Is pop music dumber and louder than ever?

First aired on Day 6 (03/08/12)

Is pop music getting louder and dumber? A new study by Spanish researchers suggests that's the case. According to their findings, after analyzing 55 years of pop music history, modern pop is less musically complex and engineered at higher volumes. To dig a little further into this controversial study, Day 6 organized a pop music panel featuring Maura Johnston, music editor at the Village Voice, Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville, USA, and Carl Wilson, author of Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

All three music experts questioned the veracity of the study.

Johnston said studies like these have an "easy packaging" that "reinforces a lot of conventional wisdom where people can nod and say, Yes, it is getting louder and dumber, it's not like the way it was when I was 16."

"People were saying music was getting dumber and louder in the 1920s. They also were saying it in 1963 and 1964, so this is an old story," she added.

Bowman's bigger issue was with the way international news media ran with the story. There were headlines like "Scientists: Pop music has grown louder, dumber" and "New study proves pop music is getting dumber." He argues that it's sensationalist to give the study more credibility than it deserves. "It's actually poor science. Rhythm, groove isn't even mentioned," he said. "Rhythm is essential."

Bowman went on to note that "the scientists doing the study and none of the journalists who picked up on the study had begun to even question what do we mean by complexity. Is seven chords automatically more complex than three? Well, what are the chords?"

Wilson agreed that the science behind the study is dubious, but posed a cultural question: "Is it really that bad if pop music is louder and dumber than ever?"

"I grew up with punk rock and dumb and loud were really important qualities in punk rock that you wanted more of," he said. "And I think that's a lot of the fun side of pop music that always is kind of subverting demand to be some kind of calm, middle-of-the-road, nuanced piece of work. You actually kind of want your pop music dumb and loud, some of the time at least."