It’s Not Our Imaginations…Modern Music Really Does Suck

Vern Scott
9 min readJun 15, 2023

At first I thought it was my old-age bias, thinking “why was my 50s-80s music so much better?”. Well it turns out that music during the last 25 years or so has been scientifically proven to be on the decline. This brings up similar questions regarding literature and film. After an innovative melting-pot explosion in creativity in the middle of the last Century, is artistic direction now driven by high-tech, profitability, and the dumbing-down of the audience?

Bob Dylan (shown with Joan Baez), inherited the folk mantle from Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Lead Belly and others. Dylan spanned many musical genres which represented a rich and possibly unprecedented musical fusion. Incidentally, I saw Dylan/Baez in concert in 1976, and Baez’ live voice blew my socks off!

I am far from an expert on the history of music. Like many, I listened to music from the 50s onward, learned the piano, played a band instrument, and recently took several Music classes hoping to get an AA Degree. Yes, I’m not a musical expert, but I have enough experience to know when I smell a rat. Modern music (unless I’m missing something) started to become homogenized about 25 years ago when my back was turned. The resultant Justin Biebers, Britney Spears, Katy Perrys, and Mariah Careys I dismissed as harmless bubblegum pop (like The Archies, David Cassidy, or Bay City Rollers in the old days). But after watching the Youtube Video “Why is Modern Music so Awful” (upon which much of this article is based). I’m realizing that modern music is indeed awful, even scientifically, and demonstrably so!

Why Mid to Late 20th Century American Music was so Outstanding: If you take the period between, let’s say 1930 to 1990, you have what seems to be peak artistic performance, especially in music. It would seem that the genesis of good music was folk music from all over the world, coming together in America and combining with a new industry that popularized this music (and endless variants). Folk music is by definition an expression of the common folk, which often reflects their struggles (you almost never see “rich people’s folk music”). Folk music seems to evolve much like dirty jokes (a wry statement on the human condition) and has been around forever. It is often the way the common folk are getting back at their overlords, perhaps making fun of them behind their backs. Musicologists like the Lomax family went around the world collecting this music, fortunately preserving some of it and helping bring it to the masses (which for most of the last century was AM radio and vinyl records). Of course Jazz and Blues have their roots in African folk music and the misery of the New World pre and post slave culture, while the Scots-Irish and others brought their fiddles (and related miseries) while singing about the difficulties of rural culture (a sort of proto Country Western music). I will not try to put a definition on this music (which almost defies definition, which is why it now defies computers). However, it often starts with a strong lyric (reflective of a deep experience), reinforced with a rhythm that supports the strong lyric, an ambitious chord structure (often using clever major/minor changes to denote “happy”/“sad”), and novel blends of instruments. Interestingly, vocal and instrumental harmonizing (an art form that goes way back, and is quasi-mathematical and sweet-sounding) often “sells” the song. Sometimes this music has roots in “work songs” (songs that peasant workers used to cope), or in wedding or funeral songs. There are also many that tell a “cautionary tale” (ie the “Don’t go from the Country to the City” song), plus ballads of courtship and lost-love. Since World War II brought many diverse people together, we began to see musical fusions in the 50s and 60s, such as Jazz Fusion, Country-Rock, and Classic-Rock. Pure Folk music may have peaked in the 60s, and purists were aghast when folk-hero Bob Dylan (the designated folk royalty heir to Lead Belly, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger), “plugged-in” his electric guitar in 1965. All of a sudden, there was a rich blend of meaningful/powerful folk-based lyrics, with a diversity of instruments, rhythms, and voices…and played louder than ever for emphasis. In addition, there was a rather organic music industry, which depended upon top-40 DJs to arbitrate what was “good” music (largely a meritocracy, as no moneyed interest was deciding what people liked). What resulted was the Rock ‘n Roll movement (largely coming from Black musicians), “Country and Western” (coming from poor rural American whites), the “British Invasion” (the Beatles and their followers), and Psychedelic Rock (growing out of the Hippie movement) that created endless variations on this theme. We all thought it would last forever, but it didn’t. The suits got involved, and music stopped being listened to on AM/FM radio, records and tapes. Now it is largely controlled by computers in some form, which play a outsized role in the making of music and its distribution (largely online). It should be added that 1950s-1980s music was also built upon a solid foundation of previous Ragtime, Jazz, Swing, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley music famous from the 1900s to the 1940s, and also highly “organic”.

Alan Lomax and his father John, are famous musicologists who are credited with collecting and saving countless folk music genres from all over the world (that would otherwise have been lost).

How Science has Revealed Why Modern Music Sucks: A theory is that Napster (which evolved into Itunes and Spotify) changed everything, since people started getting their music off their computers. That gave the “suits” a chance to force feed us their brand of music, which is much more heavily influenced by computers (the digital audio workstation for instance), and concerned with making money from certain demographics (teenagers). It turns out there are good reasons why modern music stinks. The first one is a “lack of timbre” (timbre is the variation in musical variety, which can include instrument, range, and rhythm variations). Modern music has much less timbre than 50s-80s music. The second reason is harmonic variation, modern music relying heavily on the 5th/3rd/5th chord progression for a given key, the so-called “wah-ooh-wah” progression (which people are familiar with and sells well), whereas 50s-80s music had many more interesting harmonic variations. The third reason is that modern music is much LOUDER, which is also a kind of force-feeding, and sells well (especially to teens). It is also speculated that the industry got rid of middle-management as a cost-cutting move, eliminating many of the “filters” for mediocre music. Finally, it postulates that everything sounds the same, because MUCH OF IT IS WRITTEN BY THE SAME TWO PEOPLE, Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, who have written many of the modern pop hits from virtual hit factories (but keep a low profile). The modern “Hip-Hop” genre may defy some commercial norms and harken back to a kind of Chuck Berry/Ray Charles “naughty”, yet can also suffer from a “safe” lack of variation.

Good Music: The Last Frontier of Areas the Computer is Trying to Penetrate: After taking the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) class (the front-door for the production side of today’s music, using computers), two Music Theory classes (which led to a kind of classic four-part music composition, favored by Bach and others), and History of Jazz, I received a kind of bird’s-eye view of modern American music. The Music Professors won’t tell you that modern music sucks, as they don’t want to alienate their students (most of whom are in late teens/early 20s). The DAW is extremely popular, if not somewhat limited instrumentally (it sounds great for rhythm instruments and keyboards, less so for woodwinds and horns which are hard to “computerize”). There are also several computer MIDI composer things that help greatly with music theory. However, if you want to create that raw-sounding, from the gut piece, the DAW and MIDI things won’t help you much. To write these, it seems you must experience the misery of life first-hand.

Ray Charles was drawing from Gospel (which got him in some trouble) and other art forms, but in many ways he originated some of the visceral and “naughty” that may show up in today’s Hip-Hop.

Some Examples of Old/Organic Music: Here are five examples of organic “from the gut” folk-generated music that you wouldn’t see today:

1) “Sixteen Tons” Writers credit was given to Merle Travis 1946 (becoming a hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford), yet George Davis (a real-life coal miner) claims to have written the song in the 30s as “Nine to Ten Tons”. This is a catchy and snappy tune that came from the misery of working in the coal mines and having to buy from the “company store”. Similar work songs may have dated from a much earlier time in the 1800s.

2) “Maybelline” (why won’t you be true)-Chuck Berry sings this as though he REALLY HAS A GIRLFRIEND MAYBELLINE THAT WON’T BE TRUE. This song was based upon the 1938 “Ida Red” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

3) “What’d I Say?” This Ray Charles hit has roots in Gospel (as did many of Charles’ hits) and Rhumba. Let’s face it, much of our music heyday was based upon veiled references to the sexual act. The “Hey-yyy, Ho-ooo” of Ray Charles 50s recording was highly danceable, and the live versions almost had participants tearing their clothes off. Hard to beat that for the visceral “from the gut” genre.

4) “Kyrie Eleison” This is the refrain from a Mass chant dating back to the 1500s (meaning “Lord have mercy”, made into a rock song by the “Electric Prunes” in the 60s), and famously a part of the hit 60s Indie, “Easy Rider”.

5) “The House of the Rising Sun” Though ostensibly first written/performed by Eric Burden and the Animals in 1964, The song has a rich history beyond the Animals. According to Alan Lomax it is a song/tale that dates back to either 16th Century “The Unfortunate Rake”, or 17th Century song “Matty Groves”. In England “The House of the Rising Sun” is known as a prostitution house, while in The Animals version it is a prison. In America, its dates back to “The Rising Sun Blues” recorded by Clarence Ashley in 1933, yet Ashley claimed to have heard the song from his Civil War era grandfather.

Obviously there was a great deal of historical and cross-cultural mixing going on here, resurrecting old hits that themselves may have been based upon folk tales going back hundreds of years.

“Where are the John Steinbecks and Ernest Hemingways of today?”, asked Tom Wolfe, himself a highly immersive journalist/fiction writer with a finger-on-the-pulse of folk movements

Its Happening in Film and Literature too: There have been similar complaints regarding the decline of film in the face of CGI (Computer Graphics Generation), which has created an alleged decline in characterization, plot development, and storyline. This fits the rise of the blockbuster superhero genre, which is also aimed at the moneymaking teen demographic. Fortunately, there are the “Indie” films which have lower budgets, are aimed at smaller audiences, and more likely to be “old school. Tom Wolfe wrote an interesting piece before he died, indicting the modern novelist as a kind of “sell-out”, catering to educated East Coast elites and not immersing themselves in Americana or taking risks like the Steinbecks and Hemingways of old. Could it be that we’ve stopped taking risks across the board and become a “vanilla” culture, letting the computer do the work and making money by conning the public into thinking mediocre is good? Well, there may be no substitute for the organic fruits of the common folk and the raw/powerful music, film, and literature that springs from their agonies.

Enjoy these other Vern Scott articles regarding ironic American History!



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health