Overrated and Overplayed: The Dangers of Musical Groupthink

The music industry is a fickle place and the realm of mainstream music is particularly unforgiving. By mainstream music I refer to music that receives frequent airplay on radio stations and registers on popularity charts such as the Billboard 100. Artistes rise and fall at the mercy of public whims, and observers are always on the lookout for the next big star, the next big hit. When they do find it, they jump on the bandwagon with fervour, spawning a litany of cover versions. Typing ‘Stay With Me Cover’ into the search bar of YouTube yields nearly 6 million renditions of Sam Smith’s recent hit, ranging from talent show performances to bedroom recordings.

Closer to home, the Residential Colleges of UTown have long prided themselves on being vibrant melting pots of diversity, and one expects no less of their musical culture. Therefore it is somewhat incongruous to observe that open mic nights are often devoted to a limited number of popular acts, and, more vexingly, the same few songs of said acts. If someone says they are covering Adele, that’s virtually a toss-up between Rolling in the Deep or Someone Like You. If it’s The Script, they go with Breakeven or The Man Who Can’t Be Moved. On the occasion when performers look to indie musicians, it can only be that band’s signature track (Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men, for instance).

Whenever a musician releases an album, cover artistes suddenly have 10 to 12 new tracks to experiment with. Why then are only 2 or 3 songs (the radio singles) explored in the end?  A major band like Oasis has 7 full studio albums to their name, so why are there only covers of Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger? Make no mistake, there is nothing inherently wrong with pop or mainstream music, but to restrict one’s listening to a tiny fraction of the vast discographies of these musicians is to do them a huge injustice.

In my view at least, open mic nights should be places where people can go to discover new music as well as listen to familiar hits. It is undeniable that pop music will always be at the core of open mic events, but it probably should not constitute the entirety of such occasions. Open mic nights should be platforms for people to express their musical preferences, no matter how niche or obscure. There are few thrills greater than discovery, and perhaps nowhere more so than with good art and good music. The rush of excitement that I get when I find a new song that I can relate to is incomparable, and I know that many others feel the same way. Music is a gift to be shared, and only so much can be gained from hearing an old song played for the umpteenth iteration in more or less the same way. Cover music is an art form in its own right, and does not deserve to be reduced to meaningless pastiche. Setlists are meant to showcase the performer’s sense of musical identity, so it is lamentable to see so little differentiation in terms of song choice.

To be fair, it is not too difficult to fathom why most cover musicians are unwilling to stray from the obvious choices. Picking safe, tried-and-tested songs guarantee some level of recognition and response from the crowd. Conservative setlists may keep in line with the overall tone set by other performances, but this lowest-common-denominator approach comes with a terrible cost. There is a degree of circularity to the argument that musicians should only play what audiences expect to hear, when you consider that the audiences’ expectations are influenced by musicians they have heard.

A good starting point is to perhaps include a few unorthodox song selections in every setlist. History is littered with classic songs and cult acts that are often neglected but well worth another listen.  Even if the act being covered is well known, it would be interesting to hear versions of more obscure or forgotten tracks in their back catalogue (believe it or not, some of these songs are fan favourites). Leveraging on the reputation of well-loved acts helps to keep the audience guessing, without alienating them completely. With any luck, they may even grow to like what they have heard and be inspired to listen further in their own time. Also, when performing a song that is ‘mainstream’, there are ways to implement variations in vocals, instrumentation, or arrangement, to bring the performers out of their comfort zones and ensure that things do not grow stale.

A somewhat less holistic solution is to have open mic events dedicated to ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ music. I say less holistic because I feel there is not much point in emphasising and exacerbating what is at best an arbitrary division in genres, particularly in an age where alternative and indie acts are scoring major crossover hits on mainstream radio.

An apocryphal quote by legendary carmaker Henry Ford has him saying “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Though the veracity of this aphorism is questionable, the message within is unmistakable. Innovators must learn to anticipate, and not simply respond. The need to push boundaries and take risks rests squarely upon the shoulders of those who dream and create. It may well be that there is already some range in terms of music explored in Tembusu, but there is also no reason to self-congratulate and consider this ‘good enough’. Hopefully, a further increase in sonic variety will inspire meaningful and passionate discussions about what makes for good music. And, maybe someday, we will eventually have a musical culture befitting of a home of possibilities.


Photos from Quinn Lum (https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnylummy), used with permission.

About the Author:
A lifelong music fan, Wei Xiang spent a large portion of his childhood listening to The Beatles, Elton John and the Bee Gees in his father’s car. Today he listens to genres including (but not restricted to) alternative, indie, folk, electronica, hip hop, post-punk, synthpop, R&B, and rock. Reclusive by nature, he rarely leaves his room for reasons other than food or water.

Editor: Jensen Goh