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What Is Pop And Is It Dead?

November 9th, 2010 | 9 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music |

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? :)

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Ruben Kenig

    I think that pop music wears several different definitions. There’s a cultural one based on its use and popularity and there’s a musicological one based on the content of the music (and probably more too). Both seem to me to be fluid at least over a 50 year or greater time span.

    That may be the crucial issue pop has been greatly affected by technology. First by recording shifting the business from sheet music to records, years ago “needle time” was strictly limited on UK radio, and then by the various shifts in distribution media. All those shifts have changed the relationship we have to the music in some way.

    Perhaps the musicological side has shifted less. The components of a good pop song seem pretty constant, memorable melodies, catchy choruses, contrasting middle eights and so forth.

    That’s another dichotomy, the pop song as it is listened to and as it is written. Pop is perceived as a culture of singer/performers but its tradition is created (and recreated) by songwriters like, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Holland–Dozier–Holland and Lennon and McCartney.

  • Peter Darby

    I’ve been looking at “defining” folk for a radio production course project, and it’s hitting the point where you define “folk” as being, initially, “music of the people”, as opposed to pop(ular) music, which is, errmmm…. “music *for* the people”?

    When folk music becomes music of the people but not for the people, well, to quote Chumbawamba, That’s not music, that’s a pickle.

    When what people think of as Pop is no longer “popular” (and what the hell are the Cowell TV progs pumping out if not Pop? If more people are paying to phone vote for it but fewer paying for “owning” it, does it matter?), is it Pop?

    What do you call unpopular Pop? Extra cruelty points for saying “Kavanagh”.

    • Steve

      that’s really interesting you say that, Peter as my definition of folk was always ‘by the people, for the people’ – and as such it encompassed the essence of pop music. Much pop music has actively pursued a hyper-modernist detatchment from the people, by mythologising rock-stardom as something super-human, but at its heart, the celebration of pop culture is a folk-activity, and writing music to be sung along to, or danced to, feels like folk-art :)

      • Pete Darby

        Well, this is it, that the linguistic roots of “folk” and “popular” are one and the same… and when either loses part of the “of the people, for the people”, it turns into an artificial, disconnected phenomenon.

        It’s what I think happened to rap. It’s partly why very succesful pop stars end up either recycling their old hits or producing artefacts like Robbie Williams’ Rudebox (the album I helped to kill, along with his career, by appearing in viral advertising for it), desparately ransacking his youth for themes that resonate with the audience. And many would say, failing.

        Further thoughts: “of the people, for the people, BY the people” could be a one line manifesto for punk. Which gets us to The Pogues and Googol Bordello. Gosh, remember when Billy Bragg was billed as “Folk Punk”?

        But above all else, I think everything Iwant to say about this has been said by Chumabawmba on their last two albums…

        In other news, searching through the catalogue of the computer system for Wirral Community radio… no Half-Man, Half Biscuit. Shameful.

  • Brandon

    I see pop as a core style: anything with a tight ABAB-type form, and–as you point out–it’s typically drum and vocal based, and it’s mostly heard in a recorded format.

    By breaking it down to this core definition, one can view it as a “hub” music style with “spokes” branching out into punk, post-punk, reggae, rock, new-wave, 90s alternative, folk, boy-bands, and so on.

    So by this definition, to me anyway, the Ramones were (at their core) pop artists; as were Hüsker Dü and the Talking Heads; as are Madonna, Gaga, Wilco, Weezer, and the Bieber.

    To me, it’s one big ecosystem of pop. It’s tricky because, for a lot of people, “pop” = 80’s. But by this definition, “80’s pop” is just another spoke. It’s a bit like people referring to anything with a violin as “classical” music, which of course is a particular period. “Modern art” is another similar example.

    I’ll also just say how much I love “for the people, by the people” as a core definition of “folk.” As alluded to above, it allows you to string together Guthrie, Dylan, Marley, Black Flag, and NWA on a parallel continuum–as they all share (to varying degrees) “folk” DNA. (I for one have always viewed hip-hop/rap, the good stuff anyway, as popular folk music…).

    So, no, pop ain’t dead. It’s DNA is alive and well. And because it’s always going through new permutations, it’s perhaps our most subversive musical form.

  • Pierre

    I’ve always tried to stay away from categorizing music into genres and stuff. I think it’s worth a lot more to listen and maybe compare to different artists and stuff, but I’ve never liked the idea of pigeon-holing music. Too often it turns into “yeah, we play alternative progressive arena space-rock with underlying electronica and metal influences”. I’d rather have a listen and say “that’s awesome, reminds me of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie crossed with early Dire Straits and a touch of Radiohead”. I think that that’s a lot more interesting.

    Anyways, all of that to say that I don’t care much for the definition of pop and such. Because let’s face it, no one in the modern music world wants to be called pop. Everyone wants to be alternative because during the last decade alternative (unfortunately) became pop. But the music that’s popular will always be the music that appeals to the most people, which makes it the most general, so it will always draw influences from across the board without ever experimenting too much. It will be simple so most people can connect with it. Right now we’re in a sort of rock/R&B/electro phase, and I guess that will change, but I don’t really care ’cause I’ll keep making music and if you want to know what it is then go take a listen instead of waiting for me to elaborate an essay to explain it.

    Very interesting points as usual, though. I must say, this is one of the most enjoyable blogs to read!

  • Rich Huxley

    Interesting definitions of Pop above.

    There’s a bar in Leeds called “Mojo” – mooted as one of the best bars in the world. They have this sign:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67258954@N00/58960446
    In the bar. “music for the people” they proudly proclaim. Their musical style? Led Zep, through to Iggy Pop via 2Many DJs and PJ Harvey (actually this pigeonholed their style more than is fair). Music for the people or sure. It’s certainly pop, and they make a mean cocktail.
    😉
    xR