The secret science of pop, presented by Professor Armand Leroi, was broadcast by BBC4 on Tuesday February 28th 2017. In the programme the evolutionary biologist tried to statistically and digitally analyse the last fifty years of pop music so as to see what common elements characterise a hit song. He found a number of factors that appeared regularly in chart toppers and was able to postulate what makes up the ‘average’ number one.
Far more interesting, though, was his analysis of how popular music has evolved over five decades. It is always evolving, but sometimes more quickly than at others. In the mid-1960s there was a surge in development; another peak of accelerated change was in the mid to late 1970s, before a long period of only steady evolution during the 1980s. The 70s peak was characterised by ‘rhythmic intensity’ as Leroi termed it: he argued that, in fact, it was the emergence of disco that was more significant than punk for the rate of change in popular music- contrary to many people’s instincts.
Was this the experience of those who were young at the time and lived through this evolution? From a narrow British rock perspective- the answer must be no. We were aware of the rise of disco, but at the time the successive upheavals in the British music scene seemed much more rapid and violent. Punk was followed by new wave; then New Romantic and synthesised music (like Human League, Heaven 17, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode) appeared in the early 1980s, along with Goth, Rockabilly, indie and music inspired by reggae and Latin beats. Eventually disco’s inheritance reasserted itself through rave and acid house in 1988, but grunge and Britpop were dominant soon after. Perhaps the influence of dance music upon other genres is best shown through bands like New Order, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the ‘Madchester’ scene, and prove that ‘rhythmic intensity’ was a far more important evolutionary trait than aggressive guitars and that Leroi’s analysis is correct.
Nevertheless, being involved in the music scene at the time, it was the frenetic emergence of successive homegrown trends that felt more influential and impressive. As I suggested in my last post, the British rock scene was extraordinarily fertile in the late 1970s and 1980s.
You can still watch The secret science of pop on BBC i-player: have a look and see what you reckon. Does Professor Leroi have a point about disco, or does he down play the creatvitiy of indie music?