Pop tart Katy Perry, who started her professional career as a contemporary Christian singer, recently made history as the first female artist to score five No. 1 hits off of a single album. The last album to do that was none other than Michael Jackson’s "Bad." However, nearly a quarter century ago Jackson’s radio domination resulted in the sale of over 30 million copies of "Bad," while Perry’s "Teenage Dream" hasn’t even cracked the two million mark. What has happened to the juggernaut that was the pop music business?
Much has been made of the obvious impact piracy has had on the industry. And it’s true that illegal acquisition of tunes has contributed to the reduction of what was a $17-billion annual business to something near $7 billion. But is it just piracy that is responsible for this massive decline? Or is it possible that the audience just doesn’t care as much about buying music as it once did? Maybe the mainstream wasn’t giving people what they wanted and when their market monopoly ended their customers checked out.
Both "Bad" and "Teenage Dream" are true examples of the genius technological skill of recording engineers, pop songwriters and mainstream music marketing teams. Jackson took the “all things to all people” approach from "Thriller" to logical and commercial extremes, appealing to adult contemporary, pop, urban and even some rock fans with his project, while Perry zeroed in on the over-produced radio pop format for hers. Though certainly sexual in nature, Jackson’s effort managed some kind of pseudo-moral core as it pounded out the hooks. “Man in the Mirror” (one of the few tracks not written by Jackson,) made people feel good about liking the King of Pop.
Perry, on the other hand, uses her impressive voice, obvious performance skills and considerable physical appeal to peddle candy-coated ditties about casual sex and partying. Even though Perry comes off as “positive” compared to, say, Lady Gaga, her music is devoid of conscience, purpose, or thought. It is homogenized, chemically engineered, musical junk food of the highest order. It is scientifically designed to be commercially successful - and on the airwaves it has been - but it doesn’t seem that too many people care enough about it to bother to buy it.
The long-delayed launch of music subscription service Spotify grabbed headlines weeks ago as 1.5 million people rushed to download the free app that would let them stream just about any music they could possibly want for free or cheap. Who needs mainstream radio when we can all program our own stations and hear exactly what we want, when we want? Radio, once the most powerful gatekeeper in the music world, is losing its reason for being. Meanwhile, "Sigh No More" - a thoughtful, spiritual, independent project from Mumford and Sons, an English folk group with members who were once worship leaders - has sold more copies than Perry’s collection of mega-hits.
The fact that Mumford is outselling Perry - with a tiny fraction of her exposure - is good news for people who believe music can, or even should, have a redemptive point to it. There are no gatekeepers left to keep people of faith and vision from adding eloquently, passionately and even prophetically to the public discussion if their craft is up to snuff.
But is anyone paying attention? I bet there are other Mumfords out there - playing all kinds of music – that are ready to offer a real, viable alternative to the vacuous tripe of Perry, the caustic nihilism of Gaga or the neurotic genius of Jackson. They’re out there in their garages and basements working out their music with fear and trembling. But in a world of all-you-can-eat music for one low price, where people have every album they ever loved and every new release right there at their fingertips, how will we find them? The haystacks are ever growing and the needles ever more rare.