It is, through the maintaining of this musical vocabulary, that I'm able to offer my perspective on today's "pop" music. (Full disclosure: I've never been a big fan of musical labels, be it "pop" or "rock" or "soul" or whatever. I find labels to be limiting, and there is too much music that displays the characteristics of two or more genres, thus rendering the effort useless.) However, for the purposes of this diatribe, the music I'm commenting on would I guess have to be considered popular music, in the truest sense of the word. From the DJ vantage point, most of the music focused on is popular for the simple reason that there isn't a great deal of work available for DJs that play unpopular music. I'm intensely passionate about music, especially the bands I really enjoy, but I readily acknowledge that many of those bands don't play what can be considered popular music. In other words, I don't use the term popular in a pejorative way; instead, I'm merely discussing music with some mass appeal.
As the years have progressed, I have found it more and more difficult to create a lengthy mix of of danceable songs. The simple, short answer is that music today isn't as easy to dance to. While it may not be my cup of tea, I don't mean that as a put down, nor do I offer it as an excuse to hide diminishing DJ skills. I do believe there's a reason why they songs that hit it really big in the public consciousness these days become so popular: They're dance songs! The most recent example would be the ubiquitous "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. (Yes, I recognize that it's played out - I'm saying there's a reason for that) That particular song clocks in at a very danceable 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute). Love it or hate, you know it's a song that was crafted to dance to. There have been plenty of hits over the past few years that were clearly not dance songs: Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" or Lorde's "Royals" for example) but DJs and those who ventured on to the dance floor knew that those weren't dance songs.
My contention is that most popular music that fans consider danceable really isn't, at least compared to earlier eras of pop music. (Clearly, I'm skating on the thin ice of the "music was better when I was younger" argument, and perhaps that does cloud my judgment somewhat. Admittedly, I do prefer the music of my high school/college years to the music of today, for a variety of reasons. But, regardless of the year of its release, good dance music is good dance music. There just isn't as much of it around.
This didn't happen overnight; gradually, the way we listen to music has changed, and our expectations have changed as well. Music from the '70s sounds sonically very different from today's music. I can remember mixing the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" with Wyclef Jean's "We Tryin' To Stay Alive" back in the late '90s when Wyclef was making hits. I often would try to get different generations of party-goers dancing at the same time, and mixes like that would help bridge the gap. The problem was, even though both songs had virtually the same rhythm, and the same BPMs, the Wyclef version had a punched up bass line that was strikingly different than the original disco version. The adults, already programmed to hate the heaviness of the bass, would often trek back to their seats, while the kids would appreciate the shift from the "dancing to the oldies" set to something "new" - even though the music was basically the same.
Consumers don't buy stereo systems anymore. Now, we listen to music in our cars, or through little computer speakers, or even smaller earbuds. The benefits of being able to compress huge libraries of music into computer files has many advantages, but the one thing we sacrifice is the quality of the sound itself. But, if you're listening on a phone, who cares? The days of instrumentation seem to be numbered. Now, most songs are tracks crafted on the computer or in a studio, where attention is paid to the frequencies generated as well as the notes written. Artists know what frequencies sound good on "Beats" headphones, and they know what'll make the subwoofers jump in the trunks of cars. They know what hooks will make good ring tones, and, since selling records isn't their only concern, artists gear their sound to the devices on which they know their music will be heard.
For the DJ, however, that doesn't ensure that the crowd will move. In truth, dancing itself looks different as a result. Remember the days when you'd nervously ask someone to dance? Then, on the off chance that the request was granted, you stood in front of your new partner and you bravely tried all your best moves? That's really not how it goes anymore. Now, dances are done in clumps: Depending on the age group, it might be a clump of girls standing together, shutting the boys out. You'll see a group of boys together, rapping the words to the songs. They're not dancing, mind you - just rapping. If the groups are older, they're not so much in clumps as they're grinding together. That's not really dancing either, but that's an entirely different conversation for another blog.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not necessarily suggesting that today's music isn't as good as "older" music solely based on it's ability to get couples dancing. First of all, there has been absolutely crappy popular music that was very danceable since the dawn of time. Second, there's a lot to like about today's music, whether you can dance to it or not, and plenty of very talented artists are still creating good music. It's just that, so much of today's music seems to strive to encourage attitude rather than movement. It's just too slow. It's an conversation I've had countless times over the years with clients: Why aren't the kids dancing? Well, in their world, they are... that's how they dance. I'll ask them to listen to the songs being played. "Do they sound like dance songs?" I'll ask. "No", they'll reply. This inevitably leads them to ask me to play "YMCA", which both the kids and I have heard enough of.
I get that I'm probably sounding like the grandpa who doesn't like the kids' music, and wants everybody off his lawn. I get that music goes in cycles, and that the pendulum may swing back towards music that encourages more dancing and less posing. I'll play what's popular regardless; that's my job. But, don't be surprised if I slip a little KC & The Sunshine Band on every once in a while.