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  • Kerigan Moore

Sign of Our Time: The Origins of Pop Music

Did pop music even exist 100 years ago?

When you think of pop music, what comes to mind? Maybe you think of people: Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Britney Spears. Maybe you think of instruments: an electric guitar, a keyboard, an uppity vocalist. Or maybe you think of a sound: a few, simple notes repeated again and again to create a catchy chorus. Perhaps you don’t think of anything specific at all; perhaps you think the term “pop” music is simply short for “popular” music, encompassing any song or genre that happens to be topping charts.

So, what’s the truth? What is pop music, and where did it come from?

The term “pop song” was first used in 1926 by a British newspaper, in the sense of a piece of music “having popular appeal”. The term was used widely throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s to mean any music that was played consistently on the radio and in concert. And yet, by the 1950s, classical music was entirely excluded from this cohort as newer music took on a different sound. In fact, over time, jazz, folk, country, and hillbilly music were all considered “non-pop” while the incoming rock-n-roll of the 60s was embraced with newfound vigor by fans of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and ABBA.

The Oxford Dictionary of Music stated in 1975 that the term “pop” refers to music performed by such artists as the Rolling Stones (pictured here in a 2006 performance).

But even as rock music skyrocketed, hitting #1 charts throughout the 70s and into the 90s, the term “pop music” continued to evolve with technology and music’s ever-changing atmosphere. Rock music and pop music were generally considered to be two separate genres by as early as 1977.

But if pop isn’t classical, jazz, rock, country, or folk, what is it?

That was the question music analysts of the early 90s were faced with as they watched Michael Jackson, “King of Pop,” rise in fame. Jackson’s music wasn’t quite rock. It didn’t have enough blues influences or guitar solos, it used too much electric bass, and had a stagnant, though catchy, rhythm. It lacked rap’s long, metaphoric verses and formulaic expressions, though it included rap and R&B electronic styles. Michael Jackson’s music confounded experts as much as it amazed them. One music newspaper in the late 80s wrote: “[Jackson] has created his own genre of music, made specifically for the masses.”

Michael Jackson, “King of Pop”

So “pop music” transformed from a vague term for the most popular songs of the day into its very own genre — a genre notably dominated by the American and British music industries. After Michael Jackson, many artists followed by emulating his very appealing (and profitable) style.

Nowadays, music scholars use four characteristics to identify a song as pop: a good rhythm, a catchy melody, easy-to-remember lyrics, and a repeated chorus. Of course, these factors can include a wide array of genres, from rock to rap to country. In fact, they often overlap, with each genre in turn influencing the next one, blurring the lines between them and making them less distinct. It’s this lack of distinction that, ironically, makes pop music so recognizable. Pop music isn’t just “popular” music, but it isn’t just one genre; rather, it’s an accumulation of genres that all share similar characteristics. Lady Gaga, one of the most influential pop artists of our time, said in a 2012 interview, “If I go to a party and ask someone, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ and they say ‘pop music’, they’ve just said ‘a little bit of everything, but also nothing’ in two words. It’s like saying you got to the top of Mount Everest by helicopter. You’ve been to the top of the world, but have you actually?”


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