Pop music is basically tricking you to like it
Plenty of experiences happen where words can’t possibly describe the emotions surrounding them. Can a 13-year-old really tell anyone what it’s like to fall in love for the first time, or will a mother ever adequately describe how burying a child makes her feel? Where words often fail, music is there to fill the void.
I was watching my 7-year-old stepdaughter in the rear-view mirror one day while driving her late — again — to school when one of those awful songs came on the radio for the 57th time in under two days. She knew every word and had her eyes closed, face pointed to the ceiling like she was entertaining a completely packed-in crowd. I hadn’t seen her smile like that in a very long time — she’s sick — and my heart dropped with a feeling of safety. I didn’t dare rotate the dial like I normally would, because if that’s all it takes to see her smile again, I’ll repeat that mind-numbing song until my ears give out. Music was her medicine that morning and at least for 4 minutes we both forgot what was wrong with her.
Why is that? Why are we so connected to music, a seemingly random phenomenon, that can either lift our spirits high when things get down, or piss us off when it reminds us of fuck-ups past? There has to be reasoning there, and while we sit around to wonder, science is out trying to put meaning behind it.
One of the first studies credited to explaining a human’s love of music is often attributed to social psychologist Robert Zajonc. His 1968 study “The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure” brought to light the idea of “Mere Exposure Effect” — which explains a person’s acceptance of a particular thing the more they’re exposed to it. His study concludes that repeated exposure to an object or idea enhances attitudes towards it.
So, it’s not like we’re trying to hold on to only ten songs like a filthy security blanket; they actually do make us feel better. Most songwriters know this and duplicate, on purpose, ideas and structures which find themselves repeating in music through time. Any adult now who grew up in the ‘80s will remember familiar horn lines in ear-worming songs such as “The Power of Love,” by Huey Lewis & The News, “Sussudio,” by Phil Collins or Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.”
The supporting horn inexplicably dropped off for a few decades, giving way to new back-end standards. Look to any Top 40 chart now, however, and notice the presence of it making a dramatic resurgence. Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” Ariana Grande’s “Problem” and T-Swizzle’s “Shake It Off” all have a noticeable horn section. Pop music’s creators know the familiar “whaa-wha-wha-whas” kick in that tricky harlot known as nostalgia.
In psychology, this is known as perceptual fluency: the ease with which information is treated. Recognizable songs are easier to process and the less effort we use to think something through, the more we tend to like it. If a song fits within the confines of our expectations we feel better and are driven by confidence.
High-tech gadgetry is also being used to prove the effects of music’s addictiveness. Based on a 2011 fMRI study titled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters,” scientists discovered even when participants were exposed to unfamiliar music in their preferred genres, the brain’s reward circuitry was more active for the familiar in less desired genres — regardless of their conscious acceptance of it.
So back off of any holier-than-thou stance because you may “get” Bon Iver when others don’t. What your brain really wants — like everyone else’s — is “Dark Horse” to be played over and over and over. Fight it to no end, but you’re just like the rest of us poor saps. We all crave the familiar.
We’re all just followers of others, too. As Mathew Salganik finds in the 2006 study, “Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market,” music’s success is determined by social influence. The article shows empirical data of people blindly preferring music only because they think others like it as well. If the entire room is turned up to “All About That Bass” while you sit in the corner sulking, your brain subconsciously triggers positive emotion, and eventually that last sip of Hard Lemonade won’t ever compare to joining the rest of the crowd to satisfy pleasurable urges.
Pop music is a product ...
The working formula is there and has been perfected over the course of almost a hundred years already ...
It’s why labels aren’t taking risks with music they don’t know will work on consumers — and why the biggest hits of the past twenty years sound inarguably similar. It’s also the very reason we hear those same songs every time we turn to the radio, TV or Internet.
Because popular music also adheres closely to various marketing standards. Imagine any tampon commercial where the women depicted are far happier than they should be. Someone on her period will never be twirling around in white skirts with a creepy grin because of some billowy plug she just jammed into her vag. From the sounds of it, that time of the month rarely compels women to giggle and prance through fields of flowers.
But attaching happy imagery to a product evokes particular areas of the brain to react. And it’s the same with pop music. We attach certain happenings to a song’s dynamics, and the more we’re exposed to it with positivity (like going out with your favorite betches ’n’ bros), the more of an opportunity there is to recall the best scenarios whenever the song is played.
Honestly, how many of us have taken shots with LMFAO’s “Shots” blaring in the background, and how amazing did that night eventually become? In fact, just by reading the song title there are probably a few of you fighting an insatiable urge to log off, call friends immediately and begin a prolonged bender no matter what time of the day it is.
And when music celebrities sign incredible contracts to brand a specific item, that’s like an unsubtle one-two punch of “Screw you, you’re buying this whether you like it or not” to the consumer. It’s a tactic using all kinds of personal pleasure sensors against the buyer to do what the company wants. And the rampant brainwashing is perfectly legal, too.
Mere exposure’s unrelenting repetition and auditory familiarity is used to a company’s advantage all the time. There are reasons we hear songs, brand names and commercials hundreds of times in the course of a few months.
Finish this: “Now you have a friend in the diamond business, The Shane Company …”
How many of you can easily keep going, reciting not only directions to the famous jewelry store, but its store hours as well? (“Open weekdays ‘til 8, Saturday and Sunday ‘til … online at the ShaneCo.com.”) We’ve been hearing Tom Shane repeat them in the car since most of us were in diapers, and now it’s stuck there, for-ev-er. Repetition breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds acceptance.
Though something is repetitive it doesn’t always mean it’s waging war on the subconscious. Repetition is a universal of melody, and it’s why we distinguish between sounds as noise, language or music. It shifts the perceptual circuitry to label something as, yes, this is music, or no, this is not.
Recite a word too many times and the meaning becomes irrelevant. The mind is focused instead on the repetitive noises the expression is making and not the definition. The distortion is called semantic satiation. Torch, torch, torch, torch, torch, torch … congratulations, you’re a musician.
Not all artists take the easy path and lean on the crutch of reiteration to assure a song climbs the charts, however. Lots of contemporary songwriting revolves around the opposite, avoiding the carbon copying of anything else like it, especially songs protected by law. Marvin Lee Minsky, an American cognitive scientist in the field of artificial intelligence, refers to the practice in his essay “Music, Mind and Meaning.”
Minsky’s example asserts that modern classical composers wouldn’t dare duplicate the first four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the distinctive “dun-dun-dun dunnnnn”) because it would distract the listener and immediately bring about feelings attributed to Beethoven’s work.
“No one could remember all of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from a single hearing,” he writes, “but neither could one ever again hear those first four notes as just four notes! Once a tiny scrap of sound, these four notes have become a known thing — a locus in the web of all the other things we know and whose meanings and significances depend on one another.”
We’re often powerless over the media’s onslaught ...
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make better choices and demand more from taste-makers with resourcefulness. Likewise, listening to a song is and will probably always be one of the few pleasurable events we all experience as humans together. To discredit one genre because of its easily created ways is to discredit the influence it may hold toward others in society. Because something is manufactured to a predictable end doesn’t mean it’s any less compelling to someone else.
With music, a teenager’s first love can be understood by everyone and the loss of a child can be given harmonic meaning — even if we can’t fully relate, we’re still bound together by an internal connection of emotion. Even as my step-daughter says, “It just makes me feel good to sing” — nobody will ever argue with that.
Pop music is still powerful, but it’s strange that something so common is so poorly understood and used against us. Worse yet, it’s disheartening to know money and popularity is usually the end game for a celebrated artist with unused potential. The output can be greater, we just need to understand the hows and whys for it to happen.
Instead of musicians vying for and clambering to the top of abstract nobility with deception, the practice of choosing who’s who should be more about the cultural worth an artist gives our time in history and not how they manipulate listeners to place their brand on top.
So maybe, instead of blindly following a celebrity’s influence hopscotching from single to single filing through redundant tracks with shortening expiration dates, we should counter the trade with a hope for betterment. We should all be demanding more from our artists — and making sure they’re compensated accordingly — if we’re sick of the same pre-packaged pop monotony.
Exploitation of the mind is so last year.
“What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind."
- Philip K. Dick
[Originally published March 5, 2015]