The cover of the Washington Times‘ commentary section today provides a cautionary tale of why conservatives who don’t know anything about popular music should think hard before writing about it.

Remember those UT psychologists that thought people with a conservative disposition could be tied to country music listening by mining the iTunes libraries of a national sampling of individuals without actually looking into how, why or how often they listened to it? Well, Mr. Haug’s methodology is different, but it’s equally useless and stupid:

“Recently, I conducted research on popular music over the last 65 years, counting the swear words and references to drugs, violence and sex in the top 10 songs of every year since 1946.

I was unprepared for how crass popular music has become, especially in the last 10 to 20 years. Music from the 1990s and 2000s makes the most risque songs from the 1970s and ’80s seem almost tasteful.

It would be a real shame if the conservative case against pop culture devolved into a bean counting exercise; this might seem obvious, but statistical sampling is a poor substitute for literary criticism. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the only reason he doesn’t bother to engage the content of the music itself is because he’s cherry-picked the most stultifying top 40 club hits and picked out the most objectionable printable lines.

Haug is very concerned about the “unprecedented levels of sexual vulgarity” in pop music today–or rather those of yesterday, judging by his examples of music by Next (1998), 50 Cent (2003), and R. Kelly (2003). He dutifully genuflects to the bawdiness of the Rolling Stones, but nevertheless contends that music today has reached new heights of depravity.

He doesn’t sound like a fan of ’50s doo-wop or a collector of 45s, but I wonder if he’s familiar with this 1951 single by The Swallows:

…or Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House,” or Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big Ten-Inch Record,” or many other risque singles from just the fifties.

The most depressing thing about modern listening habits is that music is a functional commodity to most people. Its goal is to alleviate boredom while exercising, or to coordinate dancing (such as it is). Even on an emotional level, people seem to be drawn to music that comforts due to familiar musical qualities or lyrical themes. Haug seems to share this functional view, though he sounds like he might be convinced otherwise:

… the last decade should also be seen as an historic period in the shifting landscape of our culture.

Respected thinkers have frequently identified music as one of the most powerful forces impacting individuals and societies. Unlike literature or art, music can be used to rapidly change the mood of one person or a stadium filled with thousands. Music’s power is known to any dance club owner or orchestra member, any student who uses it to increase productivity or any runner who needs a boost of energy.

More than two millennia ago, Plato wrote about the power of music to mold societies and the individuals within them. He believed that the influence of music worked slowly and insidiously on people – changing them almost imperceptibly from the inside out. He wrote: “All it does is to make itself at home little by little, until it overflows ever so quietly into people’s character and pursuits. From these it emerges, grown larger, into their dealings and associations with one another” (“The Republic”). (link)

I’m a little frightened that anyone could be enthusiastic about the prospect of music as a tool to “increase productivity.”

The ghost of an idea that stalks through those three paragraphs is technology; the stadium’s loudspeaker, the student’s iPod, the club’s PA. We don’t often think about the interaction between the content and the medium when it comes to music. We don’t think about the fact that most music we buy off the iTunes store is of a low quality with its dynamics compressed and volume boosted for use on crappy desktop speakers or earbuds.

But if music isn’t produced with an aesthetically engaging experience in mind, why should one assume that it’s composed or recorded with that purpose either? This is where my sympathies with Haug begin. The fact is, most of the pop music on heavy rotation today is made by people who don’t care about music, for people who don’t care about music, at least in the abstract. It would be glib to point out drunk clubgoers as an example, it’s really more profound than that.

Take the racket in mass-market chanteuses like Whitney Houston or Celine Dion, for example. Whitney Houston fans don’t care about being challenged or moved by anything other than nostalgia, that’s why record companies have been hawking the same saccharine crap since Jo Stafford and before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those same singers have been somewhat insulated from the declining profits of the post-Internet era.

But more than anything, Haug is missing out on all the good music that’s being made today, which is presumably more difficult to screen by keyword. There is the resurgence of localism and craftsmanship in the form of vinyl connoisseurship, there is a vibrant and growing independent music press; people are rediscovering a participatory musical culture through things like DIY and the All Ages Movement. He may be stuck on the decrepit pop charts but the rest of us have moved on.