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According to Google, over one million, specifically, 1,570,000 searches for the term pop are done on a daily basis. But, what exactly is pop music?
To put a definition of what pop music is, one has to be able to distinguish between the term pop music and the term popular music, because they are not the same entity.
In fact, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (which is every musicologists ultimate reference material), claims that popular music is the music since the industrialization in the late 1800’s that is most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class. This could include everything from vaudeville and minstrel shows to heavy metal. On the other hand, pop music is primarily utilized to describe music that has evolved out of the rock and roll revolution of the mid 1950’s and continues in the same definable path to this day.
Using this definition, it is easy to ascertain that pop music must be accessible to the masses. This would be the music that sells the most copies, is in heavy radio rotation, is downloaded the most times and draws the largest audiences. And since the mid 1950’s when Bill Haley’s single “Rock Around The Clock” hit the number one position on the charts in 1955, we can conclude that most pop music has become the music that has been influenced by rock and roll; instead of the light, easy listening sounds that dominated televisions’ “Your Hit Parade” weekly countdown show. So, let’s move forward with the assumption that pop music is still dominated by sounds that are rooted in the basic elements of rock and roll.
Another important element of a pop song is the actual song structure itself. Using typical instruments like an electric or acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, drums and keyboards (this is certainly not an all-inclusive list, merely a staring point or suggestion), the pop song is usually less than five minutes in length. It can range from a whole band with instrumentation or a lone singer with a guitar or piano.
Pop songs also consist of a constant and obvious rhythmic element as well as a traditional structure. Other elements include lyrical content, frequently about love, relationships and other life experiences, with the primary objective to be able to appeal to large audiences and it should have commercial success. There are other elements that have been introduced as time has passed, such as the common verse-chorus repetition with a focus on catchy melodies and hooks- all adeptly blending together in harmony.
Now, if we were to explore the time length of pop music over the years, in the 1950s, songs were more often than not, close to two to two and one half minutes long. In the sixties, the three-minute pop song became much more prevalent with some exceeding that. Songs such as the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” or Don McLean’s epic rock anthem “American Pie” are the exception and McLean’s song was actually edited for radio play (into a part one & part two). In fact, in 1964, the Animals "House Of The Rising Sun" was the first #1 hit to have a playing time of more than four minutes. These are not all of the songs that were over the average but we can conclude that most pop songs are between two and five minutes.
Another important element is the pop singles that are listed on the Billboard Charts, specifically the Billboard Hot 100. The singles charts are what record companies and even the artists themselves strive to achieve, it is the criteria of the music industry as well as the way that the music consumers measures success.
The pop music genre is such an interesting musical genre in that it has gone through so many transformations and includes so many sub-genres. We had elements of rhythm and blues, doo wop, folk, girl groups, funk, surf, soul, psychedelic, bubble gum, hard rock, acoustic, jazz and everything in between - all blended together in a musical smorgasbord. Elvis Presley brought with him his roots in gospel and blended that with rockabilly and rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis brought the piano to the forefront. The Everly Brothers brought harmonies and Buddy Holly a rockabilly mixture. It began as a melting pot of musical genres and remains that way to this day.
There were also some defining moments in pop music history. From the first time an electric guitar was utilized to the first pop single to use a drum machine or synthesizer, it seems that the genre is always re-inventing itself. We had the great R&B groups of the fifties, the girl groups of the sixties, the vocal harmonies of the Platters, Simon and Garfunkel. The folk music scene was very important with Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, the surf melodies of the Beach Boys and instrumentation of the Ventures, the legendary vocals and pop songs of the Supremes-all add to this broad musical landscape. Utilizing a horn section ala Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, a string section with Electric Light Orchestra and the George Martin-led strings of the Beatles all helped to transform the genre.
However, the sixties were a defining moment in pop music history for several reasons. The Beatles exploded onto the scene and while most artists did not write the songs that they recorded, the Beatles opened many doors for those who were good enough to compose their own material. We had the songwriting teams of Dozier-Holland-Dozier and Gerry Goffin and Carole King all churning out top ten hit after top ten hit for a variety of musical acts (certainly not an all inclusive list, but you get the idea). The Beatles helped to change that. They opened the floodgates for the British Invasion, with bands like the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, Led Zeppelin (among many others)- all vying for the top spot on the charts.
American bands like the Doors, the Rascals, Boston, Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp and ZZ Top, Monkees, just to name a few- all have contributed to the changing of pop music.
Society also had a profound effect on the types of pop songs that were written. There were songs of protest, peace and love. Women’s lib came to the forefront with solo artists like Cher,Melanie, Carole King and Carly Simon. Black musicians were now free to write songs that would appeal to not only African-Americans, but society as a whole. Solo artists like Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and the "King of Pop" Michael Jackson, among many others, helped to take soul music to a whole new level. Soul groups like the Box Tops and the Temptations appealed to the masses, not just African-Americans and Motown acts were consistently making the Billboard Top Ten.
The 1970’s launched arena rock andprogressive rock with bands like Pink Floyd, Kansas, Steve Miller Band, Bob Seger, Roxy Music, Queen, Foreigner and many others put the focus on the LP and if they were lucky enough to land on the Billboard Charts, so be it, but it wasn’t the end all. Power ballads by REO Speedwagon, Journey, Boston and Heart, among many others, also have contributed to the power pop that we have today.
Country Rock became more prevalent with the Allman Brothers Band leading the way for such acts as the Eagles, the Outlaws, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet .38 Special and that grew into the southern rock genre to include acts like the Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic and the Black Crowes.
Then we add in the piano men, Elton John, Billy Joel, Leon Russell and Billy Preston and the bubble gum sounds of the Partridge Family or Tommy James and the Shondells or the solo artists like Cat Stevens, Dion, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins or Donovan- all these artists adeptly blend sub genres into the pop music that we have today.
We can also add elements of new wave, punk, alternative, R&B, soul, hip hop, rap, and too many other musical styles to list, but you get the picture. Pop music was born from the gospel music of the South to Tin Pan Alley. It blends early country, boogie, rockabilly, jazz, British rock, blues, and everything else.
What’s next for pop music? Will it the charts be dominated by the smooth R&B we have now with Beyonce, Brandy or Rihanna or the strong vocals of Madonna, Mariah Carey or Pink? What about the alternative rock sounds of R.E.M., Nirvana, Pearl Jam or the indie music explosion with Fleet Foxes, the Fray or Radiohead? What about heavy metal, speed metal or thrash? Is jazz music going to become a strong part of pop music?
The answer is that pop music will be all of the above and continue to be such an intriguing genre and intricate part of the music industry and society as a whole.
Popular Pop Artists