By Karis Pearson
Pop-music is all around us. You go to a shopping centre or a supermarket and it’s playing overhead. You go to the SU and there’s bop til you drop tunes playing night and day, whether you’re in Y Plas or getting lunch in the food court. You walk to Uni and it’s more than likely you’ve got headphones in, relishing the opportunity to listen to something less soul destroying than your upcoming two-hour lecture. Music is everywhere, but despite the huge and eclectic array of music out there, most of the music around us tends to be pretty much the same. This week, after an emotional trip to the cinema, I ask why.
Last weekend I went to the cinema to see Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born and by the time the credits rolled onto the screen, I, like many around me, was bawling. Before you ask, no, my tears were not shed with happiness for having only spent £2.90 on my cinema ticket, but when compared with £10 tickets back home, they easily could’ve been. Was I crying over the homogenization and lack of authenticity in today’s pop-music industry? Admittedly I wasn’t, but I’ll explain why I could’ve been. Without sharing any major spoilers, the film (which was incredible by the way) is the story of an ordinary young woman, Ally (Lady Gaga), whose life is changed forever when famous rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers her talent. Alongside various themes and messages, the film explores the difficulties young artists face in remaining authentic while tackling the critical music industry.
A Star Is Born, represents the pop-music industry with great accuracy through Rez, Ally’s music producer and manager; a sly, smooth-talking business man who knows what sells records (apparently bleached blonde hair, lots of cleavage and a very generic song). As the film chronicles her rise to fame, Gagas character undergoes a makeover worthy of the St Trinians, having entered the film a fresh-faced young woman with a raw talent for writing songs, cut to her rise to fame and she’s essentially twerking in hot pants on Saturday Night Live. But, most importantly, she’s made it.
It is once Ally begins to show potential as a real star that, her manager decides it’s time to change her image (bleached blonde hair?) and music (“Why’d you come around here with an ass like that?”) to fit with the industry standards. The sexualisation of her performance and lack of personality in her lyrics in the SNL scene are an all too recognisable trope in real-world pop stars topping the charts today. I was reminded of pop-stars like Taylor Swift, Rita Ora, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello and Iggy Azalea, to name just a few. All seemingly very different artists but following an equally formulaic road to the top 40.
Maybe you’re a die-hard Radio 6 junkie, with a musical palette filled with electro jazz and spoken word poetry. Your steadfast refusal to enter public spaces where your ears might be subject to Katy Perry’s new song has you thinking “What are you talking about? Who is Iggy Australia?” I apologise for any generalisations. But, while you may not listen to the charts, if you live in the same Western world as I do, where shopping centres play the same upbeat Capital-esque tunes on repeat, then you must know what I’m talking about to some extent. I regret how pretentious I surely sound by now. I really have no issue with any of these artists personally; my critique is of a pop music industry which moulds and pressures artists into tight knit boxes, exemplified well, I think, in A Star Is Born. My overriding message is: mainstream popular music needs some shake ups.
There are in fact infrastructural reasons for the homogenization of the pop-music we hear around us. One blindingly obvious one; genericity and simplicity sells. The big labels like Universal, Sony and Warner know that what they’re doing sells records, so they keep at it. In A Star Is Born, Rez embodies these record labels; attractive, sleek and shiny on the outside, but when it comes to the artists they’re producing, it’s a fairly cut and dry affair.
Interestingly, pop-music is one of the few styles of music which has actually become less complex with age, as instrumental formulas have developed which see a whole myriad of modern pop songs using the same four chords throughout. Not to mention, the same hit songs are generally written by the same handful of people. Songwriting for pop today is a laborious, collaborative process between A-list producers and melody/beat makers who come together to create a ‘hit-factory’ for superstar artists. Not quite as romanticised as two people stood around in a car park at 2am, singing spontaneously and falling in love.
Increasingly, the pop-music industry tends to be as much about image as it is about music, if not more so. This phenomenon is not helped by talent shows like the X-Factor, which albeit has far less influence and audience than it did say, ten years ago. It is constructed to enable the continuation of this trend in pop-music where individuality (not in every case, but on the whole) is lacking, and music and image are one in the same. The contestants become less and less memorable every year, which is no surprise as they weren’t too dissimilar in the first place.
Despite my earlier references to A Star Is Born and the steps female stars must seemingly undergo to make it, homogenization is not just affecting female artists. There are variations of type-cast pop-stars that you see, from Taylor Swifts to Ed Sheerans, and if I see another cheeky lad wielding a guitar singing about love and cups of tea I’ll throw in the metaphorical towel.
Ultimately, A Star Is Born shows how in fact stars are not born, they are manufactured. I’m sure many of the chart-topping pop-stars of today are talented people, but talented at what? The pop-music industry seems to have a way of pushing musicians through a conveyer belt which drops them off at number one with the same wardrobe, the same make-up and the same four chords.