Pop in the Era of Distraction | Modern Society of USA

Pop in the Era of Distraction

Pop in the Era of Distraction

One of the most widely praised releases of 2018 was “Whack World” by the singer and rapper Tierra Whack: 15 sly, smart songs, all accompanied by video clips, that each lasted only a minute. They went breezing by, lightheartedly addressing large ideas while alluding to decades of R&B and hip-hop. Her music was often skeletal — a handful of looped instruments — but most of the songs sounded complete, not truncated.

It was a miniature tour de force, and enough to get Whack noticed by the Grammys (which, with typical befuddlement, nominated an earlier, more conventional track, “Mumbo Jumbo,” for best music video). In its deceptively casual ambition and ruthless brevity, “Whack World” had a brilliant strategy for combat in the attention economy: keep things short and visual.

Because, really, who has time for music?

Listeners have work, or school, or both, and work in the internet era has grown infinitely expandable past 9 to 5. Because so much music now arrives via streaming, controlled on a screen, music also has to share attention with everything else on that screen: texts, social media, videos, alerts, news feeds, games, searches, maps, maybe one more check on that work email. Perhaps some single-minded listeners can set all those distractions aside, but they’re a minority.

Along came the unintended consequences. Without the routine expectation of, say, a 12-song album every two or three years, the internet looms as a giant, insatiable maw, constantly demanding more content with less payback. YouTube and streaming have made each song a click rather than a purchase — and not even a click with autoplay, prefab playlists and algorithmic “discovery” (which actually pushes toward more of the same niche) guiding the way. In that endless stream, the idea that a song is a thought-out, carefully distilled utterance was bound to erode.

Add another factor: social media. The initial promise was increased connectivity, a way to reach and respond to fans quickly and candidly: no gatekeepers, no filters. But for most pop aspirants, the result has been the end of creative seclusion. There’s pressure to keep offering new material, musical and nonmusical, making the promotional cycle as endless as the internet workday. Maybe it’s a song snippet or a glimpse of a video shoot. Or maybe it’s a Twitter feud, a media-ready screed on Facebook or a fashion experiment on Instagram.

For the 21st-century pop figure, songs are part of the mix, but so are romances and breakups, professional rivalries and reconciliations and countless rumors and memes that might be generated by the stars themselves, their fans or their trolls. Which in turn feed back into the next round of songs.

Ariana Grande’s 2018 album, “Sweetener,” exulted in a blissful, erotic romance, including a track, “Pete Davidson,” named after her boyfriend. Soon after they broke up came a self-healing single, “Thank U, Next,” that listed exes’ names and promised that she was now in love with herself. Its video clip, with more than 200 million YouTube views, mocked social-media misinformation. It’s a full-fledged, old-school pop song, complete with song-and-dance video extravaganza, but it’s also the latest episode in her continuing personal saga.

Perhaps, in a culture that’s constantly staring at a small screen, music was bound to be pushed aside. Songs that become massive streaming hits often sound unfinished, a looped riff and a vocal with a few tweaks. They fit into playlists that go by unobtrusively as background music; they are the ticktock of a soundtrack to everyday life. But songs can also have a higher profile. They can astound us with timbres never heard before and rhythms that kick and shake; they can tell us things we weren’t sure we knew.

And there is an audience for them. As the perceived value of recorded music has dropped nearly to zero, people have been willing to pay more and more each year for live concerts — where the music is the main thing in the room, where distractions are minimized. According to figures from the concert-promotion magazine Pollstar, for the top 100 tours of 2018 alone, gross revenues worldwide were $5.6 billion and average ticket prices rose from $84.63 in 2017 to $93.65 this year. In North America, the leap was even greater, from $78.91 to $92.50. Music can still be a central, overwhelming experience. We just have to put away the phones.

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