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January 09, 2012


It's always time for science.

Interesting post, doc. My own preferences, which are sometimes alarmingly trite, tend to favor the female voice. Probably there's some opposite-sex-attraction thing going on there, but I think my unchanneled preference goes more toward the voice. I think Adele is quite good at emotive singing, and I could probably go the whole rest of my life not hearing Beyonce sing again (even though she's vocally ok; just (to me) boring as hell).

This woman works both ways for me.

Popular music is not the place to be looking for singing talent, in my opinion. It's not so much that no pop performers can't sing so much as that they don't. I was watching the X Factor early in the season and Nichole Scherzinger (someone I had never heard of before, although I had heard of The Pussycat Dolls) was talking to one of the performers about the importance of Getting It Right, which I thought was rather odd coming from a pop performer, and all of a sudden she broke into singing some song or other (oh yeah: here), and my jaw kind of dropped. Not that she was great in any large sense of the word, just that she actually has some power.

Hearing her sing, accompanied, the kind of crap she makes money from, you'd have no idea.

Oh, and I absolutely cannot stand autotune in general. There are a very few exceptions that I can tolerate (Owl City I actually kind of like), and I'd just prefer that the overly slickified, processed, heavily autotuned kids of today would just get the hell off my aural lawnscape.

I think a big thing is that nonwhite artists are now much more likely to have "mainstream" (white) audiences. Black artists used to have huge hits that didn't ever make it to the ears of white people -- I should note that this is still true, though not to nearly as great an extent. But certainly in my own childhood (born in 77), there was MTV resisting music that was somehow too black (rap, Michael Jackson), and it being very transgressive indeed to listen to any rap -- Will Smith did a lot of barrier-breaking there, because a lot of the parents of my white friends (and my own parents) found "Parents Just Don't Understand" funny and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" charming.

Anyway. A lot of white men are still engaged in music as a career -- there are certainly some well-known white rap artists (including my hometown boy Mac Miller), but I think -- hm, trying to think how to phrase this.

A. A lot of traditionally white genres like hard rock, alternative, etc are now less mainstream and more occasional-crossover hits. It's not that they aren't there and making money. Yes, they've become a niche market, but it's not like niche markets can't be powerful and lucrative (think about Janet Jackson being higher-earning than Madonna when she hadn't had a "mainstream" hit in a while and was off the radar of most Top-40 listeners, for example).

B. DJ/mashup work has become a big thing. Most white men that I know who work in music are involved in this aspect of things. (I know...a lot of club DJs.) I'm kind of curious what the racial and gender balance of popular DJs is, because an enormous part of the music scene now lives in that area, and IME it is largely male and white.

As a white male singer, I've noticed much the same thing. But I would go further. While most men in general are baritones (tenors and basses are less common voices), most pop male singers tend to sing in the tenor range, and this has been true for decades. Even broadway musicals, which once had plenty of baritone roles now seem to focus primarily on tenors.

But if most of the singers - as I've been told - are actually baritones forcing themselves to sing painfully high - that would tend to lower the quality of their singing, which might make their music less attractive.

Or possibly the PC denunciations of white males in general has influenced musical tastes - after all, who wants to be seen as enjoying listening to an "oppressor"?

Well I am an old fogey and am clueless about the kind of music Dr. Science is discussing here. I do admire her willingness to wade inot unknown waters for the purpose of learning.

This is all I can offer I the way of a insight and it is't much: I think that with the fourteen to mid twenties young people in urban areas to be something other than white has become inately cool.How do I know this? I don't. It's just observation and antidote.

Which isn't to say that kids of different ethinicities mingle freely. The high school cafeteria at our local urban high school has segregated seating as determined by the kids themsleves. However many of the kids are mix and that didn't happen with out mixed dating as a prerequisite! And mix dating is tolerated, even admired. Lots of white girls aspire to have a mix baby.

I'm suggeting a huge change ithe nation's fantasy life. Popular music is a manifestation of popular fantasies about beauty, sex, romance, even identity. When the Stones were young they lived the life manhy of their audiance members wanted to live or at least wanted someone to live so they could live enjoy all the lifestye vicariously.

My generation, the generation that had the Stones and the Dead and Janis Joplin right up there at the top of the fantasy life, was not all that comforatable with people who were not white. We were the transition generation, post Jim Crow but not really integrated either. I literaly never met a black person until I was in my early thirties. (I grew up in a college town in Iowa and the only nonwhites were the university basketball ahd footbal players. And the mayor, oddly enough. At any rate no one I ever had an opportunity to meet).

We have moved along. TV ads aren't just white, the President is mix, even small town schools like the one near me are multi-ethnic. White kids have posters of nonwhites on their walls. Popular music is reflecrting the fantasy life of the nation, but ow its the whole nation.

That's my thesis anyway, but unlike Dr. Science I have not done the research to supply data!

If you are going to look at Billboard, the immediate question has to be: Who is buying this music?

My suspicion (uninhibited by data, of course) is that within the biggest buying demographic (14-25 years old), most work by male performers is bought by women and vis versa. Basically a lot of people looking for someone of the opposite sex who sounds like they appreciate you and your life/concerns. Certainly the bulk of the popular music fans in the middle of the last century were women -- screaming teenage girls were a stereotype, in fact.

So, did that change? And if so, why?

P.S. The changing racial mix, I suspect, has a lot more to do with reduced discrimination in who gets any play/publicity. That is, the causes are very different from the causes for the change in the performer gender ratios.

rap dominates the charts these days. and i'm gonna go out on a limb and assert that rappers need to look like rappers: tough young black men, though possibly Hispanic - definitely not white or Asian. it's a persona (the same way all male country singers look and sound the same). if you don't fit the persona, you're going to look 'inauthentic'. and given how most rappers make a big deal out of how authentic they are, this would seem to be a big deal to them, and presumably to their audience.

popular songs that aren't rap-based are R&B-based. there's a (similar) standard persona to go with that sound, too.

as far as Adele goes, i'd bet the magnitude of her success comes by virtue of her being able to sell records outside the Top 40 base, to people who don't buy Flo-Rider and Jay-Z records and who don't care about the persona aspect. and don't forget, there's a demographic who may actively dislike the standard hip-hop/R&B personae - all the fake thuggery and hypersexualized club scene stuff. Adele can dip into that audience in a way that most Top-40 acts can't.


most pop male singers tend to sing in the tenor range, and this has been true for decades.

I think the issue here is that pop music production style has become so dense and loud over the last couple of decades that you need to be in the upper range to even be audible in the overall mix.

The exception are the death metal guys that sound like godzilla when they sing. They overcome the noise by going it one better.

It may be that what I'm hearing is really a sea of Autotune

I was explaining what Autotune was to my wife over the weekend. She's a very good amateur choral vocalist, and to her it seemed like Autotune was cheating.

The thing is that popular music today is not primarily about musical performance. It's about crafting a stylish artifact, where "stylish" can resonate in any of a number of directions.

It's much more of a producer and engineers' craft nowadays. Especially in the genres we're talking about here. Songwriters, too. But performers, not so much. Or, rather, performers, but the instrument is the technology.

Kids these days, huh? I mean, when I was growing up in the '80s, the hot pop stars were macho dudes like Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Blondie, Queen, and Wham! Go figure. :-P

Are we talking about what is popular in music, or what is acknowledged as "good"? I thought the Tiger Beatdown discussion was about the latter, which is still heavily biased towards white men (partly due to most media critics being white men), and not so much about what is actually selling.
Very interesting analysis though, I'm pretty happy about how pop music vocals have diversified.


While looking up the songs on YouTube, I found that the Autotunery much less irritating there than it is on the car radio. I suspect one driving force behind Autotunery is the fashion for performers who can sing and dance *at the same time*.

The fact is, it's not physically possible to simultaneously sing and dance full throttle: there's a limit to how much oxygen you can keep around. Autotune & mic-ing are ways to support the voice consistently when the singer is expected to move a lot at the same time.

And then, you know, it becomes a *disease*. But it's not IMHO coincidental that Adele is a woman of operatic build who just sits or stands there, so all of her physical energy can come out in her voice.

If you click on the link under "This woman", you'll discover a mixed-race woman of decidedly un-operatic build singing in a rather objectively competent way.

So, why isn't she the most popular performer alive? I'm guessing because she don't shake it.

Well, Slarti, you can't be the most popular singer unless you're singing in a genre of music that most people like. For all the beauties of the canon of Western clasical music including opera, it ain't got rhythm, and rhythm rules supreme and uncontested.

So, why isn't she the most popular performer alive?

She's damned good. But I'm fairly certain she's doing opera. And Lady Gaga doesn't so much as shake it as, well, I'm just too old because I don't quite have any idea of just what the hell she's doing.

But she fills the seats.


DJ/mashup work has become a big thing. Most white men that I know who work in music are involved in this aspect of things. (I know...a lot of club DJs.) I'm kind of curious what the racial and gender balance of popular DJs is, because an enormous part of the music scene now lives in that area, and IME it is largely male and white.
Fascinating. In other words, they are manipulating other people's voices, they aren't showcasing their own. Dave Strider in Homestuck seems to be intended as that kind of guy: a DJ specializing in "sick beats", a rapper (but never a singer), and absolutely determined to be cool. Ironically.

And the thing is, singing isn't cool, in that sense. To really sing your heart out, you have to be committed to an uncool degree: at least for the duration of the song, your self is OUT there, not detached or abstracted.

I can see how this fits into a certain, extremely popular style of masculinity, especially for white guys, but what baffles me is what happened in the 80s to change white males from being the dominant producers of popular music, to being ... a niche.

A musician's build is not a good metric for their power. One example would be Arnold Jacobs, one of the greatest tuba players ever. The urban legend was that he only had one lung, but he actually had two, but, as the wikipedia page says "Due to childhood illness and adult onset asthma, his lung capacity was significantly impaired." I knew any number of slightly built folks who could blow the doors off the hall.

Unfortunately, this notion that build has something to do with musical power is often trotted out by orchestras when they are hiring for brass positions, as the case of Abbie Conant shows.

you can't be the most popular singer unless you're singing in a genre of music that most people like.

The funny thing is, there are surprisingly huge niche markets all over the place.

My wife and I occasionally attend the Lincoln Center live simulcasts at a nearby movie theater. The place is wall to wall Russians. Russians, gay men, the local classical crowd, and us. Go figure.

Worldwide, the Lincoln Center simulcasts did something over 300K tickets in the first season. I think they're doing over a million a season now. That's attendance, not dollars.

That puts them at the very low end as compared to the highest grossing pop acts, but they get it done in 10 or 12 broadcasts a season, as compared to the dozens or even hundreds of shows the pop acts do.

And the thing is, singing isn't cool, in that sense. To really sing your heart out, you have to be committed to an uncool degree: at least for the duration of the song, your self is OUT there, not detached or abstracted.

I . . . do not think this is accurate. At least not unless we are allowing for extremely broad definitions of "self" and "abstracted." Singers, even great ones, inhabit characters that are not their "selves" all the time, even whilst singing their hearts out.

what baffles me is what happened in the 80s to change white males from being the dominant producers of popular music, to being ... a niche.

Anti-rockism happened. Anyway, to the extent that indie is a real thing, it's still pretty heavily dominated by white guys.

I sure see a lot of generalizations in this thread, about what men and women like and don't.

But anyway, I have some hypotheses for you of why male singers in particular aren't as popular as they were:

* The audience has become younger, kids start listening to popular music earlier.

Between now and the great male pop vocalists of the eighties (Michael Jackson, Sting, A-Ha, etc.) there is a time we might like to forget, the time of Spice Girls (which was originally intended to target teenage boys, but which found a market with pre-teen girls) and Aqua. It wouldn't be too surprising if kids have different gender preferences.

* Autotune. Singers in the eighties, of both genders, had to have a certain level of skill. When it became cheaper and far easier to make people sound in key in the studio, it allowed music marketers to prioritize other attributes, like looks and a background that catches the audience's attention. It's probably easier to sell a female artist by her look than a male (though that most certainly happens too).

you can't be the most popular singer unless you're singing in a genre of music that most people like

Sure, not arguing counter to that. Subsequent comments to the effect that rhythm sells are close to pivotal, here. Rhythm and related things we can file under "catchiness" (which I'm not at all happy with because it's nearly self-defining) trump nearly all, including talent.

Else how do we explain Black Eyed Peas?

Good marketing and visuals also help a great deal.

There's a lot to music-that-sells that's non-musical. I've seen bands whose chief selling point were their onstage antics. Gwar probably wouldn't be solvent without the costumes and ritual disembowellings and beheadings and stuff. Stickmen with Ray Guns was a Dallas band whose chief attraction was what the hell Bobby Soxx was going to do next; not that they made all that much money, but they got enough gigs to keep them in beer I'd guess.

Just circling back to check some of the links...

This woman works both ways for me.


I thought was rather odd coming from a pop performer, and all of a sudden she broke into singing some song or other and my jaw kind of dropped. Not that she was great in any large sense of the word, just that she actually has some power.

Yeah, there are some pop vocalists with seriously killing chops.

Bowie apparently has a huge, knock-you-down natural voice. Cindy Lauper, also.

A lot of pop music is basically aural candy - ephemeral fluff - but there actually is a lot of work behind most of it. There are lots of examples of attractive young people being packaged up with a bow tied around them and shoveled out into the marketplace, but most people that make any kind of dent at all have paid some kind of dues.

Certainly anyone with a career more than a year or two long will have some skills and serious work under their belt. "Overnight sensations" usually take years to happen.

Hell, Justin Bieber is annoying as hell - he's like a pint-sized R&B Pat Boone - but the kid has done some homework copping R&B vocal style, and he sells the crap out of the stuff he sings. His voice is kinda thin, but what is he, in 8th grade? If he keeps his head together, he'll probably be actually good in a couple of years.

It's a long way to the top y'all.

White men tend not be drawn to the style of music that is chart-topping in the US. They're mostly ending up in indie rock bands which is a style of music totally dominated by white men. Indie rockers are probably the musicians TigerBeatDown is skewering.

This white man is probably going to be huge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UVNT4wvIGY

If you're looking at mainstream music which is - as you mentioned - largely hip hop dominated, I think it is very hard for white men to break into this genre and be taken seriously. There is still very much a problem of being "legit" and it is very hard to pass as a white man. Eminem is the only serious white artist that I can think of in terms of hitting the Top 40 and also being considered a legitimate hip hop musician. It seems you have to prove that you are "street" or "urban" to make your way in the field, and the white middle class male can't really make his way in (by comparison, Kanye - the child of a college professor, and Drake - an upper middle class Canadian kid who started his career on Degrassi manage to have convinced the world they have "legit" hip hop credentials). Rock these days is largely indie music, still largely populated by white men, but just not Top 40.

Check you sample biases.

First, these are the artists that DJ Earworm has selected, so his own personal tastes will be reflected.

Second, he's selecting primarily from the world of pop and hip-hop. Hip-hop has become more white in the past decade, but remains largely black. Pop has become more multi-racial in the past decade as producers look for artists that can appeal to as many people as possible.

Third, because he's largely not selecting from the world of rock and country you're missing out on the most white male dominated categories of music. You don't get 13 percent white men at the CMAs.

I'd be interested to see a broader, less biased selection of data, say using the past five years of Billboard Charts for all music. You'll likely see white men well represented.

The point about them all being tenors is interesting though, although some of the similarity in the above video could be smoothing on the part of Earworm.

Interestingly, regarding country music, it's definitely chock full of white guys, but the 2011 CMA Entertainer of the Year was Taylor Swift, the only female nominee. Similarly, the Best New Artist was The Band Perry, the only female-fronted act among three white guys and a husband/wife duo. (The latter also won Single of the Year and Song of the Year.)

The last 3 comments here are touching the bullseye. First, you can't trust Billboard or similar lists to accurately gauge what the "best" or "most popular" music of the year was. The singles that hit the charts don't get there democratically. Record companies put them there. It's a situation where they say "Here is what you're going to listen to this year." And the general public accepts it. Public opinion may shift slightly where these songs land on the charts, but rarely do non-Record Company-approved artists ever worm their way onto the list. This means that what you're analyzing isn't "Why aren't there more young white males having hits these days?" but "Why aren't the record companies pushing young white male made music?"

The answer isn't too hard to figure. Cost. Hip Hop and R&B is cheap to produce. And the artists are much more expendable. What makes a good, Billboard-ready track isn't what the artist brings to the recording, but how well the producer and songwriter do their job. When was the last time you heard a really amazing guitar or piano part in a chart-topping song? Probably not since the 90s. Good musicianship is expensive to record, and so Record Company execs prefer the quicker/easier/cheaper drum machines and studio synths.

If record companies were more interested in quality recording artistry, Billboard-charting music would sound much much more diverse than it does. And it would skew towards a more accurate demographically proportionate graph. You'd see much more of The Roots than Black Eyed Peas, and more Bon Iver than Maroon 5.

I want to be a Buzzsaw popstar !!!

The answer isn't too hard to figure. Cost.

Reality TV, amateur showcase stuff like American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, all likewise.

Cheap to produce, so it goes to the top of the heap.

This, from NPR, is relevant.


Clearly, everyone here reading this blog is trying to be PC and scientific, but it's easy to see what's going on here. Let me make some broad assumptions based on my experiences, and see if it helps explain things:
1. Women like vocals a lot more than men do. They also like dance-able catchy songs more then men do. Women are roughly half the market.
2. Blacks and Hispanics tend to come from urban environments, and tend to listen to exclusively hip-hop music. They have almost zero exposure rock music, and/or will not listen to it. (You'll see more white people at a Jay-z show than black people at any rock show... based on experience)
3. White dudes listen to a little bit of everything.
4. Moms like pop music, expanding the age group for women in the pop category.
5. Most hip-hop, R&B, Pop vocal music are, obviously, geared towards the vocals.

Put all of the above together, and you end up with something like the market situation described by the Doctor.

I'll add another wrinkle to this... Have you ever looked at the demographics of the production teams writing the songs and composing them on the computer?

If you want to know where the white men are, look behind the desk. Plenty of white men are producers, writing the music that is behind the voices. For instance, take Katy Perry's hits: the production team (Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, Max Martin, etc.) I believe are all white guys. Nicki Minaj's big hit this year, produced by a white guy (JR Rotem). Rihanna's top hit, produced by three white guys (Sandy Vee and the Stargate production team.) Men of other races are also in the producer's chair, too... from a racial perspective its actually pretty diverse.

What you will *never* find, however, is a female producer of urban pop. You can almost count the number of big-name female producers on one hand. (Not joking here, the list thins quickly after Missy Elliot, Linda Perry, and Alicia Keys.)

I have no idea why this is the case, either.

Guess I got late to the game. I want to say, a lot of what you're asking has highly subjective answers. No science right now can answer these questions objectively, period.

With that out of the way...

You're not going to get straight answers on taste. Why white boys make less hip-hop, however, is a tad bit more straightforward: Socioeconomic environment plays a big role. The white peeps you see making rock music and stuff tend to grow up in working class or above in terms of the economic ladder. They have the combination of growing up in families that might listen to more varieties of music, being educated in a wider selection of the arts, and have more options in creating music available to them, and a community that listens generally to one genre or another (this is especially the case in rural areas). And that is not restricted by race: Consider Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, who came from a middle-class background by all reports.

Creative types, when they have options, rarely restrict themselves to one type initially, and will dabble until they find something they're comfortable with. Having that accessibility to instruments is key to musical development. As a consequence, they simply have more options, and may be subtly guided over their development.

Now, you may argue that stuff like indie rock or synth-pop or electronica have low returns on investment. But in saying that, you fail to understand the key point about music: As a general rule, a career creating music always is a low return on investment. You don't play music to make money. There are hundreds of thousands of bands and artists out there, and only 2080 slots in the Billboard Top 40 in a given year. And those slots heavily favor those artists closely aligned with the soon-to-be-Big 3 of Sony, Universal/EMI, and Warner Music. Even if a white guy were to show immense talent in hip-hop (and there are some good ones out there outside of Eminem: Aesop Rock and Atmosphere come to mind), he would likely need backing from a Big 3 label (and all the baggage that comes with that) to get the airplay necessary to score a Top 40 hit.

The only thing I have to say is that the mash-up could easily have been something designed specifically to annoy me. Even whatever content I may have some appreciation of only served as barely enough of a tease to catch my attention as briefly as necessary to allow the rest of it to annoy me more fully.

So, "Yuck!"

I'd just prefer that the overly slickified, processed, heavily autotuned kids of today would just get the hell off my aural lawnscape.


Query: How relevant is the billboard charts these days, anyway? My kids don't listen to regular radio at all (we live in the mountains). They are much more likely to tune to an internet channel. Yes, they still get artists from their peers, but they are more likely to listen to my stuff than I was my parents' (and I listened to quite a bit of that). Yet I have to admit that although they are exposed to non-autotuned artists like Iz, Eva Cassidy, Sinatra, Connick Jr., Johnny Cash, Three Mo' Tenors, etc. along with the pop from my youth, I still catch them cleaning their rooms from time to time with an autotune something or other playing.

"...it's an itty-bitty Tinsel-Town Rebellion, a Tinsel-Town Rebellion Band..." -- FZ

wow.....! wonderful! thank you!

Don't forget that in 1978, Billboard popular music included what Homer Simpson once called "wuss rock". Think Gerry Rafferty ("Baker Street") or Jay Ferguson ("Thunder Island").

The "New Country" trend in the 1990s moved this kind of music out of the "pop" genre and into "country". Therefore, a whole class of white male wuss rockers was present in the 1978 sample but is absent from today's Billboard charts.

Man, I'd forgotten how much I loathed Jay Ferguson back in the day. Now I've got the chorus "Out on Thunder Island..." stuck in my head.

Please, for the love of God, shoot me now.

I'm not sure I'd put Thunder Island in the same bin as Baker Street; it really belongs right next to Escape (that Pina Colada earworm). But: yes, there was a lot of forgettable music being made in the '70s. Also: the '80s, '90s, etc.

When you're in love with a beautiful woman, you watch your friends (you know you watch your friends, you better watch your friends; you better look out!).

Not just that, but she might run, calling "Wildfire!"

don't rock the boat, baby!

Is it a sail boat? Sailing takes me away.

don't rock the boat..... The favorite dance tune for one of the "dancers" at our usual hangout in Augusta while I was at Ft. Gordon. Song cost me a fortune, or most of many paychecks, as I vaguely recall.

There will be no badmouthing of Baker Street on this thread, tyvm! That's an objectively good song in a way that lots of 70s ephemera is not.

There will be no badmouthing of Baker Street on this thread, tyvm!

I can never hear that song without feeling like a highly irascible seagull is screeching at me.

Foo Fighters did a cover.

You tube it.

I like the way the song is big noise and then quiet during the verse and chorus and then big noise again.

Thing is, I was out of the country and oblivious to the song at the time of release, and didn't know it was called "Baker Street" until now.

Despite probably 100 car radio listenings along the way.


Foo Fighters did a cover.

As an aside, I blame Butch Vig personally for the loss of the top 5hz or so of my aural range.

It's all his fault, damn it.

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