What is Pop?

When speaking about “Classical” music one easily decides that we’re speaking about Western Art music of the last five centuries or so (with a bit of leeway for early choral or ecclesiastical material), composed in a recognised form (Sonata, Fugue, etc.) using a twelve-pitch scale system and (generally) a collection of acoustic instruments. We do not usually mean traditional or historically classical music from other cultures like Indonesian Gamelan or Arabic Berber sounds.

Whether we are played a piece of 18th Century Bach or 20th Century Ravel we can describe it as Classical.

The idea of Pop is nebulous. Possibly because Pop music is a relatively modern concept and movement (in an era where disposable income and leisure time are commonplace) it has fragmented very quickly.

In the not too distant past, few people could afford to spend time listening to music as their way of life (along with any other pursuit created purely for pleasure). Subsistence farming and the feudal system (or its ensuant methods of subjugation by the ruling classes) ensured that most people either worked or starved. The advent of a cash economy allowing workers to accrue a surplus of relative wealth bought with it the ability to “store” time spent working in the form of money. This meant that a greater proportion of the population could then spend time doing other things rather than merely working to survive. Leisure was born, along with access to education instead of mere enculturation.

Slowly, throughout the period seen from the European Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, it became the norm for the majority of people to work for a set amount of time in each day and week, thus having time “off”. During this time they could find other ways of occupying or amusing themselves. At roughly the same time, capitalist philosophy came to the fore and the idea of selling leisure activities to the general populace became a global and consistent business model (as opposed to infrequent events such as village fairs or games in the Roman Circus).

Leisure time came into its own in turn of the century Europe and America (circa 1900) and with it the firm idea of generational cultures enjoying different activities. This heady mixture of the capitalist philosophy giving us a market economy, a greater percentage of the population with disposable income and a “youth” movement with different ideas than their antecedents gave rise to popular culture.

The distribution of music to the masses in the form of radio broadcasts or record (vinyl) sales bought with it the ability of a greater number of people with ideas about what their chosen art should sound like to get their music “out there”. Before long, youth music wasn’t just folk music with current imagery or subject matter. Different artists could add more drums if desired, more (or less) vocal, more bass or treble in the mix. Variations were becoming apparent and organisations like Sun Studios in Memphis and Abbey Road in London were recording tracks specifically mixed for consumption by an audience directed as much by fashion, sexuality and social progression as anything else.

This is where we see the diversion of styles which has led to the problem that we face today when trying to define “Pop” music. “Teardrop” by Massive Attack is Pop, as is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, as is “Congratulations” by Cliff, as is “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead.

We’ve had to break it down into sub-genres such as Disco, Metal, Trip-Hop or Acid, all of which are as distinct from each other as they are from what has come to be called “Classical”.

So what to do? Does pop in it’s original guise even exist anymore or are we to find a particular sub-genre of what used to be Pop (such as the oeuvre of Blue or Westlife) and say “This Is Pop, the rest is something else”.

Pop ceased to be (or mean) simply Popular many years ago. The divergence that we saw in the first half of last century has come full-circle and we now see a distinct crossover between previously unique musical genres. Artistes such as Apocalyptica cover tracks by Metallica and Metal guitarists such as Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen have long tapped into classical technique.

The lines have blurred.

While you think about this, have an offering from Ozric Tentacles: Eternal Wheel. It’s lovely.

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3 thoughts on “What is Pop?

  1. Pingback: Pop versus Classical | Music From The Present To The Past

  2. Pingback: Pop versus Classical | Music From The Present To The Past

  3. Pingback: The Qualities of Pop Music | Music From The Present To The Past

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