Is Pop Music Dead?

Modern Life Is Rubbish

Was there really a Golden Age of pop music? Yes, argues Brit. It was circa 1950 (or possibly earlier) to the present day…

Three weeks ago Mahlerman asked whether classical music was dead. Interestingly, people ask the same question about pop music with far more frequency and surely much less reason.

In general, people believe that pop music enjoyed a Golden Age during precisely the period that they were aged 16-25 and that it then declined rapidly – or possibly, instantly –  thereafter. And they argue that this is the case whether they were so aged during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. Doubtless noughties now, too. Which suggests, to me at any rate, that Golden Ages and declines have a lot more to do with the person than the culture. This, indeed, has been a perennial debate between the Dabbler Editors (Gaw is a Golden Age-ist, 1980s-flavour); along with a less fractious, modified version which holds that if musical quality and musical talent didn’t necessarily completely go to the dogs on 31 December 1989, then mass youth pop culture movements – of which music is an important part – did. I have less to say on this topic as I’m not really qualified to make judgements about grime, rioting or whatever it is the kids like to indulge in tribally these days.

But any which way, Golden Ageist analyses depend on a narrative view of pop music and culture, and lend themselves to often hilariously po-faced, pop-based socio-historical yarns of the John Harris/Paul Morley/Stuart Maconie kind. Oh the terrible importance of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s second album, etc etc. (I once wrote a nonsensical parody of these narratives, and so ingrained and commonplace are the clichés of the genre that several commenters, scanning, didn’t even notice that it was a parody).

The more you think about the ‘music died in (1968/1979/1997 whatever)’ school of thought, the odder it looks, given the shortness of the timespan (rarely, for example, do people make claims like “I love the plainchant of the 1130s, but it was absolutely rubbish in the 1140s”) and even more so, for me, since I’ve had the beloved Brennan JB7 – that marvellous bit of jerry-built British kit that plays your entire music collection at random. Thanks to their Daddy’s assiduous and expensive lifelong CD-collecting habits, my little girls enjoy near-constant submersion in a vast ocean of glorious and diverse pop music – and do they care that one sing-a-long-er is from California 1966 and the next from Manchester 1996? They do not, since all that happened in the last millennium anyway, in the abstract, not-real land of Before They Were Born.

Which isn’t to invalidate the greatness of the music of your particular youth, of course. It was indeed a Golden Age, but the reality of it is that you can slice and dice your pop music however you want: horizontally, vertically, by chronology, country, city or genre, and make it make as much sense as you want. The ratios (80% rubbish; 18% good; 2% inspired) stay more or less the same. And Pop will go on, and go on being Golden, for as long talented youngsters are wanting to pick up a guitar or a computer and make a noise.

To celebrate this happy truth, here are four witty little British kitchen-sink pop gems – one of my favourite genres, as it happens – from the Witty Low-Key British Pop Gem Golden Age. It doesn’t matter which particular years they were released in, does it?

Arctic Monkeys – Cornerstone

The Kinks – Lola

Squeeze – Up the Junction

Oasis – Married with Children

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15 thoughts on “Is Pop Music Dead?

    February 10, 2013 at 11:11

    people believe that pop music enjoyed a Golden Age during precisely the period that they were aged 16-25 and that it then declined rapidly

    True, no doubt, thus validating the warnings of Baptist pastors when it first appeared that it was subversively sexual. Can that also be said of other genres? Did young hormones once flow dangerously at the Brandenburg concertos under the suspicious watch of older eyes? Were the virtues of Elizabethan doxies put at risk by the immensely popular The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Parts in 1597? Did the cowboy ballads help them navigate all that gingham?

    You have those percentages right. Thanks to satelite radio, I can now listen uninterrupted to music from the 60’s and 70’s while doing my errands around town. My goodness but we listened to a lot of crap.

    February 10, 2013 at 12:01

    I don’t think there’s a particular era that’s better than any other, but I do think that now there’s no new music, everything is just a pastiche of something that’s already happened, which doesn’t bode well.

      ian russell
      February 11, 2013 at 21:30

      There appears to be no generational divide thesedays. I go on youtube and young kids are commenting, digging Hendrix and Wishbone Ash, and old people are buying Adele albums and such-like.

      I remember playing Traffic, On the Road LP on the family gramophone and being shocked when my Dad said it sounded quite good. Later, I learned to dig his stuff but not in those days. My daughters buy Marvin Gaye and Motown, as well as the younger stuff. There’s a healthier attitude to music now, I believe. We hated pop!, even when it was quite good, like Slade. This is the golden age! It’s boring too.

    February 10, 2013 at 13:33

    When I first got into pop music it was all dreadful, actually. There was “Razorlight”, who had the earnestness of Bob Dylan and the talents of Shed Seven. There were the “Kaiser Chiefs”, who thought that a chorus should consist of the same words being sung in the same tune in the same rhythm. There was “Babyshambles”, who were a walking anti-drugs advert. I still think that Franz Ferdinand had a few good tunes but that aside it was appalling.

    I do think that now there’s no new music, everything is just a pastiche of something that’s already happened, which doesn’t bode well.

    There is something to be said for that but, to some extent, this has long been the case. The popular bands of different eras have tended to have borrowed more from those of the past than is obvious. Even a band as iconoclastic as the Sex Pistols were striking the same poses and the same power chords as Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and Dr. Feelgood. The contemporary world does have a few trends that appear original. I think dubstep is, for the most part, an obnoxious racket but it is a relatively pioneering obnoxious racket.

    While we’re talking low-key pop gems, by the way, I think the best of the British nowadays are Wild Beasts and Field Music.

    John Halliwell
    February 10, 2013 at 13:59

    I agree with the bloke in the photo: Modern Life Is Rubik Cubed; major problems seemingly intractable, not even a semi-complex way of lining up the reds, yellows, whites, and the rest. Now, if the bloke in the photo had written: Modern life is Rubbish, I would stand a chance of getting my head round that. I suspect, as you suggest, Brit, it is all about that period 16 to 25. The first year of my golden age was dominated by a US Army tank driver, Presley, a deceased, and much lamented, specky-four-eyes, Holly, and a notorious husband of a child bride, Jerry Lee Lewis. Then, it all seemed to go into decline; led by a demobbed, and suddenly anaemic, Presley, churning out rubbish at an alarming rate as if army discipline had destroyed that glorious ‘fuck you’ spirit. And the pretty boys had arrived in force: Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Burnette, Bobby Vee, Billy Fury, Jess Conrad, Eden Kane, John Leyton – I could go on, but I’m feeling queasy. We were doomed. But hold on: What was that? Who was that? ‘Love love me do, you know I love you, so ple-e-e-ese love me do.’ The middle and late years of my golden age were about to be rescued.

    Is pop music dead? I don’t think so. When I came across Mumford and Sons, I experienced a watered-down Love Me Do moment, and phoned my daughter “Listen to them, they’ve got it.” “Thanks Dad, I ‘ve been telling you about them for weeks.” I recently got my own back “Have you heard the second album? No? Sounds just like the first.” Oh well.

      February 10, 2013 at 16:47

      Once again John, your canny skills as a geophys has unearthed some high statusish artefacts, Jess Conrads appearance in public was the first time I heard my father swear, and who can blame him. I suspect that Brit is near the mark with the generational stuff. My own interest in pop went into reverse with the emergence of rap, the forlorn wailing from a Victorian lunatic asylum.
      I am listening to Evgeny Kissin playing the Melody from Orfeo and Euridice and cannot think of any modern music that could even remotely stir the emotions like this. Touch wood, next Thursday we will be sitting thirty feet from Sophie Mutter at the Kölner Philharmonie as she plays Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, what modern offering can compete, a Spice Girls revival? That is sad, considering the legions of talent out there, blocked by the modern equivalent of Tin Pan Alley’s fat men with a cigar, Cowell and his gang of mediocrity.

      Genuine talent, given the opportunity, could change all of that.

        John Halliwell
        February 10, 2013 at 18:43

        Glad to be of assistance, Malty. I do understand your father’s lapse on hearing Jess Conrad. His ‘This Pullover’ was as dire as anything ever recorded, but Jess knew that he was the world’s best looker and the world’s worst singer:

        I do envy you your visit to the Philharmonie on Thursday; Mutter is a bit special. I remember sitting in Row E at the old Free Trade Hall when she played the Brahms concerto. That was the Thursday evening. I was so taken, I went back on the Sunday when she played the Beethoven. I remember my wife observing “You, twice in a week; unheard of; are you feeling alright?”

          February 10, 2013 at 20:19

          John, you and Herbert von K although he, I believe, managed twice nightly. Mutter is backed by the Poles next week, the buggers are everywhere.
          Conrad had the finest set of teeth this side of an Essex sleb, wonder if he still has the stumps.

    February 10, 2013 at 17:36

    I remember reading not so long ago of some French musician who was being billed as, “the Gainsbourg of our generation”. “How sad,” I thought, before losing interest in him completely as I already have a fine collection of Gainsbourg’s music. Then I learned some time afterwards that Mitterand had described Gainsbourg on hearing of the latter’s death as “our generation’s Verlaine”. I guess you have to have been dead for a while before you become original.


    “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
    and that which is done is that which shall be done:
    and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

    and that was written some time ago, but we seem to have muddled through nonetheless.

    February 10, 2013 at 18:17

    Popular music is meant to be the sound track for hormonal disturbances. Judging the popular music of one’s youth is therefore comparable to sending Pavlov’s dog to review a carillon concert.

  7. Gaw
    February 10, 2013 at 21:04

    A boring history-bod speaks: British pop music did have a golden age, from the Beatles until Acid House. The reason wasn’t so much the music but the populus that produced it. That culture is dead now and what’s replaced it isn’t as socially significant or interesting.

      February 10, 2013 at 21:53

      I agree with him ^

    Hey Skipper
    February 11, 2013 at 04:06

    In general, people believe that pop music enjoyed a Golden Age during precisely the period that they were aged 16-25 and that it then declined rapidly – or possibly, instantly – thereafter.


    For me, 16-25 spans 1971-1980. In my library of roughly 2,000 songs, maybe 10% is from that period. As Peter noted, a great deal of it was crap. Despite risking a Brit-shellacking, when the Beatles became available on iTunes, I expected to do a lot of buying. Not so–I found whole swaths of their stuff (e.g. pretty much every second of the White Album) unlistenable. Yes, there are some gems, but much simply doesn’t stand the test of time (unlike, say, Steely Dan).

    The vast majority comes from 1984-2000ish. Less after that, not so much because the music has gotten worse, but rather due to an increasing intolerance for what I don’t like. Three chick-music selections in a row on the Adult Alternative channel will send me straight to the iPod.

    Barenaked Ladies and Modest Mouse, to pick a recent and current example, prove we are still in the Golden Age.

    Of course, your audioage may vary.

    ian russell
    February 11, 2013 at 21:03

    Squeeze. It was funny when that bloke on the front of that youtube video there claimed on tv he’d overdubbed most of Jools Holland’s keyboard parts because JH wouldn’t play anything but boogie-woogie.

    Pop music has had lots of Golden moments but they only last about a year or three – too short for an age. I see Danny Baker is on the case. I’ve managed to avoid him so far.

    February 12, 2013 at 10:50

    So, then, we are all agreed: Pop music has had lots of golden ages, every generation is different, there is nothing new under the sun and what we are listening to today is rot.

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