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Against Top 40: Why We Need More than the Radio

Have you ever groaned at hearing Shape of You played for the fifth time in one hour while you’re stranded in traffic? On the rare occasion my phone runs out of battery and I’m forced to put the radio on, what bothers me more than the kitschy advertisements is the fact that I can’t escape what I call the two pillars of Radio 2017: Ed Sheeran or EDM. Now, I don’t have anything against the artist or the genre, except that they’ve both been magnified by mainstream media (think radio, TV, advertisements, promotions, covers) and it’s all I hear from my students when I ask them what kind of music they like. It’s overwhelming. It’s all Top 40.

This is very, very, very worrying.

Why? Three big reasons, and they’re all interlinked. 1. The radio-record label-audience cycle. Who chooses what to play on the radio? Usually record labels who produce and distribute albums and go by the ratings in the Top 40 charts. The problem with that? It’s a huge music economy, and only a few people in it are being represented. Newer artists and most importantly, new kinds of music, or any music that doesn’t look like it’ll “sell” (meaning, do well on the charts) generally have a harder time being signed on to a label, and even more difficulty getting attention over the preexisting giants prowling the rows in the charts.

2. Record labels are essentially creating the products we end up listening to. This gives them a lot of power in dictating what we hear, and as humans, this becomes a problem. Take any song you couldn’t stand at first. Play it fifteen more times and there’s a good chance your head will be (albeit reluctantly) bobbing along with it on the sixteenth play. Why? We’re highly trainable creatures, and we respond very very well to rhythmic stimuli. And we like a thing when we’ve heard enough of it. So play anything enough on the radio, and you’ve got a readymade, hand-crafted, willing audience. Your preferences? They'll be gone, eroded soon enough, if you aren't paying attention. Not to sound macabre, but too much radio turns us into choiceless sheep, wordlessly devouring what is doled out to us by record labels whose main motivation is profit. Another thing. The music featured on those charts usually contain many similar elements, feature multiple songs by similar artists, but give you no exposure to the thousands and thousands of types of music, artists and by extension, musical cultures that exist and can be enjoyed. Kids are missing out on seriously addictive Afro-Caribbean rhythms, have no idea what it feels like to unwillingly be torn apart by an 8-part choir arrangement of a Latin hymn, they’ll never get hooked to that samba thang and try learning Portuguese just so they understand the lyrics and look up places in Brazil to see where the music comes from. They’re missing out on life experiences because we’re taking away their natural curiosity and replacing it with corp-curated “bestsellers”. 3. That trainability I mentioned earlier? It gets especially scary when we throw children into the equation. These are small humans whose brains are still growing every single day, and like wet concrete, any impression lasts almost forever. What do you think will happen if you put in oversimplified rhythmic and melodic structures that sound very similar (not to mention the questionable content and lyrics- that’s a whole different issue) and keep those things on replay for many, many years? Every chance we had of this little kid becoming a Chopin, Miles Davis - a genuine creator or explorer - is being slaughtered each time we reinforce those neural pathways by replaying just one type of music. Where’s the room for complexity? Individuality? Where’s the drive to explore and to not shut down things they haven’t heard before? It brings me to tears nearly when I go into a classroom full of children who don’t have the patience or curiosity to listen to unfamiliar music. Their window of music is as big as just the radio, and we’re in it too - we apathetic adults - because we’ve forgotten how important it is to choose what we expose ourselves to. What’s even scarier is that Top 40 isn’t just limited to the radio. It’s on YouTube ads, it’s “consumer music” that Forever21 plays to drive up their sales (unfair usage of music and neuroscience research, in my opinion), and it’ll be at every talent competition you attend, or any cover you’ll be forwarded on WhatsApp and tagged in on Facebook. It’s inescapable.

I was still quite young when I was exposed to music that wasn’t on the radio, like Kishori Amonkar, Robert Schumann, Diana Ross, Charlie Parker, and Lauryn Hill. Some of it came from people around me, but the majority of the true engaging music that carved my later preferences were from the cartoons I watched. I can never give enough credit to the Hannah-Barbera production team for featuring the tunes from “Charlie Parker and Strings” on several episodes of Tom and Jerry, and the trademark pieces of Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt (now my two favourite composers- I wonder why). These influences stay with you for a long time, and they enlarge and deepen the template for the music that you identify with for many years down the line.

Later, when I was 15, I had the good fortune to have a young Chinese-descent piano teacher who once told me rather angrily to stop listening to pop music, and since she lived with me for two months (long story), I didn’t have much of a choice but to follow the directive. But two months later, I really did find a change in the way I perceived music. In that time, I only had the chance to listen to classical piano played by my teacher, but I discovered Bossa Nova, some soul-jazz and modern classical composers from countries whose names I still couldn’t pronounce. I lost my taste for the constant and overfamiliar melodies and rhythms of radiopop and began - and this is important - searching for new music to listen to. Fifteen is a late start by many standards, but we’re lucky - our brains rewire themselves fast enough if we put in the work. So go forth, turn off the radio, look beyond. Ask your musician friends/music teachers what they listen to. Go beyond that. Find what speaks to you! Ask for playlists, recommendations, and be patient. You like Lianne la Havas? Check out Corinne Bailey Rae and Moonchild. John Mayer? Check out B.B. King. Are you learning to play the piano? Check out Bill Evans, Rob Araujo, Lyle Mays, Shai Maestro. Go listen to all the artists I've listed here! There’s so much out there waiting to be explored; just turn off the radio. :)

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