Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and the misnomer of hit singles

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.

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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.

Aside from the all-you-can-eat-for-one-low-price approach of Spotify and the (probably highly overstated) effects of piracy, I think the answer is, in part, encoded in the problem. Katy Perry has produced a collection of singles, so people buy *the singles*; Michael Jackson produced a cohesive album, and even in a time when people were buying singles (granted, to a far lesser extent), they bought his *album*. Her sales don’t show up on the album bottom line; his did.

When people can buy only the songs they want—all thriller, no filler—“artists” like Perry are going to way, way undersell on their albums. And true artists like Mumford and Sons, who continue to put together cohesive albums and release strong songs from those albums as singles, will continue to soak up those album sales.

“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?”

Simple. Noisetrade.com

Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with Noisetrade, but I am friends with one its co-founders.

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 same way people have always found good music, a way that’s only becoming more powerful in the age of social media: Friends will recommend good music to them. 

I know my friends, and I know what kind of music they like—so if I come across a new band or singer that I think they’d enjoy, I send it their way. They do the same for me. 

Cheaper digital recording equipment is putting the ability to record, mix, and master high-quality music in the hands of more and more people, rather than requiring a million-dollar studio to put out an album that sounds halfway decent.

The “traditional gatekeepers,” whose corporate-based preferences once told everyone What They Should Be Listening To and essentially shut out all but the big (5/4/3) record companies, are going the way of the dodo.

And because I don’t have to worry about “can I find this in my local record store?” if I hear a new band I like, it means I can buy not just their current music—which, particularly for bands that haven’t “made it big” yet, wouldn’t have been in Tower Records—but also to their entire back catalog if I find that I really enjoy it and want to hear more. And things like the Amazon MP3 store and iTunes make it so that I can easily, and happily, pay them for the music they’ve made.
And all that, I think, is only a good thing for people who like making—and listening to—good music.

I appreciate what Derek Webb did.  When he started to realize that downloading was here to stay, instead of sending lawyers after his customers, he started giving away his albums and giving those customers permission to distribute them to one another.  Suddenly, what started happening?  Well, he sold deluxe packages of his albums, including books, downloads and t-shirts to those who spent the extra money.  As a result, more people knew of him and started coming to his concerts.  When artists appeal to peoples’ integrity instead of their baser instincts, they discover that people will pay to hear them.

Entire communities of fans are finding music they love online, purchasing it, sharing it, and increasing it’s popularity by word of mouth. Just about every other day someone posts a link on facebook to an artist I’ve never heard.

Small concert venues are filling up for bands no one ever heard on the commercial radio. Artists within a specific genre are promoting one another to their fans.

Affordable software and ever improving technology is allowing more and more artists are producing their own music and putting it out there without having to be signed to a studio.

Independent bands are out there and they are gaining fans every day. I love it!

Not to get too hyperbolic here but ... 

... it’s so encouraging to me to read a Christian article intelligently discusses music, art, and technology in a nuanced way. Thanks for that.

I like Mumford & Sons but want to know why they had to follow the trend of having unnecessary swearing in some of their songs.  It is better music than much of what is being produced—but should not their vocabularies reflect some redemptive aspects as well?

...and I say this as a father who can’t rock out to some of their songs with my children in tow!

I believe “Little Lion Man” is the only song with swearing in it. Correct me if I’m wrong. IMHO, it’s not their best song anyway. Still, it’s confusing to me as well why, right in the middle of such a rich, spiritually satisfying album, they have to stick in a song with the f word in it. I can’t figure it out, either. I’d like to ask them someday.

My guess is that they include the word because it’s honest. I don’t see why musicians should shy away from a serious portrayal of their true thoughts and feelings just because it includes a naughty word—and moreover, I find the strain in Christian culture that assumes that anything not fit for a child’s ears isn’t fit for anyone’s ears really problematic. Is there something inherent to the “f word” that makes it necessarily incompatible with a “redemptive aspect” to the music?

That said, I heard a radio edit of “Little Lion Man” that silences out the offending word. I don’t know if it’s available on iTunes, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.

“G” and anyone else offended by the official version can go to You Tube and search for “Little Lion Man messed up version”. It is not available on itunes. You will see the difference in emotional depth but it does become family listening. 

I had never heard this song until I noticed the post last night and would normally agree that swearing in songs is not necessary. I could not believe the raw power of this song of confession and the bridge is amazing. I think it is supposed to make you feel dirty because the song is sung from a dark honest raw confession of guilt. It is like sandpaper on the nerves relieved by the grace of the bridge.
The bridge ah….ah ....AH .. rises out of that confession with no resolution except the a further acceptance of the singers own guilt. No excuses, No requesting forgiveness or absolution. (That is my interpretation for what it is worth)Have you ever seen the dark place in your soul where you don’t think you have any right to ask God or anyone else for forgiveness? “I messed up” just doesn’t cut it. The lead singer has a personal story behind this song that he doesn’t share. I hope some day he will find the courage to share that story.

One of the great things about the itunes is that you can buy the songs individually and load the iPod for walking separate from what you play for the kids.

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