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Why charting songs are inherently all the same

It's Tuesday November 5 and the Billboard Hot 100 charts for November 9 have just aired. At the top of the charts sits Selena Gomez with her lamenting love song, "Lose You To Love Me", followed by Lewis Capaldi with a similar , "Someone You Loved". Elsewhere in the top ten are empowering records – Lizzo's "Good As Hell" (6), "Panini" by Lil Nas X (9) – songs glorifying carnal attraction, including the number 3 record "Circles" (Post Malone), and a Rap song dedicated to God ("Follow God" at 7). There are a healthy mix of BPMs, a suitable enough range of subject matters and slightly progressive count of women. By mainstream media's standards, November 9's charts are diverse, but below the surface of the different genres and varying artists is a vivid picture of the homogeneity that results from the industrialisation of music.

A universally appreciated cultural art-form, music is now more recognisable as a business (in Westernised modern civilisations at least) – a victim of liberalisation.

Advocating for individualism and competitiveness in culture production, liberalisation's 'Free Market' ideology within the media results in the commodification and subsequent homogenisation of cultural artefacts. With dwindling intervention from the government, the success – existence, even – of a particular product in the media relies solely on its economic strengths and viabilities, not its necessity to the public nor even its merits; as James Curran and Jean Seaton explain in their 2004 text, Power Without Responsibility, "if a viewpoint is missing in the press, this is only because it lacks a sufficient following to sustain it in the marketplace." Of note here is the use of the word "marketplace" – the press, media, culture even, are profitable endeavours. In order to exist within them, one must produce culture, produce music along, the lines of what sells, in other words what appeals to the public. Thus, whilst the idea of the free market is to increase diversity, the reality is the exact opposite, because for the commodity that music has become to be successful, it must follow industry customs to guarantee its continued circulation in the marketplace.

One of such customs is song length. The mainstream modal average is about 3 minutes 20 seconds long, so Kanye West's "Follow God" (1:45) and Lil Nas X's "Panini" (1:54) are both considered extremely short records, whilst Drake's "No Guidance" (4:21) is a rather long number. On the surface the range in song length – from 1:45 -- 4:21 – seems reasonable, but when considering that some songs last hours, or records as short as 10 seconds exist, a three-minute difference in extremes highlights the homogeneity of successful music, along the lines of length at least. That they all have lyrics and have been fitted with music videos; that they mostly appeal to heteronormative ideas of love and attraction (most of the top ten artists are cis-het people); that only Lizzo’s songs were released outside of 2019, and that they all (save “Follow God”) adhere to the structure of verses followed by choruses, with perhaps a bridge or refrain or a contrasting outro to separate the song from convention – these distinctly commercial features (Figure 1) of Billboard’s Hot 100 top ten prove that the industrial production of music has encouraged a homogenisation of widely circulated, publicly consumed content.

According to Sony Music, Universal Music and Warner Music – the companies under which all the top ten songs are produced – these are the features for which the public are looking. All privately owned media corporations, the capital attached to these corporations lends them power over material production of music, as they have the means to hyper-produce and market their goods. Mark and Engels state that, “the class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production,” in this case, meaning that Sony, Warner and Universal not only possess power over music production, but also control how we think of music, what we expect, what we want, and what those outside of their power matrix produce, thereby reinforcing their ruling idea of which music sells and further perpetuating the homogenisation of music production in the modernised world.

Largely unregulated under liberal laws, and only motivated to produce music along profitable lines, the Big Three’s hegemony in the music industry means that popular music will always look and sound the same. At least until the next superpower takes over.

Figure 1: Analysing Hot 100 Top Ten (Nov. 9)

Display Cover Image: Kwik Learning


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