On my first day as a reporter for a music magazine, my boss advised me, "When in doubt, leave it out." This was the worst piece of advice a prospective journalist can get. My wouldn't-be mentor quickly followed with what's conceivably the second worst: "The best stories are trend stories. Just look at the charts -- you can always find something."
I looked at the charts and noticed there were several hits by artists from across the pond. I wrote a story and called it, "The British Are Coming--Again," which seemed awfully clever. This was decades before Google, so how was I to know that same wordplay had been used thousands of times before? Nevertheless, it was actually an unwitting exemplification of the newsroom maxim, "A trend is two examples and a 3 p.m. deadline."
Trend stories based on anecdotes or lazy statistics are bad enough. When extensive research by "experts" is involved, meaninglessness can rise to a higher -- or lower -- level of absurdity.
A new study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts concludes that, "Over the past half-century, pop hits have become longer, slower and sadder." Not satisfied with a single "sadder," Pacific Standard magazine chose "Pop Music Songs Getting Sadder and Sadder" as a headline for its story about the survey.
Psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve analyzed thousands of Top 40 records from 1965-2009 and found that the percentage of successful tunes written in the minor mode has "doubled over five decades." You may wonder what's so sad about that. "Most listeners -- including children -- associate (minor modes) with gloom and despair," the authors say.
What to do if a song has both major and minor sections? The authors explain: "In cases such as The Turtles' 1966 "Happy Together," where the verse was in minor mode and the chorus in major mode, the song was categorized by determining which mode made up the bulk of the song (minor in this case)." Therefore, "Happy Together" -- which begins in a minor key and builds until it bursts into a triumphant major-key chorus -- promotes gloom and doom among the kids who hear it!
It ought to go without saying that good sad songs don't always make us sad; in fact, they can be gloriously uplifting. As Elton John joyfully notes in "Sad Songs," "It feels so good to hurt so bad."
Take the definitive major/minor tune, Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye." In this 1944 gem, the major-key dominates until the song slips sublimely into A-Flat Minor with a breath-taking wedding of lyrics and music -- "It's strange/the change/from major to minor."
Still not convinced that sad songs can generate delight? Check out Lovin' Spoonful's "Butchie's Tune," the smile-inducing heartbreaker that closed out last week's episode of Mad Men. (Hat tip: Randy Sigman.)
On the other hand, didactically cheery songs like the major key "Don't Worry, Be Happy" can be downright depressing. The relentlessly upbeat Internet phenomenon "It's Friday" by Rebecca Black kick-started a backlash campaign against bad music that ought to make us happy but doesn't.
Schellenberg and von Sheve go completely off their rockers (in both senses of that word) when they say, "Today, artistic integrity and commercial success are no longer contradictory (ital mine) and art-rock bands such as Radiohead have legions of fans." Um, Radiohead has been popular for 20 years; 1950s pop was chock full of artistically brilliant hits by Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino; and one need go no further than the letter "B" -- as in Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Band and the Buffalo Springfield -- to demonstrate the charttopping prowess of aesthetically awesome '60s artists.
Media maven Jack Shafer established himself as the master of trend-story debunkment in his Press Box column for Slate (2000-2011.) Shafer honed in on the New York Times, which published trend stories about the abandonment of personal hygiene, cats and the guys who love them, the coolness of potbellies and the capper: criminals wearing Yankee caps.
Amidst Twitter's "trending topics," "Google Trends" and "Facebook Status Trends," insightless insights now arrive relentlessly and unmediated. Hard news breaks instantly and everywhere, so there's more pressure than ever to conjure new trends.
Shafer says Reuters, where he now toils, may soon feature a crowdsourced page of bogus trend stories. His comment on pop song sadness makes me happy: "Love hurts, love stinks, love is a bitch, love will tear us apart!"
Of course, some trend stories are valid. Global warming, anyone? What's your favorite trend, bogus or otherwise?
Follow Michael Sigman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/majorsongs