K-Pop, Despacito and the lack of originality in modern music

Let us begin with K-Pop. South Korean “popular” music, which is actually a unique hybrid of many genres like hip-hop, electronic dance, folk and others. It can be traced back to the ’90s. But it really blew up in the span of the past couple of years. There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t have an opinion on it. It’s a religion to some people and the manifestation of society’s failure to others.

Music is subjective, but there is objectivity in everything.

Some things do distinguish modern music from music of the past. Are those good or bad things?  One can simply say “K-pop is the worst kind of music” and many would agree, many wouldn’t. Opinions can be right or wrong, but how do the facts weigh in? How hypocritical is it to bash K-pop for being foreign, unintelligible and its overuse of suggestive dance moves, while listening to pop songs in Spanish? Let’s try to analyze music from a neutral perspective.

What makes a difference?

Probably K-Pop fans make more sense than the average listener. K-Pop has a certain exoticness and a distinct aesthetic. It is unique, it stands apart. Which is more than what can be said about the stuff the average listener listens to.

Chart-topping songs of today have many things in common. The most distinct of which is ironically, their commonality. The Spanish National Research Council conducted research on over 500,000 tracks from 1955-2015, running each song through a complex and meticulous set of algorithms. They tested three metrics, the harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness (more on that later). The first two metrics in simple terms mean the richness, diversity and quality of sound in the music. The research states that diversity in the context of timbre and harmony peaked in the ’60s, and has been declining ever since.

Answer: The difference

In more relatable terms, listening to the radio, have you ever thought to yourself that every popular song sounds the same? Well, because they do. Let us compare pop songs from the past to modern pop. You had The Beach Boys and their album Pet Sounds. They used orchestra instruments, bicycle bells, flutes, coca cola cans, barking dogs and Hawaiian instruments in the composition for each song. For reference, listen to “Wouldn’t it be nice” or “Kokomo”.  Against that, you have any chart-topper today, where the music can be attributed to the use of a drum machine, a keyboard and mostly a computer.

To some that might sound like progress. To a critique, it sounds like musicians are becoming less explorative and creative. Try to find one billboard topping single that doesn’t use a variation of the vocal cue “Wa-oh, Wa-oh”, also called the millennial whoop. This is one of the cardinal reasons all songs sound the same nowadays. And it isn’t restricted to musical cues either. You might be shocked to know that the majority of chart-topping pop songs from the past 20 years has been written by just two people, songwriters Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

Consider the song “When the Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin’s rendition of it. The band used a former poorhouse in Hampshire, England called “Headley Grange” to record parts of the song, because one of the staircases had a certain acoustic reverb. Imagine going that far. Against musicians writing their own songs and finding the perfect way to record it, today you have factory manufactured tracks for a popular musician to add their nice voice to. Against the originality, creativity and dedication like that, you have the same tried and tested formulaic songs being repackaged and presented as this month’s hot stuff.

The case of Despacito

If you want to ask why, it’s because our brain likes familiar things. When you are thinking that you’ve heard this brand-new release before, your brain is recognizing the same pattern it saw in virtually every other pop song. While you feel like the song is “catchy”, the brain is convincing you the song is good because it is familiar. Thus, people listen to music of a language they don’t even understand, music that they’ve listened to so many times before, only because it is catchy, and unknowingly, the same. Like Despacito.

Are we to blame? Limited attention spans

All of that makes musicians sound like very opportunistic people. But do we share some responsibility? The human attention span has drastically decreased over the past decade, which has factored into our music choice. Almost nobody listens to music for the sake of listening or enjoying themselves anymore. They listen to music that’s easy, music you can play on your way to work.  Facilitated by thousands of tracks on demand, we tend to flick through songs if we don’t like how long it takes to set in. Not many would sit through an 8-minute track to appreciate the subtle nuances of something like the track “Roundabout”. Musicians and record companies have thus resorted to shorter and louder songs with punchy basslines to demand our attention, and keep it.

The advent of dubstep is an example. The most enticing part of the song, the Hook, is being used sooner and more frequently throughout a track.

Moreover, producers have tried to make their songs sound louder to grab your attention. Although the volume control is in the user’s hands, producers have used compression to make quieter parts of a track match the loud parts, making the overall song sound louder. What this does is inevitably decrease a song’s quality and variety of music. Therefore, you have similar sounding, unimaginative pop songs, sometimes about butts.

So, think again

Make of all this information what you will. You might call the phenomena progress, you might call it evil incarnate. Studies indicate that music today is less diverse and creative than that of the past. Uniqueness and imagination are rare traits in modern music. So, the next time you rag on someone for listening to K-Pop, just pay attention to what you happen to be listening to on the radio.

Want to become a beatboxer? Moktadir Dewan, co-founder of Beatbox Bangladesh shares valuable advice

We spoke to the Co-founder of Beatbox Bangladesh, Moktadir Dewan. He shares an overview of the scene, their future plans and gives valuable advice to anyone new to beatboxing or someone wanting to get better.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most common style that is being explored by local artists?

The common styles would be trap, dubstep, techno, and house. But the core styles are old school beats. Depending on the beatboxer’s knowledge he/she can fuse multiple genres. There are over a 1000 beatboxers of different calibres in Bangladesh (as opposed to maybe a handful or less just 8 years ago).

How many shows has Beatbox Bangladesh had since their inception in 2014?

Since then, Beatbox Bangladesh has organized several events and workshops in Dhaka and Chittagong. The two main events are the national beatbox championships that took place in December 2017 and November 2018. We plan to hold various beatbox meets, friendly battles and other events.

When you are searching for beatboxers for the competition, what is the biggest challenge in finding talent?

The biggest challenge is to find beatboxers with a clean flow. One common habit that sadly exists in all genres and communities in Bangladesh (and perhaps in many countries), is that individuals believe that they can skip to advanced techniques, without mastering the basics. Beatboxers need to remember the importance of having a proper sense of rhythm and composition.

Fortunately, we found over 40 beatboxers who knew that, for each competition. 16 competed at each battle. We are hoping as the community grows and with each year, the talent will be more formidable. Beatboxers from previous events are also trying to help others grow and support each other. Some are learning through more research.  We also hold workshops and live video tutorials along in addition to the tutorials on our youtube channel.

How does the local community support you?

Locally, we received help from LMG Beats, Glitch, Ujjiban, ABC Radio, The Mothership, Jadughor, ShopHobe, BeatsBangla, Desi Hip Hop and many others. Tilok Adnan and Shafiq Alam of The Pod helped us build the Beatbox Bangladesh logo and the brand identity of “Battle Box BD”. The brand identity was even nominated at the Spikes Asia 2018

Battlebox BD also got international support. What kind of support was that and how was that?

It was overwhelming. We received support from two major hubs of the beatboxing community: Swissbeatbox and Humanbeatbox.com. Both Pepouni and Kazu from the respective communities have been supportive. They announced our work on their social media platforms and websites. Human beatbox followed both the battles; the breakdown was highlighted on their website. 

Other communities and crews have helped as well, namely Beatbox Australia, Beatbox France, Portuguese Beatbox and The Beatbox House. Professional beatboxers Napom (USA), Gene (USA), Amit (USA), Kenny Urban (USA), Chris Celiz (USA), Ibarra (Netherlands), Ettoman (Japan), D-koy (USA) and Tioneb (France), gave shout-outs or video messages on our Facebook page and Youtube page.

The local beatboxers get personal advice from beatboxers abroad. Amit (from the USA) was a judge at our first Battle Box BD in 2017. He also facilitated a workshop at the EMK Center in Dhanmondi. Soulrock from Germany is one of the first beatboxers to personally come and teach the local community.

Want to become a beatboxer? Moktadir Dewan, co-founder of Beatbox Bangladesh shares valuable advice
Scenes from Battle Box BD 2017

Any advice for someone who is interested in starting beatboxing?

Well, he or she has to be extremely patient. Initially, it might seem tough to make the distinctive sounds with your mouth. But, when it is done properly it becomes easy and quite fun. Beatboxers need to practice daily with a metronome no matter how good they may think they already are. We encourage the beatboxers to abstain from smoking or doing drugs. They must have good stamina and healthy lungs.

Any beatboxer needs to do research on the background of beatboxing and the origin of the sounds. She needs to learn about the instruments we mimic and try new sounds. Youtube and the internet exists, which means there is absolutely no excuses and plenty of resources to learn from.

Gather knowledge, stay humble. Teach what you know and learn what you don’t know. Bangladesh isn’t a place where one can chase fame just by beatboxing. But, things can and will happen if a beatboxer builds himself or herself, beat by beat, from the ground up.

What is next for Ronesh Biswas and Moktadir Dewan Shanto?

We will be busy with doing activities to help spread and build the beatboxing community around the country. We have found beatboxers in Bogura, Sylhet, Gazipur, Narayanganj, Cox’s Bazaar and are hoping to meet more in Barishal, Khulna, Rajshahi, and other places.

We will be uploading original compositions and shout-outs from participants of the battle, to our youtube channel. We hope to organize more beatboxer meet-ups, a 7toSmoke battle, friendly battles, open mic showcases, crew/tag-team performance, etc.