This is a guest post by Fathomless Regression. It’s potentially controversial, so let’s hear your opinions in the comments section!

The Disclaimer: Let me start this by saying that I appreciate anyone who is genuinely pursuing the development of their art form, whatever that may be.

Through the wonder that is a radio at work, that I can’t change the station on, I have been exposed to much new country. By new country I mean the pop country (Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flats, etc). Let me say, I used to be a country fan. I grew up in the midwest in a farm town so Willie Nelson, Johhny Cash, George Strait, Reba, Dollie, Vince, etc were all staples in my house. I can still remember listening to all of them on vinyl. It was great stuff. Each artist had their own distinct sound and voice. Fast forward to 2009 and country has become a formulaic machine much like the Disney music machine of the mid to late 90’s. Remember how every mouseketeer suddenly had a record contract and everything sounded the same? We’re there again. Producers found a formula that sold records and now we’re in the copycat phase that follows. They take that formula, apply it to the same artist for as long as he/she remains popular. When audiences become bored, rather than reinventing their sound, the producers drop the artist and paste that same formula onto a new face, tricking unsuspecting audiences into thinking that this is something new.

There is another genre that follows this pattern. Enter hip hop. I used to love hip hop. Wu-Tang, 36 Chambers was my life’s blood. Tupac, Me Against The World. Dre, Bone Thugs, Eminem (pre 2001), Nas, West Side Connection, all of these were in constant rotation in my collection. Yes I really was the white boy who would bump Ring Of Fire through my same thumpin’ system and then put on some Tupac. Hell, I still am, except now I mix in a little Conor Oberst or Frightened Rabbit between them. But where has this genre, spawned from social rebellion, and poetic expression fallen? Every time I see a hip hop video or hear a song on the radio it’s the same thing. Money, women, how great the rapper is, how great is friends are as rappers, how life is so good because of all of the money. Really? Damn, why did all of the rappers with something to say have die in their 20’s?

Some time ago, a producer somewhere (probably the same one as our country example) realized that if you make a hip hop song that has a dance-along-able beat, and a catch hook (Back That Ass Up anyone?), you can sell millions. All of the high school girls and college girls love it because they can dance to it at the club. All of the guys like it because they idolize the rappers who appear to have all of the women and cash that they can handle. It’s the new wheaties box. Now you take that formula, ride it until the rapper is old news (about 3-6 months), copy, paste, find new rapper with charisma and who wants to make money, and you’re set.

Similarities that exist between hip hop and country:

Rappers are obsessed with their cars/rims/etc…Country singers are obsessed with their trucks.

Rappers are obsessed with women and frequently show them in their videos…Country singers do the same, but instead of daisy dukes and what is basically a bra for a top, country singers have girls with daisy dukes and wife beaters.

Rappers always rap about where their from…Country singers always sing about where they’re from provided it’s in the south.

Both are pretending to still be something that they’re not, or never were. Cowboys and “Thugs.”

Listen to their lyrics carefully and you’ll notice that neither will ever say anything relevant. Ever.

Also, interestingly enough, both are more likely to sell more records than any of the other genres on average. Piracy isn’t nearly as rampant in these two worlds.

This money making machine is certainly not limited to country and hip hop, it’s just most prevalent there. To site some other examples, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Jonas Brothers. Remember the Hanson brothers. Hmmm, wonder where the Jonas brothers got birthed from. Remember the boy band craze of the 90’s? Okay, now remember the boy band craze of the 80’s? Remember Tiffany in the 80’s? Brittany in the 90’s? Music has always had these copy & pasters but they’re coming in much quicker rotation in the land of country and hip hop. So the next time you’re reaching for Auto-Tune, or that same damn big band stab that I hear in every hip hop single these days, or the next time you’re thinking of writing a song about junior high angst and pickup trucks, while you’re actually in your 20’s, think again. Maybe instead of having a quick buck you’d like to actually contribute something original, be it ever so crappy and humble, to the world of music. That’s just a thought. I’m off to work on another track that no one will care about, and that won’t sell a million copies, but dammit it’s different.

Fathomless Regression
myspace.com/zerotalent
fathomlessregression.wordpress.com

Other posts by Fathomless Regression:

  • Bryson375

    Motown did this for years, they created some great music. But still it was reproduction of the same sound with different singers. Also look at blues. 12 bars in a different key with different lyrics… It’s just how it goes. It’s what make Genre’s.

  • You hit the nail on the head, but there is hope.

    http://www.rhymesayers.com
    http://www.qn5.com

    Check out Atmosphere, Cunninlynguists, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born…tons of great hip hop out there if you know where to look

    I really can’t say much for country. Hopefully the independents are carrying on the competitive spirit of creativity instead of succumbing to the formula for some quick cash.

  • David S

    Radio has sucked since I was old enough to start paying attention to it. There was always a formula. 1920s-1930s Bing Crosby is “hip”, hence every singer croons. Frank Sinatra was a byproduct of that crooner formula. 1950s Elvis is hip, Ricky Nelson is that byproduct as well as many artists of the day in that genre. Beatles, same thing. All the way to Nirvana. Every genre has a formula for the decade. Its the only way they can make money with music. Even Indie-Rock has a formula. I’ve noticed many popular indie bands sound like either Wilco or Pavement. There has always been a formula and there will always be a formula. No matter what genre.

  • Mike

    Great Music will always always always be over shadowed by popular
    music. Always was always will be, look at all the great Jazz musicians, folk writers, Classical, you’ll never hear this stuff on commercial radio. This is nothing new, it’s pop culture. That’s fine, I like alot of pop music, but you gotta dig and search a bit deeper to find the truly great stuff. But my definition of great could be completely different from yours. I can’t stand certain types of music, yet there are plenty of people that love the junk that i hate. And that’s fine, I guess that’s what makes the world go round!
    Mike

  • Mark

    Yeah the writer is stereotyping & generalizing a bit, but the the industry “machine” is at work here too. That said, a lot of the musical recipes we see in the mainstream work for me, BUT my biggest hangup….recent albums I’ve sampled sound like they’ve come out of a computer or they’re over-produced or something. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than American Idol,..and Adam Lambert and Cris Allen really inspired me last year in their live performances, but their new studio releases sound horrid. Even John Mayer’s new one…ouch.

  • joshua davis

    excellent post.

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I don’t know about you guys. But every time I hear most of the “product” out there on radio stations I pretty much would like to hurl! Is it any wonder I’d rather listen to bands from over 30 years ago. That’s pretty much where my heart is musically. But there is still good stuff out there. You pretty much have to wade through a lot of crap to hear it though.

  • ezb

    I couldn’t agree more. About two weeks ago I forgot my headphones when I went to the gym and I was subjected to 45 minutes of robot voiced hip-hop garbage. New country is no better.

  • Radio is dead. Clear-Channel ate it up. So it’s hard to find good music the traditional ways, but it is out there. Unless you have a nice Public or College radio station nearby, you won’t hear anything new/fresh/beyond “formula”. As for Sirius/XM, forget about it: of the 100+ channels of music usually one or 5 channels are going to play new out-of-formula stuff and most of that stuff is classic (Little Steve’s Underground Garage, etc)
    Back 30+ years ago, we had only 3 or 4 sources from on-high to send music down to us, over the FM: those sources didn’t have total control over the actual _production_ of music and its songwriting, like they do now. Nowadays it’s flipped: a million sources for music, and only 2 or 3 “produced types” of music within each genre, and they are elevated and pushed on us. Country and hip-hop are just another new turf for these pop-expert producers to dabble in. But back in the day, you had artists who could be more freeform and experiment and give us some awesome music, and they had less “noise” to penetrate (those 3 or 4 channels from on-high I mentioned, the occasional Paylola etc).
    The audience is fractured to much for those days. So yeah, “today’s music ain’t got the same soul.” Modern country/hip-hop are “pop fused” to appeal to the widest audience, and it’s sad because new music rarely produces the visceral emotions (“I love this” or “I hate this”) the way they used to. New stuff is so homogenized to grab as many fans/customers as possible. Is it any wonder I’d rather listen to my “Old Dawgs” Waylon/Willie albums (acquired tastes to today’s kids) 1000times over than the latest Taylor Swift or Rascal Flats hit?
    I’m just a grumpy old man here, I know, but I do really want these hot young artists with fire in their hands to stray from formula. Surprise us, inspire us, make art instead of always making product.

    • And you have to believe that if they focused more on “art” and less on “product,” they’d probably end up with a much better product AND more sales, right?

      • I think the conventional wisdom is that the real ‘art’ doesn’t sell well. That may be true, but I think it’s also true that there are a whole lot of people who really want to be the next Britney Spears/John Mayer/Tim McGraw/Timberlake, and are emulating as best they can — go to any open mic night and listen. The most ‘commercial’ music is also some of the most competitive, and you have to sound perfect, look perfect, be the right age, be willing to play whatever crap they put in front of you, and it’s still competitive as hell.

        • I definitely believe an artist who pushes their own boundaries & shrugs conventional wisdom gets a reward…sometimes more record sales, getting new fans, people sometimes respect bold willingness to fail. But Neil makes a point that most successful artists follow the “we’re not making art…” path and are surrounded with managers, producers, and promoters who follow those formulaic cash-cows ways.
          The modern studio, mated with the above cash-cow folks, create such polished perfect-sounding records that you end up with the live-entertainment side reflecting that too. Perfect albums, perfect singers, perfect age, etc etc.
          Yet, there are indie artists making music from the most modern Pro Tools HD studios available, still managing to create amazing organic “warts and all” music that just stands a world-apart from that other stuff. More art than science. Those artists do end up successful, but it’s “niche” success…dedicated fans and well short of the Britney Spears level of mad-fame, and they’re just happy with that (I’m thinking Avett Bros/AA Bondy from a couple yrs back etc).

          • I guess what I really meant to say, is that making really ‘commercial’ music is no guarantee of success — there’s thousands trying to do the same thing. Becoming a successful ‘indie’ artist (meaning that you’re able to make a basic living touring) is probably less of crapshoot than going for the all-or-nothing stardom game, and, as a bonus, you get to make the music you want:)

  • I agree– there’s so much garbage out there, much of which is (sadly) based on catering to the lowest common denominator, which often involves sex.

    And speaking of the Jonas Brothers…

  • I pretty much agree with your assessment, but have a little faith! There’s a lot of great hip-hop and country out there today, even though you’d never know it listening to the radio. It’s just like current rock: most of what gets on the radio is based on last years formula, but we all know there’s good rock music out there for the seeking…

  • WILLIAM JONES

    Wow, While I never really have like Rap or Hip-Hop. I really think he hit the nail on the head here. But regardless, any music that is sold is commercial even if it doesn’t necessarily sell millions. But he definitely did make a lot of points here that I wholeheartedly agree with.