Play it again, Sam. And again. And again. And again.
Recently I had the chance to borrow a friend’s vacation home on an island. It was a great break, very refreshing … up until the drive home. It was a long one, most of a day. I left around 4 am and kept going until midnight.
I am not normally one to listen to music in the car, but around 6 pm I needed something upbeat just to ensure that drowsiness didn’t set it. The car I was using happened to have satellite radio, so I began to explore the range of channels. Most of them weren’t my cup of tea, but I did find a sequence of stations playing pop music by decade: ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and one called Pop2K for the years after that. The last four stations were the ones that I focused on, since I was listening to the radio still in those decades, and it was kind of fun to take a drive down Memory Lane.
I would switch from ‘70s to ‘80s to ‘90s to ‘00s music continually until I found an oldie that I enjoyed. Often there was nothing for several minutes that I recognized, so I sat and studied the differences between the decades—acoustic guitar gave way to electric guitar gave way to synthesizers, and then acoustic guitar came back around with the new millennium.
But something else struck my ear. The closer the music was to our present time, the more repetitive it was. I don’t just mean that you heard the whole refrain repeated more times over in the later music … although that seemed often to be the case. Rather, one small phrase was often sung again and again and again. This was relatively rare in music from the ’60s and ‘70s (if we ignore “Surfin’ Bird”); a little more prevalent in the ‘80s; noticeable as a consistent feature in the ‘90s; and annoyingly common in the music of the present millennium.
Was I on to something? Or just an aging curmudgeon? (“Those durn’d kids and their boomboxes! In my day …”) How would I go about quantifying something like invariance in pop songs?
I puzzled over this for a few days. Then I let my fingers do the walking via Google. And guess what? Someone else noticed the same thing, and DID find a way to measure it. You can read that article by Colin Morris here. It is a fascinating essay with some great interactive graphics, and I strongly commend it for your perusal.
One of the curious findings is that in each decade, the pop artists whose music was the most repetitive are precisely the ones we in Truther circles tend to think of as “promoted” for independent reasons: in the ‘10s we find Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga (among others); in the ‘00s Britney Spears, Hannah Montana, and Christina Aguilera; in the ‘90s Madonna and Janet Jackson; in the ‘80s Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. So that’s an interesting correlation.
Actually, the article understates the increase in repetitiveness, I think. It measures compressibility of the lyrics alone (i.e., the amount by which the words to a song can be reduced to repeating patterns). This metric does not consider the amount by which the melodic line also can be repetitive. Of course, just about every pop song is made up of a set melody for every verse and maybe also a refrain that is repeated several times. If you consider repetitiveness in lyrics only, Don McLean’s “American Pie” is not all that repetitive, since each verse has different words and only the refrain is repeated a few times. But melodically, of course, it is very repetitive. Likewise for Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Most rap music is not at all repetitive in terms of words, but (to my ears) exceptionally invariant in rhythm and instrumentals.
But here’s the thing: I think that as we get into the music of the ‘00s and ‘10s, we find not just that a phrase or sentence is repeated, but that the melody married to it is also exactly the same. One can repeat a set of words, but with variation of the melody—think of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” where each instance of the city’s name is a little different melodically. Compare that to Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It.” I wouldn’t have the time to do a diachronic study of lyrico-melodic repetitiveness, but I invite you to test your own sensibilities on the matter. My impression is that with each decade since the ‘70s, pop songs have become more mind-numbingly monotonous in word and melody.
Not only within individual songs, but across pop music as a whole, there is a measurable trend toward homogenization. If you watched the video that Mark linked to in his recent piece on the awfulness of modern music, you learned three conclusions of a study out of Spain:
- There has been a winnowing of possible note and chord combinations, so that most pop songs use a very limited set of melodic contours and harmonizations.
- The texture of music is being engineered excessively to reduce the distinctiveness of the instrumentations; everything sounds like everything else.
- Recordings are edited/engineered to make every song sound loud.
One prime example of the homogenization of pop music output over the last couple of decades is a musical gimmick that has come to be dubbed “the millennial whoop.” Like the brand on the flank of a steer, many of the pop hits of the ’00s and ’10s have this inarticulate minor-third vocal trill stamped on them using the sound of “oh” or “uh.” Calling this phenomenon a “whoop” makes it sound exultant, but in many cases the effect is depressing, eerie, or just stultifying.
In the video that Mark referenced, it was suggested that this trend toward uniformity in pop music is driven by purely financial considerations, due to the cost of breaking a new talent into the consciousness of the consuming public in a post-Napster era. In other words, we are told, it is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economic determinism that is writing the repetitive lyrics, sound-mixing the monotonous timbres, and composing the drearily copycat melodies. You stick with what has already worked in the past because you can’t take the risk of trying something new that might fail.
This proposed explanation doesn’t make sense to me. If anything, we live in an era where niche economics drive everything. Because it is so much easier now to identify and reach consumers with particular tastes, the trend in so many industries is away from homogenization and towards an embarrassment of riches in the choices available. Why should pop music not be leading the way in monetizing individual interests with draconian efficiency? Nor does the economic explanation explain why only two teams of songwriters—led by Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin—are the composers behind most of the pop hits of the last two decades. Both men use different little rules and formulas to build their oeuvre, almost mechanically. But why these two should have such an outsize influence in a worldwide industry remains a mystery. It would have to be on purpose that so many other (and greater) songwriting talents are shoved aside in favor of these two. Market concerns cannot be the only factor. But if it does not boil down to economics, then what else?
I venture a guess here based on my other vacation experience …
Losing My Compulsion
This series of articles on earworms began with an experience in Nashville. I described in the first installment how a night and a morning of complete silence was broken by exposure to a country song as I passed through a hotel lobby, and the profound effect which that unknown song had on me.
With my stay at my friend’s beach home, I had an even longer “fast” from music. It was not as complete as the single overnight in Nashville: I had to bike over to the island’s grocery store every other day or so and there I got exposed to shopping Muzak for a brief time. But otherwise there was in my life no music whatsoever: no radio, no YouTube, no TV show theme songs, no iPod, no nothing. The sound track for my life in those three weeks was the ocean surf and the local avifauna, like my friends in the photo above.
It was bliss.
And after several days, I noticed something. About myself. Even though I was on vacation and getting more exercise than usual, I was eating less. Or rather, I stopped when I was sated. What was left on the plate got packaged up and refrigerated to be enjoyed as leftovers. If there was one more glass of wine left in the bottle, the bottle got corked until tomorrow. The compulsion to finish it just for the sake of finishing had left me.
This waning of compulsions manifested itself away from the dinner table as well. I used to work a couple of daily puzzles with my morning coffee, just as a kind of ritual for waking up. I had realized long ago that the entertainment value of these puzzles was not commensurate with the outlay of time and attention. But it was a routine, and it kept going on its own habitual momentum. But on this vacation—when normally I would engage in more diversionary pastimes—I found that my appetite for silly puzzles had left. Not only could I break the habit; it was almost as if the habit broke itself.
So here was a mystery. What made the difference? The only thing I could trace it to was the silence—the fasting from music that was nearly complete for a stretch of time longer than I had ever experienced it before.
And by music, I mean all that structured noise that surrounds us involuntarily in modern life: on elevators, in restaurants, at sporting events, in the gym, and so on. It is far more pervasive than we realize. And for the most part it is not opera or light classical or even country and western. It is the very pop music that is increasing measurably in its repetitiveness and homogeneity.
Even after my daylong drive immersed in pop music, I came home with a different set of ears to the music around us. And what I have been noticing is that in shopping contexts, the piped-in music tends toward the far end of the repetitiveness spectrum. Why?
By happenstance I came across an article about a woman who was the victim of a psychological experiment in the 1950s. Jean Steel had been suffering from depression, and the Canadian psychologist who treated her, Dr. Ewen Cameron, was secretly involved in a covert psy-op experiment of the CIA.
Cameron, the visionary, believed schizophrenia and some other mental illnesses could be cured. (Jeanie Steel likely suffered from postpartum depression.) He dismissed the idea of a psychiatrist’s couch, a doctor listening and talking a patient back to health. His ambition was to remake the person entirely, scrubbing their brain of its illness and rebuilding their psyche from scratch.
To do so, patients would need to be “de-patterned,” Cameron-speak for loading them full of drugs — Seconal, Nembutal, largactal, insulin, LSD, PCP, uppers, downers, curare and more — and subjecting them to massive, repeated jolts of electroshock therapy. Patients were kept in drug-induced comas for 22 hours a day in a “sleep room,” primed for Cameron’s “psychic driving,” a process where a message, or even a single word, was broadcast on a loop over a loudspeaker in the room for days on end.
Jeanie Steel did 18- and 29-day stints in the sleep room. At different points, according to her file — of which Alison obtained a copy from the Canadian Department of Justice in 2015 — she threatened to kill herself; asked the doctors to “please” turn down the loudspeaker; complained of burning in her ears and feet; and screamed that she felt like she was being nailed to the “cross.”
One of Cameron’s entries in the file from October 1957 notes: “Patient walked about room this morning, out in the hall, appears more restless than previously, stared at the speaker and said, ‘That thing up there, up on the wall, my ear is burning, my ear is not burning. But that tries to make up my mind. That’s not my mind. Is that my mind?’”
Jeanie was discharged from the institute in December 1957. She went home to her family, destroyed after a total of six months in Dr. Cameron’s care. She died in 2002. Dr. Cameron went on to become the president of the World Psychiatric Association, dying of a heart attack while hiking in 1967.
Alison Steel keeps a manila folder full of her mother’s papers and old photographs. Her favourite image of Jeanie is from before she was born. Her hazel eyes are wide, and her auburn hair cut to the shoulder.
“She looks like an angel,” Steel says. “But I never got to know that person. They stole my mother from me. They used her as a human guinea pig. They stripped her of her emotions.”
Jean Steel’s daughter received compensation from the Canadian government for their role in allowing this inhumane treatment on behalf of the CIA. Jean had been robbed of crucial aspects of her mind, and so was never really able to be a mother to her daughter. Jean’s behavior was marked by strange little compulsions, like wrapping sticks in tinfoil and placing them on chairs.
If you read around on the Internet about “psychic driving”—the endless exposure of incapacitated subjects to extremely repetitive stimuli—you will be told that the experiment of Cameron was a failure as a tool for either psychotherapy or mind control.
But I ask: if a CIA mind experiment had yielded results of statistical significance, … do you really suppose that we would be told of it? What if psychic driving did work, but just not for the purpose that was publicly touted? And what if it can work even in a mass experiment, like the fluoridation of our water? Or the poisoning of an entire French village?
Since my experience with the satellite radio, I have kept my ears pricked up for the background music that gets piped in around us. I have noticed in the grocery store especially that the pop music being played tends to be of the repetitive type. We know that the canned music industry selects numbers for the purpose of encouraging spending at the store. Why might that be?
Simply put: repetitive sounds can be stultifying and relaxing …. like hypnosis through the ears. There are studies that point to these effects. Repetitive music makes you dumb and numb. It is like a kind of low-level psychic driving. If you want to make someone easily manipulable, prone to suggestion, docile like cattle, what better way to do so than to use sonic hypnosis through ubiquitous music, droning out the same fatuous phrases and melodic mantras over and over and over again?
[Imagine a “millennial whoop” here]
Because—just think about it—how much do compulsive behaviors characterize our society these days? Binge-watching TV shows. Video game marathons. Social media addictions. Smart-phone addictions. Fanatic following of sports teams and athletic events (like the World Cup). The list goes on and on. What is driving all this novel obsessive-compulsive behavior? What is keeping Americans from “getting a life”? And why is this kind of fixation encouraged even? Simply put: someone is making money off the herd by telling us, consciously and subconsciously, to stay thirsty … and thus to spend money and not to think about deeper things.
I can prove nothing. I don’t have the smoking gun memos or the batteries of psych tests and statistical analyses. I can only sum my impressions and assumptions from this series of essays, which are:
• The pop music industry is not the free market of ideas and talents we are given to believe, but rather a highly managed font of propaganda for the purpose of social control.
• The most famous artists are not so because of talent or luck but because they are selected and promoted by a hidden hand for the purpose of advancing this covert agenda.
• Pop music has become increasingly repetitive by design; earwormy music is intentional, and experiments are being run via the pop music industry on the influence of different styles and sounds on the general public.
• Members of Western society are bombarded with this promoted agenda music every day of their lives through every broadcast medium and in every venue.
• This music gets under our skin and into our heads and decreases creativity and increases compulsive or addictive behaviors, making us more manageable and suggestible consumers; it is a means for controlling the herd.
• The only way to break the spell is to fast from pop music entirely.
• This requires extraordinary effort (like moving to an island offshore where the long arm of mass media does not quite reach).
Again, this is not a proof in any formal sense, but only a set of impressions based on anecdotal experience. And so I end this series on otohelminthiasis, on earworms in modern life, not with a conclusion, … but an invitation.
Go on a fast from music yourself. See how completely you can keep your ears empty of the structured noise that blares from every speaker in a public place. Fill your ears with the sounds of nature only: earthworms if need be, but not earworms. Watch how this fast affects your own feelings and behaviors, your habits and your inclinations. Then report back here and let us know. Your input and experience is of interest to me.
Happy Silence to all who accept this invitation!