I originally wrote this essay in 2004, my senior year in high school (and got a 90 for it). I've updated it with recent examples. Anyway, enjoy (or don't).
"They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To"
Most people who know me are aware of the fact that I don’t listen to newer musical artists, with very few exceptions. I do listen to new music, when it’s made by an old artist (Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, and Steely Dan are a few of my favorites that released new material this decade). People always pester me with questions asking why I only listen to dinosaur rock, and accuse me of being closed-minded. So now I’m going to answer the question “Why don’t you step out of 1975 and listen to modern music?”
Because it sucks.
It’s not really anybody’s fault that it sucks; most of the good ideas have simply been used up. As big an ocean as music is, it’s also an ocean that "ends at the shore," as Bob Dylan once sang (decades ago of course). There are only so many melodies, harmonies, chord structures, chord progressions, riffs, hooks, etc. that can be used before they become recycled. In other words, nothing is catchy anymore, unless it’s strangely reminiscent of an old hit.
AC/DC was always great at coming up with new riffs and lyrics to make a good rock song. But last October, I bought their newest album Black Ice and was disappointed. The intro to the first track was a big indicator that guitarists Angus & Malcolm Young are scraping the bottom of the barrel. The opening of “Rock and Roll Train” sounds like a collage of random notes, stuck together in the hopes of finding something remotely catchy. The lyrics throughout the album aren’t anything stunning either; the words of “Rock and Roll Train” are vague and aimless, with lead vocalist Brian Johnson harping about giving it up and giving it what you got, whatever that means. To be fair to Brian Johnson, the lyrics aren’t his (he stopped writing them at the beginning of the 90s, handing lyrical reigns over to the Young brothers). AC/DC’s lyrics used to be clever and raunchy, whether they were about the problems of having a prostitute for a girlfriend (“What Do You Do For Money Honey”) catching VD (“The Jack”) or those pesky critters that dwell in pubic hair (“Crabsody in Blue”). But the song “Rock and Roll Train” is still the best on the "Black Ice" album, and is also one of at least three songs on the disc that contain the word “rock” or a variation of it in the title.
But back to crabs and prostitutes and stuff, a lot of performers these days are filling their lyrics, videos, album covers, etc. with attempts at shocking the parents of their fans. The thing is, nobody is shocked anymore. We’ve seen it all. Alice Cooper was among the originators of shock-rock, but had strong music to back it up. However, along came pud-pullers like Marilyn Manson, whose only aim was to create controversy in the media to boost the sales of music that otherwise would have just blended into the scene.
The parents nowadays grew up being shocked, so it's not an easy task to stun them anymore.
Heavy metal has been going downhill recently anyway. Today, the bands sing through a distortion box and scream bloody murder, spewing out lyrics that cry melodrama. I could write any given modern metal band’s lyrics right now. I mean it. For instance, um...here you go...
“I’m drowning in a world of lies/I hear the silence broken by angry cries/I’m seeking the answer filled with burning hate/No one can save me for it’s much too late” and so on. Perfect dribble for some teenager to put on his MySpace page headline.
But, at least they’re trying to write their own stuff. Of course now I’m leading into those who use “sampling” to pass for songwriting. Mostly rap artists do this, but it’s found its way into the pop scene as well. Sampling used to mean covering another musician’s work in the middle of your own song, i.e. singing and playing it yourself. But people like Eminem have become too lazy or uninspired to do so, therefore Aerosmith’s “Dream On” winds up in a rap song. Some other putz recently inserted Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” into their work (I use the term “work” loosely). I don’t have anything against covers; but I don’t think you should draw a check for re-releasing someone else’s recording and putting your name on it.
This year, I've noticed many of the biggest hits use repetition as their hook. Ahem:
"Gives you hell gives you hell gives you hell..."
"Do you know the enemy do you know the enemy well gotta know the enemy..."
"Po-po-po-po-po-po-po-po-poker face po-po-po-po-po-po-po-po-poker face..."
"Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-alcohol"
(Weak point of my argument, I admit, but I wanted an excuse to rant about that.)
I suspect that in a decade or two, maybe sooner, there will be a slight renaissance in popular music. Someone will discover a batch of unclaimed melodies and lyrics that don’t sound like anything else before it. But when it’s over, music will be dominated by random noise and sampling.
I have become an old man - modern music is now “noise.” It’s official.