This post was inspired by an excellent blog-post by Paul Long in which he talks about ‘the end of pop’, and makes some comments about the risible state of pop music through the 90s…
What it doesn’t do (though he assures me it’s in the research that his post was excerpted from) is talk about the definitions and parameters of pop music, and whether or not the death of pop is as much a function of its limiting etymology as it is a profound cultural shift.
Here’s what I mean: Pop music obviously derives from ‘popular music’ – a self-selecting classification – music that is popular. By the original definition, the success of the music was integral to the classification. And in a world when record labels released – and then radio, TV and magazines curated – the music we were allowed to find out about, the characteristics were defined in a 3-way shifting relationship between the public, the labels and the mediators. The fact that music that didn’t get signed was rarely documented means that we’ll never have an accurate music map of what was happening outside of that axis…
But as is so often the way when the primary impetuses are money and fame, a certain consensus formed around what would sell, what would become popular. And ‘pop’ became a style. A style dominated by singing, drumming, and volume. The three things that defined it. Guitars were key to a lot – but not all – of it, keyboards were prevalent but not ubiquitous. But very little of the music we think of as ‘pop’ was without drums and/or singing.
But as with any classification, the things that we recognised as ‘not pop’ were as interesting as the things that fit. Pop is, bizarrely, a sub-category of itself: the ‘pop’ charts are the catch-all, while the genre based charts define rock, soul, hip-hop, country etc. as elements in pop. But ‘pop’ would also be a way of differentiating a Pet Shop Boys record from a Led Zeppelin record, despite both being pop…
So now, where are we? We’re in a place, where as pop was claimed and disowned by various groups of music-makers, it is in it’s broadest sense an exclusionary definition – pop is music that isn’t ‘classical’, folk, jazz or anything that gets lumped under the clumsy and racist banner of ‘world music’. Pop has come full circle, in an age when nothing of value is popular, to be about an orientation towards music making.
It’s music that is
- either performance or recording-based (as differentiated from the community/social focus of folk music),
- far more reliant on pre-written songs than on improv,
- sold via the personality of the performer regardless of the writer,
- generally without any requirement to be academically significant…
One of the greatest disruptors in the history of popular music has been the role of music in Film and TV drama – people who would usually spend their time listening to Elton John and Celine Dion suddenly come into contact with all kinds of music from across the spectrum via its association with particular cinematic moods. From death metal to atonal chamber music, drum and bass to work songs, the music supervisors on films and TV shows often seek to define the cultural parameters of the show by the breadth – or focus – of the music they use. Not to mention their role in breaking new artists…
So pop in the old sense is dead, but as Derrida reminded us, all language is metaphorical, and the use of the word pop will go on, and be defined by its usage within a community.
For my part, I see ‘pop’ as a distinct musical form, within contemporary music – with a different set of audience-facing goals. It’s a form that has context, history, syntax and requires a respect for all of that to really ‘work’. If one’s notion of ‘pop’ is any way pejorative or dismissive, forget trying to make great pop. It’s a labour of love.
I define my own music as ‘pop’, some of the time, largely to move it away from the idea that it requires specialist knowledge to ‘get it’, and also as an acknowledgement of where so many of my influences come from. But still find that talking about the soundtrack, cinematic quality of it makes more sense to most people… it leaves it open to sounding like anything, but feeling like images.
Human beings seem to have an innate gravitational pull towards labels of belonging. Music fans are no different – we cluster around genre and sub-genre, around function (music for dancing, music for relaxation, political music, music that evokes a particular emotion), and the fractal formation of ever more specific sub genres does more to negate their necessity than reinforce their relevance, when the sub-genres become specific to a single band, no fan will ever exist purely within them again. So “Trans-Genre-ism” becomes a necessity if one is to own more than one band’s music, and it ceases to be ‘trans’ at all – there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary about liking more than one band!
So, over to you. What is pop? ‘Why’ is pop? In an age when music that is nationally or internationally popular is largely (but certainly not exclusively) about its attachment to some other entertainment medium (reality TV, X-Factor-style karoake nostalgia/schadenfreude mash-ups, US drama-series soundtracks…), what does it mean to make niche pop music? And can a bass player who doesn’t sing or work with drums still make pop music?by