When I was younger, I imagined that at some point in my 40s or 50s, a switch would flip, and I’d suddenly find myself too old to listen to any new music. I’d turn into a cartoonish version of the elderly, complaining about all the profanity and the screeching and the caterwauling and how the youths didn’t appreciate the good, mellow, old-fashioned music I listened to, like the Pixies.
Turns out my prediction was half right. As I’ve settled into middle age, I do almost always retreat to the safety of my turn-of-the-millennium college radio music. But the reason isn’t that contemporary stuff is too intense for me, but that it’s so boring. There’s so rarely any hook to it; it feels like instead of getting more daring or experimental, it’s mostly just over-produced and predictable.
At our house in Oakland, there were frequently some teenagers who’d park their car nearby and blast their music while they were doing whatever teenagers do — probably involving drugs and premarital sex! — and I was often right on the verge of being the stereotypical geriatric white man storming out of the house, demanding that they turn it down. But I’d be yelling, “Turn that racket down! It’s too vacuous!” I’m in the enviable position of having virtually every new song available to me on demand whenever I want, and I’m most often saying, “Nah, I’m good.”
But I do often make an effort! Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I think Olivia Rodrigo is the real deal, for instance. It’s very much pop music, accessible enough for superstardom and Apple tie-ins. But on top of the hook required for a pop hit, there’s such a great combination of influences and styles that it all feels really interesting.
My favorite by far is “Vampire.” The album version starts out as a breathy piano ballad, which could quickly turn into the kind of maudlin showcase for a pop star trying to show off their range as a Real Musician. But then it starts to throw in all kinds of stuff that give it depth, not just gloss. The end result feels like an extremely media-savvy artist who knows how to navigate an industry in the 2020s and get 93 million views on YouTube, but never at the expense of making it feel anything less than sincere. (And as it turns out, the stripped down piano ballad version is pretty good, too).
The Weeknd is more towards the other end of the scale for me. Most of his stuff is inoffensive, but there’s rarely any hook that I can get into. Apart from “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Blinding Lights,” I can’t really tell his songs apart from each other, and those I recognize only because they were played constantly.
But the other thing I didn’t predict back in my teens and twenties was what would be required to be a superstar in the 21st century. It can’t be just about the music; it has to be a full-on media blitz. And while there’s not a lot for me in The Weeknd’s music, I respect the hell out of what he does with the overall presentation.
Until Universal Hollywood Horror Nights made a house themed to his music, I had no idea that “Blinding Lights” was part of a whole horror-themed concept album, with a series of interconnected videos about fame, image, self-image, and the evils of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Part of that is the video for “Too Late,” which has a pair of plastic surgery-obsessed women finding The Weeknd’s decapitated head in the middle of the road and then taking it home to have sex with it. (And not to tell them their business, but completely unnecessarily murdering a stripper to attach to Mr Weeknd’s head. Even though the things they were doing didn’t even require him to have a body. So wasteful).
The music doesn’t really grab me, but that video was one of the few things in modern pop music that was genuinely able to shock middle-aged me. Are they even allowed to show that kind of thing?!