by Doctor Science
Now, I admit I am a fogey, and I don't necessarily understand Kids These Days and Their Wacky Music on My Lawn. I watched the video -- which I think is extremely cleverly edited -- in part to see how many of the riffs and singers I would even recognize. Results: ... some? I am not completely ignorant!
But since I am *substantially* ignorant, a number of things about the mashup -- and thus about the most popular songs of the day -- really jumped out at me.
The big thing is how many of the voices are very similar: they are women's voices, or, if male, they are tenors. The two voices that really stick out as *different*, tonally, are Lady Gaga's and Adele's. It may be that what I'm hearing is really a sea of Autotune, out of which Adele's voice naturally sticks out like a lighthouse. Gaga's voice is gritty and naturalistic (if not natural) enough that it, too, sticks out of the humming uniformity.
The fact that so many of the voices are women's was not what I was expecting, for two reasons. First, the "classic rock" and other music-of-my-youth stations I usually listen to definitely have more male voices than female ones. Second, I remembered a multi-part discussion from much more music-savvy people than I on TigerBeatDown, about how many (white) males -- including critics -- see nothing wrong with saying they "don't like women's singing." (Also see TBB's recent satire of how music critics write about male and female artists.)
So both my expectations and logic predicted that the voices of popular music would be male. And yet, that's not how it seems from the mashup. My immediate reaction: It's Time for SCIENCE! Or more specifically, data.
Here's what I did:
- took DJ Earworm's list, which is slightly different from Billboard's, as he corrects for various timing effects, and collected YouTube links. Dissatisfied with this sample size, I did the same thing for Earworm's 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2007 mashups.
- For each song, I classified the race and gender of the *singer(s)* -- not necessarily the whole group, nor everyone who was "feat." if they didn't sing (or rap). It's all about whose voice you hear.
- Gender categories: male, female, and m/f duets or mixed groups.
- Race categories: black, white, other (includes Hispanic [white or black], Asian, and people who identify as mixed-race), and multi. Most "multi" were two-vocalist songs with singers of different races.
Racial classification proved to be rather dicey, because pop stars are much more likely than the general population to have parents of two different races. After some poking about, asking, and dithering, I classified Rihanna, Beyonce, and LMFAO as "black", Mariah Carey, Bruno Mars, Leona Lewis, and Alicia Keys as "mixed-race", Pitbull as "Hispanic".
Here's a table summarizing my data from 2007-2011:
I've put the full set up on googledocs for y'all to check and poke at.
Anyway, looking at these numbers, I wondered how much my memory was deceiving me about what was actually on the radio in The
Good Old Days. So I did the same analysis of Billboard's Top 25 from 1990 (when Sprog the Elder kicked me out of the Kids These Days Club), 1978 (when I graduated from college: probably the peak of my popular music listening life), and 1966 (I had only just started really paying attention to such things).
Here's the historic overview:
"Voices heard" means the gender/race of all (non-background) vocalists for the song. WM= white male, WF= white female, BM= black male, BF= black female. "All others and combos" includes people of non-white/non-black races, and duets or groups where the singers are not all in one of the main four categories.
What is most striking is the complete fall from dominance of white male voices. These very preliminary data suggest that the shift occurred during the 80s (i.e. disco). Here in the 21st Century, white male voices look like a niche market, or at least a subculture.
There's a paradox here, it seems to me. The majority of top-25 hits in recent years are one variety or another of hip-hop, very broadly speaking. I assume that young white males are still a huge segment of the music market, though I can't find specific figures. Logically, then, I'd expect white guys to be buying a lot of hip-hop, as everyone else does. So why aren't they *singing* it? Why would white guys prefer not to hear white male voices? Or is it a supply problem, such that white guys who try to make a career of music have fundamentally different tastes than the much larger group of white males who *buy* music? Or has music become something that isn't considered cool or worthwhile for white boys to do for a career? That's really hard for me to believe, frankly.
Honestly, I have no idea what is going on. One thing I did notice, as I was watching the 2011 music videos, is that the white male singers don't seem to be *performing* as hard as the others. To me, the quintessence is "Moves Like Jagger", by Maroon 5:
in which frontman Adam Levine blatantly does *not* move like Mike Jagger. Sprog the Younger is of the opinion that this is meant to be self-deprecating humor: "I am pretending to be cool but you know I'm really not". I have no idea if "being like Mick Jagger" these days is a reference to Jagger's moves, strictly speaking, his well-known broadband sexuality
-- or to his willingness to go commando yet clearly armed and fully operational.
It's not that *all* non-white non-male singers are performing all over the place with the dedication of e.g. Katy Perry. I mean, the breakout mega-star of 2011 was clearly Adele, who performs on basically a single dimension, the vocal:
And she sings the *hell* out of it. For all the Autotuning, special effects, dancing, and video and audio manipulation, the number one star of the year was someone who Just. Sings. The bare, no-holds-barred human voice still *works* -- but you have to commit to it, put your feelings in and let them throw you off the cliff if need be. Adele is performing, but it's not ironic: she commits to her singing and the feelings she's expressing, in the full-throated way of classic R&B. I don't know if critics (etc.) who say they "don't like women's voices" are rejecting even singers like Adele, if they're really rejecting women, or if they're rejecting that kind of singerly commitment. Or if it's something else entirely, which I'm missing due to not basically Getting It.
So, kids, pull up some lawn! Tell the fogey what's really going on. I know already that there's plenty more data where this comes from -- if you're a student who's looking for a paper topic, take what I've got and add to it: use Billboard's Top 100 lists, for instance, and do it for more years. You should be able to come up with something with some statistical significance; let me know what it is!
I've gotta say that one thing I'd forgotten about listening to a lot of new music, as I have for the past week or so, is the constant earwormery. New songs keep latching onto my brain, making it very loud and jangly in here. It's emotionally tiring, so I think I'll mostly stick with keeping my soundtrack turned down.