Music and Muzak

We are facing a firehose. Data spews at us from all angles, inundating us with ideas, culture, and creativity. We produce terabytes of information a year, changing the world as we know it. We are the most culturally aware generations in existence.

Or are we?

An interesting recent post on Marginal Revolution post gives lie to the idea that the world is moving faster than ever. In fact, they propose that we’re moving more slowly because our brains, doused in information daily, are exhausted. Culture does not move as fast as it once did and we are poorer for it.

“I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks,” writes an MR reader, Jesse Rifkin. Rifkin continues:

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago.

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1:

The numbers back this up. In fact, all of the longest-running songs on the Top 10 appeared in at least the past decade, from Imagine Dragons (87 weeks) to 62 weeks for “Ho Hey.” Only LeAnn Rimes rated in the top running with a song from 1998.

There are two factors at work here, I think. Billboard counts sales and radio plays. We can assume that the radio, a medium that is fairly moribund when it comes to cultural relevance, plays these top ten songs because these songs are on the top ten. This virtuous circle forces Ed Sheeran up the charts week after week even though we’re all pretty much done with that song about eating Chinese food and going to bed.

Further, there is such a long tail now that the top ten hardly matters. SoundCloud is not going out of business because it is devoid of content. Instead, new acts dump their stuff on the service and gain popularity, thereby racking up server fees for SoundCloud that it cannot sanely recoup.

So is the culture actually slowing down? Are we complacently sitting back while songs wash over us for years?

Again, yes and no. It’s an absolute crime that Imagine Dragons remained on the charts for 87 weeks. It’s an absolute crime that the worst movies make the most money. It’s an absolute crime that books barely have to sell a few thousand copies to rate on most best seller lists. And, I think, it’s an absolute crime that we turn to the Internet – mainly Facebook – for our news, entertainment, and cultural cues.

And yet. If we look at this from an evolutionary standpoint we are simply looking at the death of the old ways of doing business. That Billboard keeps Uptown Funk floating high on its list means that Billboard is probably out of touch with what people are really listening to. That big books by flashy authors launch and sink immediately ignores the power of long tail ebooks and the ability to find books on Amazon long after they’re published, giving every title a very slow burn. And that TV has resorted to reality shows about investors looking at wacky investors shows that the medium has adapted to the zeitgeist and no longer defines it.

In other words, the old ways of dumping a cultural product on every outlet all at once no longer works and is clearly no longer an important part of the industry. If it was, we would have a far more varied Billboard Top Ten.

We can mourn the death of culture or we can embrace its rebirth. While I agree that we’ve become “complacent,” I’d also argue that coming generations will have a fuller quiver of cultural touchstones than we ever imagined, even if Ed Sheeran keeps playing on every radio, in every supermarket, and through every elevator speaker. I doubt they’ll even be listening.