Where did all the catchy tunes go?

At the video game forum where I hang out, someone linked to a rather stupid article from 2001 called “Where did all the catchy tunes go?”, in which Steve Sailer claims that – well – things ain’t what they used to be. I could have ignored it, could have walked away, but I thought there was a defence to be made for modern pop. I know this because I’ve been there: saying that there aren’t great songs out there only proves that you haven’t been paying attention.

Here’s what I wrote as a forum post in response:

Sorry, but that article is absolute rubbish. Then again, I regard The Beatles as being highly overrated. Sure, they wrote some good songs, but I don’t think they were really any better than The Kinks, for example.

When I was in my teens, I asked my mother if music really was any better in the 1960s, and she said that it was not. She gave me her collection of ‘Motown Chartbusters’ vinyl compilations and about 9/10 of the songs on there are completely vapid, forgettable tripe. If you can think straight off the top of your head of 20 truly memorable, terrific Motown songs (which almost everyone can), that’s all that has stood the time out of the thousands of songs that were written over the course of that decade. Holland-Dozier-Holland were contracted songwriters like many other “hit factory” songwriters of the time – they got paid to pen tunes, 9-5 Monday-to-Friday – so you can only imagine how many songs they must have written in that time.

I have no idea what the rate of release was in 1965, but I do know that around twenty thousand albums were released in 2009.

Where are the likes of Holland-Dozier-Holland in 2011?

We can start with Cathy Dennis. You might remember her from her own brief career in the early 90s, but since then she’s been writing hit after hit for other bands. Her most memorable songs include Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’, and Britney’s ‘Toxic’. Those songs weren’t just huge hits, they were universally critically acclaimed. The first one alone won an Ivor Novello award. I’m pretty sure that those will be playing at 00s discos in the future.



Another contender is Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes, who wrote Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’, Pink’s ‘Get This Party Started’ and Gwen Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For’. Of course, we can’t say for sure that we’ll still be listening to those in forty years’ time, but generally the songs that don’t stand the test of time disappear within two or three years. I think we’re stuck with those songs for at least the next half-century.



Collections of songs getting weaker? Rihanna’s ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ album had seven singles: ‘Umbrella’, ‘Shut Up And Drive’, ‘Hate That I Love You’, ‘Don’t Stop The Music’, ‘Take A Bow’, ‘If I Never See Your Face Again’, and ‘Rehab’. Of those, we can easily demonstrate the robustness of the songwriting on ‘Umbrella’, not just because it spent 10 consecutive weeks at #1 in the UK charts, but because of the sheer variety of great cover versions, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Prefer musicals? I bet most people here can sing the whole of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ from start to glorious finish.



As to his points about grammy winners [that year] not being memorable, I loathe ‘My Heart Will Go On’ with a passion, but it’s disingenuous to pretend we’re not also stuck with that piece of crud forever. ‘Kiss From A Rose’ might not be the blogger’s choice to sing in the shower, but it’s definitely mine.



The blogger’s casual dismissal of rap – and particularly Enimem – as being “tuneless” (that song chokes me up every time!) reminds me of when my dad dismissed ‘Theme From S-Express‘ as “sounds like a car alarm going off”. It just made me realise that he was old, past it, out-of-touch and clueless. As far as music was concerned, it was obvious that he didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on and I just couldn’t take anything he said seriously after that.

Oh well, if you need me, I’ll be over here listening to catchy, brilliant new music.


2 comments on “Where did all the catchy tunes go?

  1. In the 1950s through 1970s, there was a lot of stylistic innovation, so the low-hanging fruit tunes in new genres were quickly picked. For example, “Wild Thing” didn’t take a lot of genius to write, it was just pretty obvious in an era when heavy electric guitars were coming into fashion. The main problem in recent decades has been that styles have stagnated. Rap, for example, made the Top 40 in 1979, but it’s still around. Thus, it takes a lot more talent to compose a memorable rap song in 2011 than in 1979, because we’ve heard it all before. My suggestion to young people would be to invent radical new styles so you can be pioneers rather than stick in the same stylistic ruts laid down by previous generations.

    • Did you not hear the Nice Nice clip at the end? I’d call that fairly radical. Sure, psychedelia dates to the sixties, but blending it with math-rock and other styles is a relatively new phenomenon.

      I can’t comment on rap because I don’t listen to enough to really know what’s out there, but rap is essentially a vocal style. What you’re referring to as “stagnation” is probably the same thing that turns me off – having overly basic backing music that doesn’t really serve a function beyond providing a beat – but that’s just a specific style of gangsta rap that doesn’t take into account the myriad sub-genres of hip-hop and totally ignores tangenital developments like rap-metal. I’m told there’s great stuff out there that’s being made but I’m just not hearing it. I can well believe that.

      To me, the “best” music was released in the late 80s/early 90s, but I recognise that’s because the music that was gaining exposure at the time happened to coincide with what I enjoyed: industrial rock, indie rock, big beat, various crossover breakbeat styles and fledgling nu metal acts like Fear Factory. Someone growing up now with a natural affinity for dubstep and screamo would consider 2011 a vintage year.

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