Any time I listen to "Albatross" by Fleetwood Mac, all I can imagine is bathing in ornate gardens while a slow-motion fountain of chocolate sauce rains down. I feel both thrilled and slightly embarrassed at this creepy fantasy.
While this is probably a lot to do with this song soundtracking some overtly sensual supermarket TV ads from years ago, it’s interesting how our experience with one art form like music can inform our experience of another like food.
But in a way, music is a lot like food. They’re both made up of many ingredients, both have endless styles and genres, and they’re also representative of a nation’s culture and zeitgeist.
From a technical level, the construction of both are bound by certain constraints while still being matched with infinite possibilities. In Western music, we are confined to 12 notes of the chromatic scale before the sequence repeats itself. Yet there is an endless soup of combinations through varying harmony, rhythms and instrumentation.
Similarly with food, it’s reasonable to consider there are a finite number of ingredients, but that the mixture, quantity and sources of those ingredients when brought together to produce a meal, are limitless.
And so in comparing the two, it’s my opinion that much of today’s pop music is the fast food of the music world.
What I mean by “pop music these days” is the chart pop we constantly hear on the radio. It’s the world of “sexy” music videos and reality TV shows aimed to propel people to overnight stardom only to revel in their demise weeks later. It’s the industry that cares more about the image and social following than the musical talent or quality of an artist.
The key to the success of pop and fast food is their overabundance, which makes them both virtually unavoidable. It’s this accessibility matched with the production of a product designed to be pleasurable to our ears or palette that makes them so successful (maybe even more so after a few drinks).
Driving these two industries are the giant corporations whose primary pursuit is a high level of societal consumption for their financial gain, rather than any real focus on furthering either art form. One example of this is the use of the recently dubbed “millennial whoop” in pop music where the same interval is sung to the sound of “wow-ow wow-ow.” This has become such a popular technique deployed to make songs familiar and catchy, that it is now heard repetitively in the all-you-can-eat buffet of bubblegum radio pop tunes.
Scientific evidence has also been produced to look at how modern pop music affects people. Research from the Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh asked more than 36,000 people in more than 60 countries about their musical tastes. The conclusion was that chart pop listeners were not as creative or at ease as listeners to other genres.
This is not, however, really my bash on either pop or fast food. The latter is bad for you but it’s better for you than no food at all. In the same way, listening to chart music is better than not engaging with any music. The more important thing is the frequency of consumption.
So we shouldn’t stop listening to pop music, but instead have it as part of a balanced musical diet. Otherwise, you stand to miss out on so many other amazing genres that sit below music’s cheesy pop crust. Go see an orchestra or listen to those bands you’ve heard of but can’t name any of their songs. If you challenge yourself with new styles, you can be amazed at what you’ll find.
Of course, with food, often the most memorable experiences are from the meals we make ourselves; whether it’s following a classic recipe or getting creative on our own composition.
Music is the same. Listening to others, like eating food made by others, serves as one step into the musical realm. Performing music is a whole new world, which can provide you with a social and creative outlet to last a lifetime.
And like cooking, you’re never too old to start.