While there has always been "popular" music in the United States, and all forms of music are popular with certain audiences, the term "pop music" generally denotes forms of music that are non-classical, very mainstream, intended for very wide audiences, and often controlled by the giants of the music business: sheet music publishers in the early decades of the century, recording companies after 1930. While these companies often produced a great variety of music, their need for profits mandated a constant search for the "next big thing," the next great artist, or style of music whose popularity would generate big record sales. Thus fueled by the profit motive, companies sought to reach the widest markets possible. And while the large companies did produce music targeted at markets considered "marginal," such as the African-American population, they tended to focus on music that was unchallenging, unthreatening, and palatable across the spectrum of listeners.
The focus on palatable, tuneful, and unchallenging music did not necessarily mean music of poor quality. White crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, and other artists, along with black performers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nat "King" Cole, dominated the popular music charts during the 1940s and early 1950s. They also produced some of the finest pop vocal music ever recorded, often composed by the accepted masters of the popular genre such as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and others, whose best-known songs have become standards of the repertoire—the classics of light, romantic, and/or witty music. Prior to the rise of rock 'n' roll in 1955, this style of music was American pop music, and it appealed to white Americans, and listeners in other English-speaking countries, of all ages and classes. The music was easy to produce, and the recording companies knew what material to look for. With the rise of rock 'n' roll, however, things changed. The large companies that defined the pop music field began finding it increasingly difficult to control or predict the course of pop music and the "next big thing" became harder and harder to find with any regularity. Thus, after 1955, the pop music field fragmented and, by the end of the twentieth century, that fragmentation had become so great that the term "pop music" is now very difficult to define.
This fragmentation was the result of numerous of factors. First, while the major record companies such as Columbia, RCA, Decca, and Capitol dominated the pop vocal field during the 1940s and 1950s, they were not the only companies in the music business. Small, independent labels such as Chess, King, Specialty, Sun, and others were busy recording and selling more marginal or specialized music—blues, rhythm and blues, country and western, ethnic music, folk, gospel, and so on. What they were doing was tapping into the diverse musical landscape that existed in the United States. Occasionally, one of these small independents would have a major hit. Chess had huge successes in the mid-and late 1950s with such early rock 'n' roll greats as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Sun was the first to record Elvis Presley, whose amalgamation of country, blues, and rhythm and blues styles hit the charts in the mid-1950s. These successes not only challenged the commercial success of the major labels, but they also shattered the homogeneity of the pop music field. How could Chuck Berry and Tony Bennett both be singing pop music? The answer was that they were not. After the rise of rock 'n' roll, new styles challenged the primacy of pop music dominated by white crooners.
This rupture in the landscape of popular music set off a scramble by the large companies to keep up with the changes. For a brief period, from about 1955 to 1958, they were unable to do so alone. RCA succeeded for a time by buying Elvis Presley's contract from Sun, adopting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach, but Presley's experience at RCA was indicative of the entire approach the major labels took to pop music: co-optation. Compared to the raw power of his early Sun recordings, Presley's output on RCA was a rapid devolution into the pop crooner formula. It was the only form the major labels understood. Thus, while Presley scored some early rock 'n' roll hits on RCA ("Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog"), by the late 1950s he had been reshaped into the pop crooner mold, recording such songs as "Love Me Tender" and "Treat Me Nice." By the mid-1970s, Presley was recording the same songs as Frank Sinatra, notably "My Way."
By 1958, the major companies had regained much of their position through the process of co-opting many of the more marginal sub-genres of American music. If a record became a hit in one of these more marginal markets, the major labels found someone to record the same song in a way that was palatable to white middle-America. Thus, while black America heard an original like Little Richard singing "Tutti Frutti," white America heard Pat Boone's watered-down version. These major labels also followed the tried-and-true formula that had worked during the crooner era of relying on professional songwriters to write material for young singers. Thus pop music during the 1958 to 1963 period was dominated by teen idols and young vocal groups singing professionally written songs, many written out of New York's Brill Building songwriting center. This was a system the major labels understood, one controlled by professional producers using professional songwriters and studio musicians. While some great music came out of this era, it largely conformed to the major pop requirements, producing unthreatening, easy to listen to music with mass appeal.
Pop music fragmented further after the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. Since the dominance achieved by rock 'n' roll by the late 1950s, the line between rock and pop has never again been clear. The Beatles were simultaneously great rock and great pop artists, and they dominated the pop charts throughout the 1960s. "Yesterday" was undeniably in the pop mold; "Revolution" was clearly rock. Pop music in the 1960s could include both the Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and Dionne Warwick singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song "Walk On By." With this degree of variety, the meaning of the term "pop music" was becoming increasingly hazy, yet the term endures as a loose description of a wide variety of musical styles and trends. And, while earlier periods in pop music can be described as homogeneous (the "crooner" era, the "Brill Building sound," etc.), the pop field after the mid-1960s came to encompass a wide variety of overlapping styles in various stages of waxing or waning. New styles often emerged from regional, ethnic, racial, gender-specific, or other musical communities, or they arose due to the influence of one particular artist or group. After 1964, no one style could be called "pop music" to the exclusion of all others. This fact reflected the diversity of the record-buying public, now exposed to such a wide variety of music that many were not content listening only to one style.
However, these developments did not mean the extinction of older pop styles. Crooners such as Sinatra and Bennett enjoyed great commercial success in the 1960s and 1970s. The professional songwriting tradition lived on in the work of Burt Bacharach and others and traditional practices in the pop music industry continued. As each new trend emerged, major record companies rushed to take advantage of it. Thus, after the emergence of the Beatles, record companies promoted a host of Beatles knock-offs, and almost any band from Liverpool, England, the Beatles' home town, could get a record contract after 1964. Numerous American groups were also developed and promoted to capitalize on the music and image of the Beatles. Some, such as the Knickerbockers and their song "Lies," were direct rip-offs of the Beatles sound; others, such as the Monkees, aimed to emulate the Beatles in both looks and sound. When the Beatles recorded their psychedelic masterpiece Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, they set off another round of imitators, from the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request on down. After 1967, the Beatles moved on from psychedelic music, but their influence meshed with the rising San Francisco psychedelic sound that produced such groups as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, both of whom used drug imagery in their music. Both groups might have been too much for the broad range of American pop music listeners, but the pop music field was still able to profit from the sound. Using the old tradition of watering down a musical form, Top 40 radio listeners heard Scott McKenzie singing "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" or the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreaming."
This trend of co-opting more marginal musical forms and making them palatable to broad audiences remained strong in the late 1960s. The 1960s was a period when several of popular music's most innovative artists were making ground-breaking records, some of which made the pop music charts, but they shared the charts with much lighter fare. Another significant trend during the late 1960s was the rise of manufactured groups. In addition to trying to co-opt other sounds, large corporate record companies tried to manufacture their own groups for the pre-teen and teen market, which, increasingly, had been left behind by psychedelia and other harsher forms of rock music. With such groups as the Monkees, the Partridge Family, and the cartoon group the Archies, companies could make light, pop fare that was extremely palatable to this young market. All of these three groups were promoted with their own television shows. The Monkees and David Cassidy from the Partridge Family became teen idols. This trend was not new to the late 1960s. Earlier teen idols had been similarly "manufactured," and the trend continued in later decades with such singers and groups as Shawn Cassidy, Andy Gibb, Leif Garrett, Menudo, New Edition, Boys to Men, N'Sync, and others.
In the 1970s, the variety of styles that were part of the broad pop music mainstream increased. They included the singer-songwriter tradition, hard rock, southern rock, the California sound, disco, glam rock, stadium rock, heavy metal and others. All entered the pop field at various points. The most important of these trends were the singer-songwriter tradition, the California sound, and disco. The light sound of the singer-songwriter tradition was especially suited to pop music, and brought huge hits for artists such as Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, and John Denver during the decade. All sang introspective songs, often using mostly acoustic instruments that were perfect for the pop sound. Some listeners could find deep meaning in the lyrics of the songs, but these songs were also extremely radio-friendly, soft and often very hummable. Carole King's Tapestry album sold over 10 million copies and was on the charts for years; John Denver was all over the airwaves in the later 1970s with such songs as "Rocky Mountain High" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders." The singer-songwriter tradition meshed well with the California sound that emerged in the early 1970s. Led by such groups and singers as America, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne, the California sound was often easygoing, acoustically-oriented music that reflected the laid-back atmosphere of southern California. The Eagles' songs "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Take It Easy" spoke for themselves.
The singer-songwriter tradition and the California sound were largely eclipsed in the late 1970s, as was much of popular music, by disco. Disco, with its thumping, repetitive dance beat and electronic sound was greeted with great enthusiasm by many; for others it was considered the death of pop music. Disco music was dance music, and as such it was part of a much larger club scene rather than simply music for listening. Disco grew, like much of pop music, from the culture of black America, particularly the smooth black urban pop of the early 1970s. Some commentators trace elements of it to dance clubs in Manhattan, in particular to the city's gay culture. Whatever its precise origins, the style reached the pop charts in the mid-1970s with Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," KC & the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight," and others. But the genre exploded in popularity when the film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta as a disco-dancing Brooklyn teenager, was released in 1977. Its soundtrack album, featuring the Bee Gees' new disco sound, became one of the most successful records in pop music history. After this success, everyone from the Beach Boys to Rod Stewart to the Rolling Stones jumped on the disco bandwagon for a time. Disco's heyday was short-lived, ending with the 1970s, but its influence continued in the 1980s and beyond.
Pop music's purview widened even further in the 1980s and 1990s, encompassing both old and new trends and styles. The vocal tradition, although far-removed from its crooner days, continued with such major solo vocal divas as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Madonna. While most of these singers stayed with predictable and comfortable material, Madonna was unique among them and achieved great success with her meld of disco, pop, r&b, and often outrageous image and controversial material. The teen-idol tradition remained alive and well, but now many of the teen idols were young women such as Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and the Spice Girls, who offered soft pop to an eager pre-teen market. The 1980s and 1990s, not unlike earlier decades, was also an era of great solo stars such as Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, and Elton John, all of whose songs topped the charts in the 1980s and drew huge crowds for their stadium concerts. Jackson's album Thriller was one of the best selling albums of all time, crossing over between pop, disco, and rhythm and blues.
A new trend in the early 1980s was what has been called a "second British Invasion" (the first being the Beatles-led invasion of the early 1960s). Coming out of the influential but less widely popular new wave movement of the late 1970s, groups and artists such as Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, Culture Club, U2, Adam Ant, Wham!, and others were significant to the decade. Many relied on synthesizers and drum machines that gave their sound a widely popular electronic feel. There was also a strong fashion consciousness to many of these bands, which—as always in pop and rock—was integral to their image. The visual aspects of this music were heightened by the rise of MTV (Music Television), which began in the early 1980s by playing specially produced music videos of new bands. MTV's increasing influence proved a powerful force in music during the 1980s and 1990s.
Pop music continued to absorb other, more marginal, musical styles. Rap music, a product of black urban youth culture in the 1980s, was one such style. While rap still maintains its authenticity in the hands of many artists, mainstream pop music gradually adopted some of its conventions in diluted form with such performers as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, both of whom achieved brief periods of popularity. Another important trend in the late 1980s and into the 1990s was the rise of "alternative" music. Originally, alternative music was the harder-edged, guitar-based "grunge" sound that emerged out of Seattle with such bands as Nirvana. But the "alternative" label could just as easily be applied to somewhat older, influential bands such as Athens, Georgia's R.E.M. and the B-52s. The style was broadened during the 1990s to include a whole host of new bands that challenged the bland pop music that was occupying the official pop charts. Groups such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and others provided a fresh alternative to such mainstream fare as Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, and Whitney Houston. The alternative genre saw the rise of a new influx of female talent, including the somewhat harder-edged Alanis Morrisette and Joan Osborne as well as more pop-oriented female performers such as Sarah McLachlan and Jewel. As in many of the trends absorbed by pop, the term "alternative" widened to such a degree that it had become virtually meaningless by the late 1990s. With the great success achieved by these and other bands, the question "alternative to what?" became a hard one to answer by the late 1990s.
As a whole, pop music was much more diverse by the late 1990s than at any other period in its history, and a wide variety of performers and genres could be grouped under its broad umbrella. While that variety certainly proved refreshing to many people, it has raised the problem of defining pop music. However, there are some general characteristics of pop music that have remained fairly constant. First, while pop music is an inclusive genre that draws from a wide variety of styles, it often does so by co-opting them, taking unique musical forms and watering them down for mass consumption. While unique performers and artists continue to find success, the pop charts are often crowded with lesser talents enjoying their ride on the current trends. Second, pop music is primarily commercially driven. All recorded music has its commercial imperatives, but in pop music the drive for commercial success dominates, and this focus often leads to less-than-original music, centered on the lowest common denominator. Third, the style of pop music is fundamentally dictated by trends, and no one in the music industry knows what the next big trend will be. When a trend emerges, often because of a particularly innovative artist or group, a host of imitators follow close on their heels. The originators often move on to new areas, the wave of imitators eventually crashes, and the search for the new begins all over again. Thus, for better or worse, pop music is an ever-changing phenomenon in American popular culture.
Breithaupt, Don, with Jeff Breithaupt. Precious and Few: Pop Music of the Early '70s. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Clarke, Donald, editor. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. New York, Penguin Books, 1989.
Gregory, Hugh. A Century of Pop: A Hundred Years of Music That Changed the World. New York, Acapella Publishers, 1998.
Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box. CD box set. Rhino Records, 1998.
Miller, Jim, editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Rolling Stone Press, 1980.
Whitburn, Joel. Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1996: Chart Data Compiled from Billboard's Pop Singles Charts, 1955-1996. 8th Edition. Record Research, 1997.
"Pop Music." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pop-music
"Pop Music." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pop-music
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