Opinion: I’m wondering. Who told you what music to like?

by Osarumen Osamuyi

Now, do you remember Mime for a Change? It’s the episode of Powerpuff Girls where an accidental bleach spill turned Rainbow the Clown, a garish party entertainer into the evil Mr. Mime who in turn, turned Townsville into a greyscale dystopia.

Blossom and Buttercup went after the villain, but ended up getting themselves de-coloured like everyone else while Bubbles tried (and failed) to restore colour to Townsville using her school crayons. Incredibly naive, in hindsight. She ended up saving Townsville though, by turning the Girls into an ad-hoc rock band, singing Love Makes The World Go Round.

“Love, Love, Love, Love, Love, Love, Love…makes the world go round!”

As they played and sang, waves of colour emanated from their big stage and turned everything bright and colourful again. After he noticed his work being undone, Mr. Mime made for the stage in an attempt to turn the Girls black and white again. At this point, Blossom started her guitar solo and shot magic waves at him, effectively turning him back into the colorful, cheerful Rainbow.

As soon as the song ended, he thanked the girls for changing him back, at which point they beat the living bejesus out of him and threw him in jail. That was one of the more…realistic episodes of Powerpuff Girls back then, and even though a much younger me didn’t understand it, that’s probably how most of us would react in that situation. “Y U mek us blak & whyt?”

Something interesting happened at the office this week. By sheer happenstance, I happened upon a collection of Nigerian Hip-Hop musicks from 7–10 years ago. I connected to the office Bluetooth speakers and began to play old song after old song after old song, and what happened next was instructive. A quiet room full of Zikoko and TechCabal writers typing away at their laptops turned to a room full of enthusiastic twenty-somethings, dancing, chanting lyrics from songs they grew up listening to, and sharing funny stories as they worked.

It was just like in Mime for a Change.

“Konko, Below. Ko, Below. Konkoro, below. Ko Below”

Even though I was an active (and in hindsight, a bit too enthusiastic) participant in the shindig, I had an out-of-body experience and I started to think about why we were all excited about a bunch of poorly recorded, low-fidelity songs with positively terrible instrumentation. This train of thought, in turn, led me far away (as my trains of thought usually do) and I started to think about why people like the music they do.

“You young kids don’t know what good music is. Back in the day, we used to listen to…”

Sound familiar? I bet it does. The Silent Generation (1920s — 1940s) thought the music the Baby Boomers (1940s — 1960s) made was trash. The same thing happened between the Baby Boomers and Generation X (1960s — 1980s), between Generation X and The Millennials (1980s — mid-1990s), and so on. It very quickly starts to look like older music is always better music.

Smh. Old people.

But we all know that’s not necessarily the case. My theory? There’s a weird connection between your music taste and the stuff you were exposed to in your formative years. As I type this, I realise that indeed a lot of the music I like now is in a weird way reminiscent of the stuff I liked in the past. Que?

Twitter went mad when Chance the Rapper released his third project,Coloring Book 2 days ago. While typing this, I started to wonder what it is about his sound that appeals so much to so many of us. Then it came to me. His sound is reminiscent of the kind of music my father used to play on the stereo on Sunday mornings, ~15 years ago. He’s taken that Black, Sunday morning sound — Kirk Franklin, Donnie McKlurkin et al — and turned it into Sunday Candy. I absolutely love it, and I know I’m not alone.

mediummedium1medium2medium3LIFE by Burna Boy is one of the best albums from a Nigerian artist, IMO and lord knows how many times I’ve played (and replayed) it. Thing is, until this week, I didn’t think much about why I like it so much. My thinking was, “Burna Boy isn’t THAT much better than everyone else, so why him?” Then it hit me — I like Burna Boy because in a weird way, his work reminds me of Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton & Daddy Showkey — old guard artistes whose songs I memorised since I was much less than 10 years old.

Same reason I like Diplo’s work for Major Lazer — it’s a modern take on the Dancehall music I grew up listening to, and Damien Marley’s work with Nas in Distant Relatives. I mean. Same reason I love James Blake, who’s very clearly influenced by Stevie Wonder. It’s why The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face resonated with so many people. It’s not an amazing song by itself, it’s just very reminiscent of Rod Temperton’s (and Quincy Jones’) work on Thriller. And as you probably already figured out, it’s the same reason whenever I play a 35-year old Michael Jackson song in 2016, everyone’s eyes lights up and they start chanting lyrics they’ve known their entire lives.

Ennie, are you okay?

Music is indefensible. You cannot debate someone into liking a song. Trust me, I’ve tried. The listener either has an emotional connection with it, or they do not. It’s possible that what we’re seeing here is that these emotional connections are strongest when they are formed in our earlier years.

Here’s an interesting quote from this article in the New York Times:

“Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.” — Daniel J. Levitin, Psychology Prof.

My friend, Davina once told me that as a kid, her father would put her in the car when she cried, and turn on the radio. Daft Punk ruled European radio in the late 1990s, and so it’s no surprise she took a liking to Guy Manuel and Thomas’ work — a liking that has remained till this day.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody is static. I know we all have musical phases — in the past 6–8 years alone, I’ve run through Electro-Pop, Dubstep, Drum and Bass, Grime, Neo-Metal, Heavy Metal, Indie Rock, Neo-Jazz, Hip Hop, Reggae and a lot more, but the only tropes that have remained constant throughout all that madness were the ones I’ve loved since I was a kid.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If you immerse yourself in enough…musical context, the effects of this conditioning are dampened but I don’t think they’re ever completely eradicated. At least not for most people.

Going by a study conducted by a Yale Sterling professor named Marcia K. Johnson (1985), it’s entirely possible old music sounds better not because it’s old, but because it’s familiar. Marcia played Korean melodies to American participants in a study and discovered that unfamiliar melodies led to lower ratings, a melody heard once before, to higher ratings and melodies heard multiple times, to even higher ratings.

This point of view is supported by the fact that it takes a while for some songs/albums to grow on you. A good example is Rihanna’s Work. Like I saidin my ANTI review, when a lot of people heard it as a single the week before, they hated it because it was a departure from the Rihanna they knew — unfamiliar, if you will. But it didn’t take very long for the Peruvian-hair-swinging, emoji-to-cover-darkened-armpits-using, lip-synching demographic to start playing it in the background of every Snapchat story.

Amuch younger, much more aggressive, much more puristic version of me used to go on these long rants about how much (Nigerian) music has gone to shit, and how it’s all noise these days. Today, it’s easier than ever to write, but it’s also much harder to get read. In the same vein, it’s easier than ever to make music, but much harder to get listened to.

Since computing power has succumbed to Moore’s Law, more and more aspects of the creation process are being taken over by computer algorithms.

In turn, music production has become more and more democratised, and more and more people who have no business producing music are making careers out of arranging drum samples and reusing already used melodies.

The once-revered Art of Song Mastering has been reduced to a $4-a-month subscription service that’s run entirely by a “Mastering” algorithm. The results aren’t amazing, but they are good enough to fool the untrained ear. How long until we only have to push a button to create entire compositions?

Hint: we’re already there.

At the same time, because instrumentation is getting more complex and it’s getting easier to make complex instrumentation, there’s limited space for lyrical content. And frankly, the audience doesn’t care as much anymore.

The end result is something that looks like this:

Yes, I made a graph.

Basically, we’ve created a system where artists can get away with singing…

Ah coupe decale ma
Faro de ma
Krikata, Krikata
Krikata, Krikata
Krikata, Krikata
Krikata, Krikata
Pon pon

…as as long it’s over an entertaining instrumental. Wot dis mean?

If you’d asked me a few months ago, I’d have said that music is getting worse as time goes on, but we do not know that pop music is objectively bad, or that music with more lyrics is objectively good.

What is happening then? Let me explain. Some of biggest chart toppers in the 1960s were Cliff Richards and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Wait, who?

If you aren’t a music geek, you definitely don’t know who any of those are. Instead, The Beatles come to mind when you think about 1960s music. We hear both good and bad music today, but we’ll find out who’s truly great, in 20 years time. Time will act like a sieve (like it did in the 1960s, and the 70s, and the 80s, and 90s) and separate the Iggys from the Nickis. #NoShade.

Thing is, music made for one generation will never completely resonate with another. The experiences that inspired it, the nuances, the slangs, the culture all become alien to you as soon as you exit that phase. Before you know it, you’ve become an uncool uncle who won’t get with the times.

Maybe the problem isn’t new music in itself, but my inability to like it?

I guess we’ll never know.

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cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail