Robert Hsu | Why music has hit a low note

The Casual Observer | Artists today have forgotten the true meaning of music

· January 24, 2012, 11:42 pm   ·  Updated February 7, 2012, 11:48 pm

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Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

I am a music snob and a proud one.

Real singers possess vocal talent, do not lip-sync and have a unique identity. Unfortunately, these characteristics are hard to come by. In recent years, the number of superficial musicians has increased faster than Ke$ha can chug a bottle of Jack.

What do artists like Katy Perry, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears have in common? They are all cash cows waiting to be milked dry by the recording labels that care more about the masses than the music itself.

Music today has reached an all-time low.

Perhaps I sound bitter because I lack any musical ability, but that is not the case. I took piano and violin lessons for a combined 17 years, so I do know a little about music.

Although I grew up mostly surrounded by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, I did uncover some universal truths about music. Notes were never just there for you to play, they were meant to be interpreted with integrity. A performer’s goal was to play notes according to the composer and infuse them with his or her unique vision.

I may be a disillusioned music-purist who needs to face the music, but I see a troubling trend that is set to ruin an art form I revere greatly.

Most artists today are plastic dolls, engineered to stroke the eyes and ears of the person who picks them up. But Spears — the most plastic of them all — is more than just a singing computer spitting out senseless words that have been polished using auto tune. She has also been transformed into a consumer product meant only to make money, with no concern for attaining artistic merit.

Spears’ songs have barely evolved over her long career. We only continue to purchase her “music” because of its addictive dance appeal. While Spears has raked in millions as a performer, I wonder if she has actually made anything off of being a real artist.

Cliche lyrics glorifying sex, drugs and alcohol plague the work of many artists, which means that a crucial aspect of creativity has been lost. Songs like Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” have become as predictable and as cheesy romantic comedies.

Music has come to a point at which anyone can follow a tested formula to achieve popularity. Hollywood actresses Selena Gomez and Lindsay Lohan, for example, have slipped into the music scene with little talent or artistry. Their goal is not to create great music, but to put on a puppet show to increase their popularity. Music is no longer really about expressing oneself. Instead, it’s turned into an artist’s slam piece to achieve more Facebook likes and YouTube views.

When artists do venture into the perilous territory of creating music that represents their personal values, emotional struggles and personality, they are immediately shot down by record labels fearing that their music will be less commercially appealing.

Teddy Guenin, an Engineering and Wharton freshman in Glee Club, commented on the song development process: “Many artists today hire professional songwriters to craft their songs because they are assured that they will make money and succeed. Sadly, the downside to this is that the music that sells, which isn’t even written by the artists themselves, will eventually pervade our society.”

But is it fair to just blame the artist who sells out, or should the record labels that manufacture these artists also be held accountable? I believe both parties are guilty as charged.

Artists function like businesses because they respond to their listeners’ tastes. With this, however, they run the risk of letting their fans control their artistic direction.

Perhaps a compromise can be made to this frequently filed complaint. To gain roots in a competitive world, artists should be encouraged to sell themselves in their debut album. After they achieve some initial success, record labels should collaborate with artists to develop their songwriting skills, vocals and ability to communicate their emotions through a song.

If popular music continues on this downward spiral, it risks alienating one purist at a time. This one already has one foot out of the door.

Robert Hsu, is a College and Wharton freshman from Novi, Mich. His email address is rohsu@sas.upenn.edu. The Casual Observer appears every other Friday.

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