Top 40 Addicts: Hooked on Pop

Back when I was an active alcoholic -- who thought about drinking, what to drink, and the next time I could drink during every moment I was not drinking -- I believed that anything done sober was a little colorless: Why hang out with friends when I can hang out with friends and get drunk? Why watch a movie when I can watch a movie and get high and MST3K the whole thing in a self-righteous snark-a-thon while I'm at it? Lately, it occurs to me that, in fact, this is a terrible but also thoroughly contemporary attitude.

After all, we all know that these days most of us have the attention spans of gnats. We have no tolerance for commercials, no tolerance for saving before buying, and no tolerance for focus -- Why just drive when you can drive and text?! Why just watch TV when you can watch TV and listen to your iPod and surf the Web and talk on the phone? Instead of addicting ourselves to toxic chemicals like booze and cocaine like normal biological beings, we are instead addicting ourselves to everything, anything, all of it, right now. It has become so pervasive that most of us won't even tolerate a pop song on the radio unless it delivers a neurological rush in tiny electric waves of synaptic pleasure within seven seconds.

Earlier this year, journalist John Seabrook looked at the back-end of the pop music machine, confirming our impending boredom at any given moment, in the New Yorker:

It's not enough to have one hook anymore," Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation... told me recently. "You've got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge." The reason, he explained, is that "people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them."

Sheesh. And don't forget that all of this hooking is also comprised of nothing more than digitized "synths," computer-generated sounds that have no relationship to actual instruments. (No one, apparently, gets high on acoustic guitar -- at least not in less than seven seconds. Sorry Indigo Girls!) Meanwhile, the producers at Roc the Mic, like good dealers, want to hook you and keep you hooked until you're practically listening to nothing but one Rihanna song over and over again until you snap (or your roommate does), because "writing songs for any reason other than making hits is a waste of time." I mean, why drink unless you're gonna get drunk, right? And even the industry's language is drenched in the lingo of addiction -- with hooks, hits, and smashes all ready to invade your brain and ensure you crave nothing but "Na-na-na-na" (actual Rihanna "lyrics") all summer in a Barbados-born accent.

If needing a seven-second fix before changing the dial isn't bad enough, we also prefer our hooks to be dark and moody. The University of Toronto's Glenn Schellenberg surveyed every Top 40 hit from 1965 through to 2009. Every hit in 1965 was upbeat and in a major key; think, Petula Clark's "I Know a Place." By 2009, the majority were in a minor key -- "the official sound of complexity and sadness"; think, T.I. and Justin Timberlake's "Dead and Gone." You see, even though we can't bear to listen to music without a shot of hook for more than seven seconds at a crack, we also like to think we are smart (defensive much, America?):

Unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliche. If you think of children's music like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'The Wheels on the Bus,' those are all fast and major, and so there's a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there's a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naivete.

Of course, fast major-key songs are not necessarily happy. And complex minor-key songs are not necessarily brooding and intelligent. But -- ha! -- it might take eight seconds to figure that out. And who has the time? Just press play, before I get the shakes.