George Orwell predicted 21st-century pop music

The sales of George Orwell 1984 have soared in the first months after Donald Trump’s election. But Orwell’s 1984 was prescient not only in its prediction of newspeak. Orwell also happened to predict what 21st-century pop music would sound like. Here’s a description of popular music in Orwell’s dystopia:

“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.”

And this description should ring particularly true to us, as we have already partially delegated the job of writing pop music to computers.

“Music and radio executives were using computer programs to forecast listeners’ habits. (…) a program called Hit Song Science that analyzed the mathematical characteristics of a tune and predicted its popularity. By comparing the tempo, pitch, melody, chord progression and other factors of a particular song against the thousands of hits stored in Polyphonic HMI’s database, Hit Song Science could deliver a score that forecasted if a tune was likely to succeed.’ (Charles Duhigg Power of Habit )

Even if they were not created with the help of computers, most modern pop songs use an incredibly repetitive combination of chords. A comedy group called Axis of Awesome has revealed the 4 chords that are behind an impressive number of popular songs – if you haven’t listened to them yet by all means do, they are hilarious

The constant recycling of the same four chords might have the not entirely unexpected side-effect that two hit songs may sound almost exactly the same. Take for example Sara Bareilles “Brave” and Katy Perry’s “Roar”. Almost every popular song in the last few years has included something called the millennial whoop, the details of which are described here…

I would like to point out that it’s not just the chords of modern songs that are somewhat repetitive. The sentiments expressed by usually pop songs and the phrases used to describe those sentiments also tend to be incredibly similar.

Just imagine yourself as a hero or heroine of a pop-song-love-story, made from the most popular phrases of some of the most popular pop songs. Statistically speaking you should encounter your future beloved in a club, surrounded by strangers and listening to appropriately loud pop music.

Now, if she does it like this
Will you do it like that?
Now, if she touches like this
Will you touch her right back?
Now, if she moves like this
Will you move it like that?
Come on
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it
Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake itMetro Station Shake it
I see you got low,
And you got plenty more to show, (go)
Shake it like a pom pom,
Like a pom pom,
Shake it like a pom pom,
Like a pom pom, (go)
Like you tryna win a contest fa’sho,
Show you how to shake it,
How the booty shakin’,
Show you how to shake it,
See how the booty shakin’Missy Elliott Shake Your Pom Pom
I’m a desperado underneath your window.
I see your silhouette.
Are you my Juliet?
I feel a mad connection with your body.
Shake your bon-bon, shake your bon-bon, shake your bon-bon.

I wanna be your lover, your only latin lover.
We’ll go around the world in a day.
Don’t say no, no.
Shake it my way, oh shake your bon-bon,
shake your bon-bon, shake your bon-bon.

Ricky Martin Shake Your Bon-Bon

Now that your incredibly seductive shaking pom pom (bon-bon?) movements have attracted a potential partner comes sexual desire. It is usually expressed in a pop song by the verb ‘want’ (and how appropriate that is considering that the noun ‘want’ expresses a lack of something. All these songs basically endorse Socrates’s definition of love as an essential lack that needs to be fulfilled. ) Admittedly, establishing the difference between what you want and what the subject of your affections wants may cause you some trouble, which in a non-pop-song environment might lead to a lawsuit.

I know you want me (want me)
You know I want cha (want cha)
I know you want me
You know I want cha (want cha)
I know you want me (want me)
You know I want cha (want cha)
I know you want me
You know I want cha (want cha)
Pitbull  I Know You Want Me Lyrics
Good girl

I know you want it

I know you want it

I know you want it

You’re a good girl

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

Robin Thicke ft. T.I Pharrell Blurred Lines

Girl, you don’t want
I want you to want me
And if you want, hey girl, you got me
There’s nothing I know I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t do
Just to get up next youJason Derula Want you to want me
I wanna

I wanna

I wanna touch you
You wanna touch me too
Every way and when they set me free
Just put your hands on me

The All American Rejects I wanna

Then, if sadly , despite your exquisite shaking and dancing skills your beloved abandons you, and yet again you will find yourself seeking the comfort of pop music.

I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t live
I can’t give anymore
I can’t live
If living is without you
I can’t give
I can’t give anymoreMariah Carey Without You
Tell me life is beautiful,
They all think I have it all.
I’ve nothing without you.
All my dreams and all the lights mean
Nothing without you.Lana Del Rey Without You
I won’t run, I won’t fly
I will never make it by
Without you, without you
I can’t rest, I can’t fight
All I need is you and I,
Without you, without youDavid Guetta ft Usher Without You
Some people want it all
But I don’t want nothing at all
If it ain’t you, baby
If I ain’t got you, baby
Some people want diamond rings
Some just want everything
But everything means nothing
If I ain’t got you, yeahAlicia Keys If I ain’t got you

And then of course, the cycle will begin again, initiated by your phenomenal shaking skills.

I do not think these lyrics were written by a randomized versificator, although I have to admit given the quality of some of them , one is tempted to speculate on the subject…

Perhaps listening to the same combinations of chords and words over and over again has the same calming effect as rewatching the same TV show- it is calming, because one knows what to expect next. ( a phenomenon more scientifically referred to as experiential control)

Many people suggest that pop songs in themselves have no meaning to us, they only acquire meaning through the experiences that we have learned to associate with them.  One might think of Orwell’s 1984  in which the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” first symbolizes Winston’s longing for the past and then transforms its meaning into a threat in the mouth of his executioner. “Oranges and Lemons” on its own symbolizes nothing- it is simply a nursery rhyme. It is only in Winston’s mind and through his experience that it is endowed with extraordinary significance.

Even if it’s partially true that pop songs only mean something to us personally if combined with our private experience, the fact remains that many of us were listening to pop music before we started associated a given song with a given life event. We recognize the songs are mere convention: their music and their words seem to accord with certain predictable formulas. So why is it that we enjoy them so much? Perhaps the answer lies not only with the significance that we endow pop songs with with, but also in the enjoyment that we have in knowing their conventions. We know exactly what we expect from Spotify’s  and Apple’s generated 80s dance playlists, and more often than not if a song defies those expectations we will choose to skip it. It is the very formulaic nature of the pop song that shapes our enjoyment of it.

So perhaps those of us who like pop music are like the woman in Orwell’s 1984, humming along mindlessly to the tunes that have been computer-generated for our entertainment. But at least we can flatter ourselves that we know the music formula that gives us so much enjoyment…

Image credit: alphacolor 13


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