Decade in Pop: The data behind music’s technological evolution is you

Photo courtesy of Def Jam


“Just shake me ‘til you wake me from this bad dream.”

Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris, released January 18, 2010

Music takes time — literally, yes. Recorded sound takes your time and leaves you with nothing but a steadily increasing collection of damaged nerve cells in your cochlea, la petite mort that you give up in exchange for the promise of aural ecstasy. Each minute, each second of music you consume can substitute for so many other repetitive actions of our lives: They can be little laps you run on a treadmill, they can be a spoonful or two of Nutella in the middle of the night, they can be coins tossed in a fountain when you’re much too old to believe in such nonsense. Popular music is more than just “sound” or “noise”, it is eternally fused to the gist of our lives without our even noticing or caring, staying eternally the same as we move through our individualized death tunnels, like echoing remnants of parties that we don’t remember going to. Music in a popular, general sense is a momento mori parade, archival evidence of impossible events, a reminder of times passed the instant each wave of sound has passed through us and around us.

In the waning days of the 19th century, Thomas Edison briefly pondered the potential uses for his somewhat accidental phonograph invention, before shifting his sites on the electric light; gazing into the abyss of recorded sound, one of the first humans to experience the dizzying effect of hearing things that weren’t actually there, he mused that “we could use it in a private manner, to preserve religiously the last words of a dying man, the voice of one who has died, of a distant parent, a lover, a mistress.” It would be nearly four decades until someone thought to use the contraption to record a symphony, because why would one conjoin music, perhaps the human animal’s most potent expression of life and living and being, with the morbid navel-gazing sophistry of the phonographic recording?

As a spiritualist, Edison pondered the thin membrane between life and death, and spent most of his final decade trying to invent a machine to communicate to those in the beyond. He never succeeded in creating a phone line through the graveyard, but in a sense he had already popularized a manner of preserving a bit of one’s essence for eternal re-animation. And so it was and shall ever be that our modern world is crowded to the gills with spirits of the recently bygone era, as the old are haunted by youth and the young are haunted by the dead and none of us can escape being imprinted deep within our brain with the brand of the little ditties that have tracked and trailed us everywhere we go, in our homes and in our cars and on trains and in our beds and in our eternal resting places. Music is time, time is a measurable unit of precious life, and even a perfectly innocent song, tossed off by its creators in minutes, a trifle filled with a child’s inchoate conception of love and devotion, can — a decade later, heard in passing while life is having its way with you — cut you to your core until you feel the hand of death itself tickling you somewhere deep, deep within.

As we head into 2020, music is not the driver of culture. It’s in the background while you are doing other things.


“Everybody gets high sometimes/what else can we do when we’re feeling low?”

Major Lazer feat. Justin Bieber & MØ, released July 22, 2016

It brings me a kind of pain-infused delight at certain times to think of the past decade, or really the 21st century up to this point, in the way that the protagonist of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five looked at his World War II exploits after the bombing of Dresden: In Vonnegut’s narrative, unstuck from time, destroyed buildings rebuilt themselves, bombs hoovered up debris and flew up into backward flying planes, men rose from the ground, blood flowing back into their bodies. For us, in our present predicament, it’s less trenchant a tableau, but still striking: humans walk backward, depositing phones into new boxes in stores, slowly feeling an enormous invisible weight lifted off their heads like a ten-foot-thick layer of Jello being airhauled to Kingdom Come.


“Off top / Drop-top / Baby it’s a no-brainer”

DJ Khaled feat. Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and Quavo, released July 27, 2018

There’s something oddly comforting about the thought experiment of humans being essentially turned into robots within our lifetime; admit it, it at least gives us a future to believe in.

There’s something oddly comforting about the thought experiment of humans being essentially turned into robots within our lifetime; admit it, it at least gives us a future to believe in. Believing in the AI revolution is a kind of giving up: An end to struggle, an end to chaos, a reassurance that some entity that knows what it is doing will take over and correct all of our human errors.

When robot proponents try to tell us that we’re already there, or almost already there, this is what they mean: Not that the technology actually exists for any of this nonsense, but that we as humans alive at this time have already displayed that, yes, okay, if there is an algorithm that will make even the most inconsequential thing just ever so slightly more convenient, then yes, yes, yes, just replace my veins with wires now already. We were promised living amongst the stars, ascending like deities into stardust and transcending the filth and tedium of this existence — but we will settle for having music made for us, right?

It’s the inevitability of it all that feels so galling and wrong: That sense that we are 92 percent of the way toward this thing that has been developing since the day of our great-great-great grandparents and who are we to stand in the way of progress?

The mounted defense against the Silicon Valley disruptor initiative usually centers upon the essential nature of the artist and the artist’s need for unfettered expression: The inalienable right to express oneself being always held as the eternal flame on the mountaintop that must be guarded by society at all costs because if it is snuffed out, our humanity will die. This is, of course, nonsense: In our current freefall from high modern enlightenment to wherever we as a species are headed to in the next half-century, we will probably miss self-expression less than we think once the really painful stuff starts to kick in. However, even beyond that eventuality, it is remarkable how a mere century of recorded sound has warped us as an animal to such an extent that we can’t fathom existing without the sound packet’s rush of narcotic individualism.

It probably has something to do with being able to take one’s own voice and put it right into the ear and the head of countless other humans that has changed not just our philosophical and emotional idea of who we are, but our sense of what we are meant to do here in life. If we have the voices of others bouncing around in our headspaces, should our voices bounce around the headspaces of others? When we hear the sound of a musical voice when it isn’t being played, are we just tricking ourselves, or have we always had the capability to produce phantom sounds in our minds? Is music a mind weapon? Are aural ideas and concepts real if they never manifest as sounds that can be recorded or generated?

Naturally, the current debate surrounding the future of music vis-a-vis automation and algorithmic robotics is more rooted in the specifics of upending the commercial business of music, taking for granted that continuing to market recorded sound is the baseline of human interaction with the abstract realm of music; looked at another way, it isn’t really a debate so much as a disagreement as to just how far we should continue to allow Edison’s contraption to burrow its way into the places in our brain from which we can’t evict it.


“I was on my knees when no one else was praying”

Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü with Justin Bieber, released February 27, 2015

Popular music culture does not tell a story in anything like the operatic tradition; however, viewed as a continuum from modern music’s roots in vaudeville, dancehall, jazz, swing, and then the explosion of modern pop and rock, there is a definitive narrative: The triumph of the individual artist and eternal rise and fall of our pop idols as prophets for their respective ages. Freed from all constraints, or so the gospel tells us, the artist channels the raw power of music, sound, noise and rhythm, filtering it through their own individual lens of power and revelation, if the artist is strong enough to exercise control of such unstable energies. In the 21st century, the artist’s tools have changed considerably: More and more, those that rise to the top show a gift for persuasion, of guile, of finding a way of revealing proof of authentic character within the funhouse mirror of modern produced music. Music is successful if it inspires fanaticism in its audience; since music artists and producers create a product of recorded sound whose usefulness or value is nebulous and highly unpredictable, generating fanaticism is the primary aim of all involved in the endeavor.

Fanaticism is so much the default mode of artist-audience interface that anything less than utter fealty and mania among those consuming musical products is seen as heretical to the prevailing order: Fans pore over recorded tracks, scream at concerts, and most importantly, identify themselves as slavishly devoted fanatics in person and online. Anything less reflects poorly on the artist and poorly on the audience; engagement is measured with a lens familiar to marketers, with artists constantly on the trawl for lead generation prospects, constantly working to move consumers down the funnel of engagement with fanaticism at the finish line.


“When you nod your head ‘yes’ but you wanna say ‘no’, what do you mean?”

Justin Bieber, released August 28, 2015

With fanaticism as the only validation of artistic value, musical artists will do anything to generate increased engagement that could potentially create and sustain a fanatical following.

With fanaticism as the only validation of artistic value, musical artists will do anything to generate increased engagement that could potentially create and sustain a fanatical following. In the past decade, this desire on the part of the artist and the business behind the artist has increasingly found itself at odds with the ways in which the general public consumes music: Passively, skeptically, and with an eye toward practicality. The shift from listening to radio station disc jockeys and purchasing records to hearing mood-targeted playlists curated by streaming services has ramifications that could be profound and complex.

On the one hand, the domination of digital data over our lives gives corporations and marketers the ability to conduct all the psy-ops they have been concocting in their most warped paranoid fantasies; on the other, the emphasis on mood and utility in modern playlist culture moves listeners a few giant steps toward an existence of pure music, removed from the trolling of celebrity-desperate artists looking to convert you into a fanatic. It was one thing in a prior era when you would wake to a disc jockey yelling in your ear about what artists you needed to define your identity by in between shilling products — it’s another when you can listen to music in your private sphere and hear songs in public spaces without ever necessarily knowing who you are listening to and with no pressure to listen to that artist again.


“I don’t think I fit in at this party / Everyone’s got so much to say”

Ed Sheeran with Justin Bieber, released May 10, 2019

Our civilization’s shift to a mass society has necessarily subverted the way that music was once created, in the sense that people made their own music and now, for the most part, we farm that out to alleged experts in the same way that we outsource countless unwanted chores once the responsibility of every individual or household. In the late-20th century, this shift left non-music-producing consumers with the ability to choose songs and records to buy, this being a means of expression that often signaled entree into musical subcultures. How one dressed correlated strongly with the records one bought; but more importantly, musical subcultures smuggled ideologies into the minds of listeners, through visual cues, sonic properties, and linguistic memes. In the 21st century, almost all of this cultural heavy lifting has been offloaded elsewhere, barriers to entry having evaporated around all sorts of musical subcultures.

To many who remember the old ways, this rapid shift is troubling as it signals a precipitous decline in societal interest in music. But perhaps now that music doesn’t have to do the cultural work of defining the era, identifying youth, signifying ideology, radicalizing neophytes, etc etc., it can return to some of its initial functions in society: Acting as a psychological gateway to transcendence, providing the foundation to ritual, bringing disparate individuals together in the harmony of musical creation, etc. Or, to put it another way, perhaps music, as a culture, no longer has to be universal; it can be secret, hidden, small scale, less focused on amassing power and political will and more on being a conduit for subversion.


“I used to believe we were burnin’ / On the edge of somethin’ beautiful”

DJ Snake feat. Justin Bieber, released August 5, 2016

That sadness you feel if you have cared about music in your life is the sense that something is ending, has ended — that feeling that you spent a portion of your life assigning meaning to something that no longer has any, aside from your personal feelings and nostalgia. Music is not the driver of culture, it’s in the background while you are doing other things, worrying about new concerns, laughing or crying about a meme or a Twitter thread or some mass shooting, or just getting older. Music will always be there for you, but increasingly as a commodity, as a service, like tap water or televised serial drama. It can continue to make you happy or energetic or wistful or angry, but it will increasingly be unable to generate meaning in your life, as you will have to find that in other arenas, with other people and other causes.

It will be there when times are good, it will be there when times are bad, it will be there still when times are worse still, and through it all it will be utterly irrelevant to the things that you will need to do and the choices you will have to make.

Recorded music’s greatest function of the future aligns with its origin: Its ability to keep alive the ghost voices of the past, giving the living a chance to continue its ongoing one-way conversation with the dead and dying. As the celestial spheres churn on in harmony with our past and present, music culture can continue to show the youth of tomorrow what a carefree teenhood was like in times long gone, and it can point to a way of merging the mythology of the past with the fearful uncertainty of tomorrow.

Daniel Brockman resides in Portland, Oregon and is correct in thinking that the greatest jam of the last decade, definitively, is Crystal Castles’ 2010 cover of Platinum Blonde’s “Not In Love” that featured Robert Smith on vocals; follow him on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.