Not too long ago The Atlantic posted a video about why pop music is so much louder and less varied than it used to be. The video is worth watching, but the gist of it can be boiled down to one fact: music labels produce these songs because we listen to them. In the fifties a hit song was chosen by executives who liked the song and paid radio stations to play it, but now music labels make decisions based on data from listeners. Every time one of us buys a song on iTunes or streams a song on Spotify, we send the music labels a message about the kind of music we are likely to buy in the future. What kind is that? Most us buy songs we've heard before, because these songs are the easiest for the brain to process. In general, we like things better when they require less of us. Music labels have gotten the message, and that's why much of what they produce is as contentless and easy to consume as a giant soda.
In one sense this is a new problem, since even ten years ago there was more variety in pop music than there is today. In another sense, it's an age-old problem. People have always found it easier to enjoy and consume what they already understand. New and challenging material takes awhile to catch on. Innovators must both come up with a new idea and convince the public that it is superior to what they already have.
History is full of stories that fit this paradigm, but one of the most striking comes from France in the late nineteenth century. The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in France was subsidized by the government and provided artists with both instruction and opportunities to exhibit their work. The training artists received there was excellent, but it was narrow in its focus. While artists did learn to paint traditional subjects in a polished, naturalistic manner, they did not have the opportunity to experiment with new techniques or subject matter. Adolphe-William Bouguereau is a good example of an artist trained in this manner, and his painting The Birth of Venus typifies the work produced in the academy. In fact, it won the Grand Prix de Rome award when it was exhibited at the academy's annual exhibition, called a Salon, in 1879.
Standing almost ten feet tall and containing twenty-two figures, the painting is undoubtedly impressive. And, more importantly from the perspective of the academy, it follows all the rules. The subject - Venus traveling in her scallop shell to Cyprus - is a Classical one. The style is both illusionistic and idealized, which is exactly the way the academy wanted Venus to be shown.
To get some sense of just how similar all the academic artists were, it is worth looking at another painting of the same subject by one of Bouguereau's contemporaries, Alexandre Cabanel. While it's not the same as Bouguereau's The Birth of Venus, it is profoundly similar.
One might ask who, besides the other members of the academy, was the audience for artists like Bouguereau and Cabanel. One group they appealed to was the Bourgeoisie. Their work sated the Bourgeoisie desire for both a recognizable story (one they already knew from Classical mythology) and an appealing fantasy. Bouguereau's delicate maidens and chubby cherubs were predictably enticing. In other words, Bouguereau's paintings were the pop music of his day - a little bit sexy, very repetitive, always giving the people what the people want.
Part of the reason the Bourgeoisie were so used to seeing the same kind of art over and over again was the nature of the annual Salon in Paris. For many years it was the only public art exhibition in Paris, so whatever was rejected from the Salon was simply not seen by a wide audience. If the jurors had been interested in showing new and challenging work to the public, such work might have gradually crept into the mainstream, but because they were conservative, most Parisians attending the salons developed a taste for only one kind of art.
As one might expect, not every artist was as eager to follow the rules as Bouguereau was. Some artists went ahead and experimented with new styles, approaches, and subjects. In 1863 the jurors for the annual Salon rejected 3,000 of the 5,000 works submitted. Not only did they reject these works, they actually went so far as to call them "a serious danger for society". In response to this, Emperor Napoleon III ordered that the refused artworks be exhibited in a second show, the Salon des Refuses. One of the best known paintings from the Salon des Refuses is Manet's Luncheon on the Grass.
A person unfamiliar with the art being produced in the academy might assume that Luncheon on the Grass was controversial because it contained nudity. In fact, the public was used to seeing nudity in art. What they were not used to seeing was an ordinary women in an ordinary setting without any clothes on. An idealized nude Diana or Venus was acceptable to them, since they had seen it before and it belonged to the world of fantasy. But an average woman looking directly out from the picture frame at the viewer was jarring and new.
Manet became something of a hero to other artists who admired his independence. Many of the Impressionists - Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, etc. - counted him a friend and colleague. They broke convention just as he had. Unlike the academic artists before them, they paid more attention to light and color than to carefully rendered form. Like Manet, they paid a price for their courage. Their paintings were initially ridiculed, and Monet suffered in poverty through the 1860's and 70's until the 80's when he was finally established as a success.
It's difficult for us today to see how revolutionary Manet, Monet, and their fellow rebels were when they first showed their work. This is largely because of what has been done to the Impressionist paintings. Museum stores sell myriad versions of these paintings printed on every surface imaginable - a Monet on an umbrella, a Cezanne on a coffee mug, a Renoir on a t-shirt. What was once jarring because it had never been seen before is now hardly noticed because it is ubiquitous. Carrying a Monet umbrella is not a countercultural statement. If anything it is a conservative one. And most people, if you ask them, will say that they love Monet, that he is one of the artists they most admire.
It's tempting to draw simplistic conclusions at this point - to say that all of us like things we have seen before and dislike things we have not. I don't think the situation is quite that dire. There always have been and always will be people who are open to what is new and challenging. The trick is to give these new things a chance, to spend enough time with them to see if they have something surprising and delightful to offer us. We need to turn off the most popular songs and listen to the ones we haven't yet discovered. We need to recognize that this is mentally taxing, that it doesn't feel as good as playing the same song over and over again, but that it's ultimately the only way to avoid the situation we have in pop music today, where everything is contentless, shallow, and repetitive.