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A Bold Experiment: How Pop Music Might Sound In 206507:56
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"Society 50 years from now needs its own drug."

I was on the phone with Chris Kazarian, the frontman for the Boston-based soul-pop band The Frotations. I could picture him clearly in that moment: tousled Afro standing on end, eyes shining. I was on a quest -- using the powers of journalism -- to predict what popular music would sound like in 50 years. I called Kazarian because I wanted him to compose the song of the future (his attempt is in the video above).

That moment, as nutty as it sounds now, exemplifies the difficulty -- the absurdity? -- of the project. I had thought that by interviewing experts -- academics, music critics and industry insiders -- I could paint a pretty plausible picture of the coming popular music landscape.

Tasked with actually putting the ideas into practice, and not just to speculate about changing distribution systems and digital technologies, Kazarian’s ideas were at once more concrete and more expressive than my own. Pretty soon we were inventing drugs and making grandiose statements like, “Social media is our generation’s heroin.”

Kazarian, 25, wondered: Who would the pop stars of the future be? What would they be singing about? What would be the emotional tone of these songs?

Chris Kazarian performs his "song of the future" at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Chris Kazarian performs his "song of the future" at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Kazarian pointed out that pop music often pushes the boundaries of what is considered “good taste” -- curse words are more common in pop lyrics now, though they still largely get bleeped. Drug references have long been ubiquitous. Pop is sometimes the site of progressive politics, too. We are beginning to hear mainstream music engage overtly with queer themes: R&B singer Frank Ocean came out as bisexual in 2012, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ pro-gay marriage anthem, “Same Love,” became a hit in 2013. In 2065, will gender-non-conforming pop stars like Conchita, the Austrian winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, become the norm?

And what will be the mood among young people? Ke$ha’s 2012 song “Die Young” implores us to “make the most of the night/ Cause we’re gonna die young,” while Ne-Yo sings about blowing all his money at the club instead of paying his rent in Pitbull’s 2014 tune “Time Of Our Lives:” “I got just enough/ To get off in this club/ Have me a good time/ Before my time is up.” If global warming continues toward crisis, will youths of the future be despairing, nihilistic, defiant?

And what, I wondered, would be likely to remain constant in pop music as time went on? A skim through the radio dial today reveals a music industry as intent on mining cultural nostalgia as identifying the next hip sound; for every Skrillex remix there is a Mark Ronson-penned “Uptown Funk!

We still like choruses and bridges and danceable beats. It is easy to imagine that these tastes could endure for the next 50 years.

Even the songs that sound of-the-moment tend to stick to conventional pop structure and harmonic movement. The No. 1 song on the year-end Billboard Hot 100 in 1964 was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. In 2014, it was Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Both songs feature the same blithe, cheery tone and swingy hand-clap punctuation. In the past 50 years, we haven’t developed a taste for 15-minute-long songs or excruciating dissonances. We still like choruses and bridges and danceable beats. It is easy to imagine that these tastes could endure for the next 50 years.

At the same time, we can hear how dramatically the production value and texture of pop has changed in the past five decades, plus the influence of huge, genre-disrupting phenomenon like rock and hip-hop. Other shifts have been more subtle: We are still singing about love, though we are a little more likely to acknowledge the existence of sex; although we still like to dance, now we throw our hands in the air instead of doing the twist.

'More Niches That Can Thrive'

To find out what music consumption habits might be in the future, I met with Panos Panay, managing director of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship. Panay is a fit Cypriot with a closely cropped beard and an alert bearing. He founded and later sold the music promotion company Sonicbids, and is enamored with the future and all its manifold possibilities.

Panay spoke about “the explosion of the Internet of Things. We’re moving beyond just computers, but everything from our thermostat, to my blinds at home, are controlled by a computer. My lighting at home is controlled by an app," he said. "But as the Internet of Things becomes more ubiquitous, and as artificial intelligence is beginning to make predictive assumptions about things we like and begins to service them to us, what impact will that have on the discovery of music?”

According to Panay, when computers start to think like people, they will be able to make predictions about what we like in a far more intuitive way than the blunt algorithmic manner of, say, Pandora. And compared with humans, they'll be able to more quickly and efficiently parse all the musical information available online — something Spotify and similar streaming services are still not able to do very well.

Maybe computers will be able to sense our emotions, or our needs, and make suggestions based on those. Our listening habits will become more personalized, and niches will proliferate. “Do I think the mainstream will shrink and shrink and shrink, just like it’s been shrinking?” Panay asked. “Yes.”

Curious to see what someone from the Internet radio world might have to add to this exploration, I called up Glenn McDonald, an engineer at Spotify and creator of the genre-tracking website Every Noise At Once. He offered a similar prediction.

“When your only way was radio, you had at most as many niches as frequencies on the FM dial. And so you couldn’t go any finer than that," McDonald said. "Anything that couldn’t support a station, you couldn’t address those people. And so effectively in the future, the number of frequencies can expand. There’s no technical constraint on it anymore."

McDonald continued: "But you still have the problem of finding people -- there’s still an attention economy to deal with, and you can only put so much marketing attention into any one thing. So I expect it will fan out more and there will be more niches that can thrive. And I think we’ve seen that in the past 20 years with the proliferation of subgenres of dance music that exist because there are clubs and DJs that provide a vector for those things to reach their very particular audiences.”

At the same time, McDonald did not see the mainstream disappearing altogether. “I think people at various times have declared there’s no center anymore,” he said. “So far my impression is that’s never exactly panned out. The nature of what is the center changes a little bit, but there’s still this heavy focus, this heavyweight on some things.”

In the future, industry pressures could create more incentives to make music that is shocking or unexpected, epic and in-your-face.

McDonald also predicted an increase in novelty hits. “‘Gangnam Style’ is a good example,” he said, referring to the 2012 global viral hit by the South Korean singer Psy. “The conditions for that to happen now make that much more likely. And you know, there were strange international novelty hits in 1952, too. But they were much rarer, and I expect that to become almost routine.”

What McDonald was getting at, I think, is the potential for streaming-based listening to intensify and accelerate the hit-making process. If the mainstream truly shrinks and niches proliferate -- that is, if the most popular songs represent a smaller percentage of all music than they do now -- then the struggle to stand out will only increase. Economically, the streaming model disproportionally rewards the popular artists on big labels and makes it difficult for artists on indie labels to earn significant money. In the future, these pressures could create more incentives to make music that is shocking or unexpected, epic and in-your-face: novel.

Discovery Process Broadens

In addition, the Internet and streaming are changing the way artists are discovered. Record companies still sign artists and develop them, but platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud and Spotify have provided new routes to success -- like former YouTube star Justin Bieber and now Shawn Mendes, a Vine sensation who was recently signed to Universal.

Steve Blatter, senior vice president and general manager of music programming at Sirius XM Radio, was quoted in a recent Billboard article describing how this phenomenon has influenced what finds its way onto the radio.

"The A & R [artists and repertoire] process has been flattened," Blatter said in the article. "Ten, 15 years ago, when it came to discovery, we were almost solely reliant on people ... at record companies to identify music that they thought we'd be interested in and then we'd consider for airplay. That still happens, but now you can get on a computer, spend an hour and discover some of the most amazing music out there. At Sirius XM, we find it everywhere. It's not just all coming through the pipeline of major labels."

It's tantalizing, the notion that the music discovery process at pop music stations -- or their futuristic equivalent -- is broadening. Could it mean that artists deemed by label executives to be too risky or strange will have a better chance in the future? Perhaps, even as the mainstream narrows, its sounds will become more diverse.

“T-Pain makes more sense to me than any other artist out there because he was willing to explore humanity through technology.”

That’s Prince Charles Alexander, a professor at Berklee College of Music and a Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer known for his work with P. Diddy and Alicia Keys. I spoke to him hoping that he could help me envision technology’s impact on music-making.

Alexander brought up the pop singer T-Pain’s signature use of auto-tune, which has been both loudly lauded and disparaged, as an example of how a pop artist’s technological experimentations can be viewed as both progressive and transgressive.

We also discussed the impact of electronic musicians on popular music. “Harmony, rhythm and melody have been superseded from the ‘80s on by the concept of timbrality,” Alexander said.

“Timbre” refers to the character of a sound, as opposed to its pitch or volume. A saxophone and a violin can play the exact same note at the exact same volume, but their different timbres render them distinct. A “simple” timbre refers to a single frequency with no overtones, but pretty much every sound in nature -- the gurgle of running water, the twang of a guitar string, the human voice -- are the result of sound waves containing multiple frequencies, and are thus described as having “complex timbre.”

Electronic musicians have the ability to manipulate these frequencies in a particularly detailed and intentional way. Instead of, say, trying out different guitar strings or amplifiers, they can tinker directly with frequency.

Alexander pointed out that electronic dance music (EDM) artists are “pushing the envelope in terms of what does timbrality actually mean, what does it suggest. ... A bass, a vocal, a keyboard -- all these can be explored in ways that, like I said, we haven’t heard yet. And they are going to sound ridiculous to us. Like rock sounded ridiculous to people who were conventional musicians in the ‘50s, just like hip-hop sounded ridiculous to conventional musicians in the ‘80s. … It [will] probably sound so strange, like three songs playing at one time.

“The reason I think like this,” Alexander explained, “is because I hated hip-hop when I first heard it. I thought it was a joke.

“The speed of delivery of information is going to speed up,” he added. “You know how the Twitter generation has the Twitter feed going by really quickly? And the average 50-, 60-year-old person is like, ‘Whoa whoa, slow down.’ So imagine music, and harmonic complexity and rhythmic complexity, getting to the point where it becomes as dense as a Twitter news feed.”

In trying to predict the future, what we really want to know is whether we will like it.

I should add that Alexander made these predictions only with a lot of pressure from me. Like all of my interview subjects, he was understandably hesitant to make too sweeping a prophecy lest it turn out to be totally off-base. He also voiced a worry that conservatory-trained musicians, like those he teaches at Berklee, were out of touch with popular music.

“What I think should happen is that musicians should come down off their high horse and investigate all relevant technology, and be able to express themselves as well as the hip-hop kid that opens up the drum machine and makes a banger that his neighborhood loves within two weeks of him holding that drum machine,” Alexander added.

Whether Alexander is right to worry is beside the point. But his anxiety is relatable. We imagine that as time marches forward, progress is inevitable. Yet we also fear that it is not. The music industry has shrunk — will it collapse? Will auto-tune render the human voice irrelevant? Will popular music still offer us joy, comfort, a shared experience?

In trying to predict the future, what we really want to know is whether we will like it. Or if instead, at age 80, when we connect our hearing aids to the Internet radio, we will sigh to ourselves and think, “They just don’t make music like they did when I was a kid.”

In the end, Kazarian wrote and recorded a futuristic earworm entitled, “How Good the Cold Feels.”

A video performance of the song is atop this post. Here's his original:

“This one is built on a quasi-post apocalyptic theory,” Kazarian wrote in an email. “Where global warming has essentially won, and the main character uses a smokeable drug to escape the heat.”

“When we both grow old/ Will the Earth have died?” Kazarian croons, before soaring into the chorus: “You don’t know/ How good the cold feels.” The verses swim in a shimmering ambient bath, but the chorus crackles delicately with humming synths.

There is a lurching, propulsive quality to the percussion; when the song surges into the chorus, it does not drop into a hard, pulsating beat like you might expect from a pop hit today, but instead seems to hover, straining toward a climax that is never reached.

“How Good the Cold Feels” balances novelty-song slickness and electronic strangeness. The hook -- “You don’t know” -- is singable and simple, and almost arbitrary on its own, so that listeners may project their own meanings onto it. And the song is appropriately epic; after all, as Kazarian remarked during one of our brainstorming sessions, “Things consistently get flashier and more awesome.”

Throughout “How Good the Cold Feels,” Kazaraian mostly left the lead vocals unmodified. But he created the synths by recording, altering and layering his own voice -- an extension of T-Pain’s auto-tune treatment. Kazarian pictures a future in which auto-tune “becomes more malleable, and people are using it as an expressive tool,” and not just a way to fix their flawed singing.

Chris Kazarian performs his “song of the future” at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Chris Kazarian performs his “song of the future” at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

He also imagines that instruments and electronic tools will merge and become more user-friendly. “We’re at the stage, maybe in the [1930s], where electric guitars were starting to rear their heads and people didn’t quite get it," Kazarian explained. "That’s where we’re at with electronic music, where still there’s a lot of programming.  You have to have your head in the game with programming if you want to be able to use this stuff and have access to it.”

“How Good the Cold Feels” does not contain quite the level of sonic density that Alexander predicted. “Initially I had a bunch of effects on the vocals and all this other stuff,” Kazarian told me. “And I was kind of going through it and going, ‘Aw man, this kind of sounds to me like what people in the ‘70s and ‘80s were thinking would be futuristic at that time.’ Just covered and over-saturated. And so I pulled some of that stuff back. There are these underlying things that make music music, and make people like it, where there needs to be a certain level of simplicity to it. If it does get too heady in any kind of way, [or] it gets over-technical, you lose people.”

Initially, I had asked Kazarian to try to come up with a sonic trope that might define pop music in 50 years, similar to the way hip-hop beats have become ubiquitous in Top 40 or EDM bass drops are all the rage right now. He ended up discarding the idea, perhaps because it felt too amorphous, too vast, too requiring of a clairvoyance that humans may never posses. The problem with imagining the future is that anything you come up with is, by its very nature, a product of the present.

Who could have predicted rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop before they happened? The shift was seismic. Who could have foreseen The Beatles or Michael Jackson? Their marks were permanent. Looking back, everything, from punk to the swing revival to bluegrass to disco, seems the result of destiny. But maybe nothing is truly inevitable. So much comes down to chance.

In the future, anything is possible. “You don’t know.” No one does.

Rebecca Sananes contributed to this report. Thanks to the Artists For Humanity EpiCenter for hosting our music video shoot.

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