates this watering down of music. Mainstream music has become so centered on financial gain that the music industry turns most amazing songs into OK songs by taking the original vocals and editing them so that the lyrics are no longer created by the singer’s voice, but a modified version of that voice that detracts from the song’s artistic value.

Record labels and artists stand to make the most money by selling as much as they can, and can accomplish this by reaching as large an audience as possible. Consequently, they commercialize a lot of great music, incorporating synthesizers, autotune and simpler chord progressions because they know that this is what appeals to most people. Emotion and passion shift from being the root of a song to a mere aspect of it.

It is often difficult to determine which music is worth the time and money to produce, so sticking to the basics is the most efficient money maker. As explained in the YouTube video “Is Pop Music Holding You Hostage?” by PBS Idea Channel, a phenomenon known as payola occurs when record labels bribe radio stations and streaming platforms to play specific songs. While payola is illegal, the industry still finds loopholes, such as paid vacations with implicit understandings that result in payola.

Streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, have monopolized song dissemination as they manage pre-made playlists with the power to include some songs over others. Radio airtime is a valuable commodity as well, offering effective exposure for a wider breadth of people. Both platforms act as intermediaries that influence the perception of a song’s value. Through the targeted deployment of music via the radio, streaming sites and public spaces, songs gain meaning. The qualities of songs played more often gain meaning in the listeners’ minds, thus training the public to prefer certain musical aspects over others.

Record companies are less likely to produce a song that doesn’t fit the format of most popular songs because they know — from experience, observation and their own conditioning — what people like. A song is a product that requires funding in order for it to appear on the radio or within virtual playlists and radios, so why waste money on a song that might not sell? Producing a creative song that pushes the boundaries of pop music is a gamble, whereas producing a vapid song that mimics previous pop sensations is less risky, offering a greater guarantee of success.

The British rock band Queen released a song in 1975, now notorious for its length and inventiveness, titled “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This six-minute-long track was written by Freddie Mercury with the intention of becoming a single for their album “A Night at the Opera.”

But when they presented this work to EMI, their record label, they were met with apprehension concerning the song’s ability to succeed. Specifically, the label questioned the practicality of a song so lengthy being played on the radio. After EMI rejected their inventive creation, Mercury brought the recording to friend and radio DJ Kenny Everett in hopes that he would listen and recognize the originality and appeal of the song.

As we know today, Everett adored the track and made the monumental decision to play it on his station, thus enabling it to become a massive hit. This example illustrates the music industry’s reluctance to produce songs that stray from the standard format. As a result, they often trivialize amazing works of art for the sake of yielding the greatest profit possible, while also modifying these works to conform to mainstream tastes.

Music today has been warped by the industry to make it more attractive to the most people possible. In dominating these creative works with technical elements that increase their appeal, the intensity and meaning of a song is lost in translation. In order to recover this meaning, we must observe music carefully, coming to our own conclusions of what is good versus bad. Listening to stripped or acoustic versions of songs is a great way to accomplish this, for we may finally hear them for what they are.

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected].