Last week I gave a talk at an adult learning center about the classic Girl Group sound. Most of my audience was old enough to have sung along with the songs when they filled the top-40 in the early 1960s, so my audio and video clips quickly filled the room with a thick fog of nostalgia. I was not at all surprised when I heard many people wistfully note that they just don’t make songs like these anymore.
Oh, really? How much difference is there between a song like:
And one like:
Yes, the latter is campy, and far more overtly sexual, but just like the earlier girl groups, it is pop targeted at a young, primarily female, audience. And one of my points was that the classic girl group sound could only have happened at that particular moment, because music is intimately tied to the times in which it is popular.
And these are different times.
One woman told me after the class that a friend of hers argued that today’s music all sounds the same because so much of it is produced by a small handful of people. I replied that it could be argued that today’s pop music is dominated by just one person, Max Martin. Martin has collaborated with most of the top female pop singers of the past 20 years, including Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Jessie J, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea, Ellie Goulding, Adele and Lana Del Rey; along with a number of male artists, such as Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC, Adam Lambert, solo and with Maroon 5, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd (58 top-10 hits as of August 2015, with many more since).
However, I strongly disagreed with the implication that Martin’s domination of the charts meant there is no longer any good music. There is always plenty of good new music for anyone willing to listen with open ears instead of rejecting anything new out of hand simply because it is new. Sometimes we may have to dig a bit deeper to find the good stuff, but these days it does not require much digging at all. Far from dulling today’s pop, Max Martin has been instrumental in ushering in a pop renaissance (including hits with Usher). It’s hard to argue with perfect pop songs like “Quit Playing Games with My Heart,” “. . . Baby One More Time,” “Teenage Dream,” “Shake It Off,” “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Lust for Life,” which draws heavily on the girl group sound:
As great as the classic, nostalgia-inducing girl group songs remain, like all pop music, then and now, all but the first hits that defined the genre were crafted to a proven formula. That is what defines genre, similarities between songs, and the girl group genre was defined by traits drawn from and meant to appeal to “girl culture”: jump rope rhymes and hand clapping games, girl talk and advice songs, all set to dance beats and sung with doo-wop harmonies.
And a very good argument could be made that, in helping to perfect and then dominating that formula, Phil Spector was the Max Martin of his day, producing hits for The Paris Sisters, The Crystals (whether it was they or Darlene Love and the Blossoms actually singing on the songs credited to them), Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (again with Darlene Love), Darlene Love (credited as herself), and The Ronettes, along with non-girl group performers like Gene Pitney, Ike and Tina Turner and The Righteous Brothers:
No, they do not make music exactly like they used to, but they do make music just as good as they used to if we simply remove the wax of nostalgia that has been building up in our ears since our teens and listen.