Not all hit singles are produced by pop artists. They’re also produced by artists from many other genres like country music singers Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, rock groups Radiohead and Foo Fighters, folk singers Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons, singer-songwriters Elton John and Ed Sheeran, contemporary R&B and soul music artists Beyonce and Adele, dance-music artists Daft Punk and Skrillex, and hip hop artists and rappers Kanye West and Eminem. Artists like these produce hit singles by writing songs that follow the pop-music formula but include elements of their own genre, and by doing this they can create their own unique style of pop music. Look at the list of best-selling artists below and notice how many have experience in more than one genre. It’s artists like these who are most likely to create new styles of pop music in the future.
Popular music, any commercially oriented music principally intended to be received and appreciated by a wide audience, generally in literate, technologically advanced societies dominated by urban culture. Unlike traditional folk music, popular music is written by known individuals, usually professionals, and does not evolve through the process of oral transmission.
Historically, popular music was any non-folk form that acquired mass popularity—from the songs of the medieval minstrels and troubadours to those elements of fine-art music originally intended for a small elite audience but that became widely popular. After the Industrial Revolution, true folk music began to disappear, and the popular music of the Victorian era and the early 20th century was that of the music hall and vaudeville, with its upper reaches dominated by waltz music and operettas. In the United States, minstrel shows performed the compositions of songwriters such as Stephen Foster.
However, most music historians would agree that pop music, as we know it, began with the dawning of the recording industry. To help make customers’ choices easier, record companies would colour-code music of different genres. In the immediate post-war years, RCA Victor, for example, sold classical music on red vinyl, country and polka on green, children’s on yellow, and so on, with black the reserve of ordinary pop, a genre that covered a multitude of sins, but essentially meant “anything else”.
Of course, many of the musical styles that came under different headings – jazz, blues, country, and so on – we simply the pop music of the time and place from which they originated. Today, it’s widely accepted that early jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were artists of the highest calibre – likewise bebop musicians such as John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins. But at the time, many critics frowned up such upstarts, leaping around with their blaring horns, making things up on the spot rather than sitting and playing notes that had been carefully written onto the page.
But until the emergence of The Beatles, pop had remained largely ignored by critics on any intellectual level, with the music papers generally existing to describe new discs and inform the public and industry alike of goings on. But in 1963, the renowned English music critic William Mann wrote about the Fab Four in The Times, in a manner previously reserved for high art: “One gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of ‘Not A Second Time’ (the chord progression which ends Mahler’s ‘Song Of The Earth’).” He spoke of “lugubrious music” and “pandiationic clusters”, and achieved dubious notoriety when he called Lennon and McCartney “the greatest songwriters since Schubert”. People who would not have been pop music fans were starting to sit up and take it seriously – perhaps not yet going as far as to call it art, but nonetheless applying the same critical analysis that would be applied to the more traditional arts.
The pop album itself was by now becoming a recognised art form, and groups were thinking about every aspect of their work, with the album cover being elevated from mere pretty packaging to pop-art itself. Groups and singers would hire the best photographers and graphic designers to create their record sleeves, and work alongside filmmakers to produce artful promo clips. Perhaps the most obvious example of this embracing of the art world is Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for whose cover The Beatles recruited the respected pop artist Peter Blake, but it’s worth noting that the idea for their “White Album” cover came out of conversations between McCartney and another respected pop artist, Richard Hamilton, who produced the poster inserted into the finished package.
Finally, pop had convinced the art world that the two camps were of a similar mind – pop was one of them. And yet it was in this very acceptance that a strange thing happened. With the launch of Rolling Stone magazine in 1967 came the beginning of serious pop criticism. Except it wasn’t called that; it was called rock criticism. Pop –short for “popular”, let’s remember – music was a catch-all term that became used to encompass whatever current styles were in vogue, be they the doo-wop of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the rock’n’roll of Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the Merseybeat of Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas or The Searchers, or heartthrobs such as Ritchie Valens or Dion DiMucci. But now rock (without the roll) music was breaking away, distancing itself from pop as though in some way suggesting itself to be of a higher form. By 1968, you were either rock (alongside The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix) or pop (like Cliff Richard, Lulu or Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich). Rock had its music press, its critics and its intellectuals; pop was now strictly for little kids and squares. In the very instant that pop finally became accepted as the art that it was, a coup from within saw it banished to the bubblegum shelf.
Pop is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern form during the mid-1950s in the United States and the United Kingdom. The terms popular music and pop music are often used interchangeably, although the former describes all music that is popular and includes many disparate styles.
Pop music is the genre of popular music that produces the most hits. A hit is a song that sells many copies, and the latest hits are listed every week on the charts. To get on the charts, a song must be released as a single, although most singles are also released on an album. Songs that become hits almost always share certain features that are sometimes called the pop-music formula. They have a good rhythm, a catchy melody, and are easy to remember and sing along to. They usually have a chorus that’s repeated several times and two or more verses. Most pop songs are between two and five minutes long, and the lyrics are usually about the joys and problems of love and relationships. Pop songs are produced by groups like the boy band One Direction and the girl group Girls’ Generation, and by pop singers like Justin Bieber and Madonna
Humans have been making music for as long as they’ve been around – longer, even. A flute found in a cave in northwestern Solvenia in 1995 has been dated to somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Whether it was made by Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons continues to be debated, but what it does show is quite how long we – or our ancestors – have been enjoying music. Over the ages, of course, the style of music has changed unimaginably, with new instruments still being invented and developed today, along with new ways of playing them, varying ways of vocalising, and so on, as people have become more sophisticated.
So at what point on the timeline of human existence does music become “pop”? Pop, after all, originated as shorthand for “popular music”, the sounds that were being dug by whatever generation in whichever society. The broadside ballads popular in Tudor and Stuart times are sometimes referred to by historians as “early pop music”. These bawdy, comical and sentimental songs of the streets and taverns were pedaled on sheet music by street vendors, and proved popular with landed gentry as much as serfs in the fields. In Victorian times, audiences would enjoy concerts by the German-born composer Sir Julius Benedict, billed as the London Popular Concerts, while the term “pop song” was in use at least 100 years ago.
For an industry where image is key, pop music itself has got an image problem of its own. Many critics view it with disdain, while even fans of one sort of pop music consider other types of pop music to be beneath contempt – valueless and not worthy of being considered music, let alone art. But this is nothing new. In fact, this is a problem as old as pop music itself. For as far back as you care to look, poor old pop music has been bullied, belittled and sneered at: “It’s not art, it’s just pop.”
It wasn’t until the mid-50s that pop music began to actually mean something in its own right. With the explosion of rock’n’roll music, the pop business built itself an empire. The songwriters in New York’s legendary Brill Building crafted their art, with producers headed by Phil Spector delivering three-minute pop symphonies as rich and multi-timbred as Wagner at his height. (In the following decade, Brian Wilson’s production and songwriting expanded on Spector’s template; in 1966, Pet Sounds, marked a creative high point for both Wilson and The Beach Boys.)
Over the next two or three years, pop embraced art like never before. Let’s not forget that so many of the greatest pop acts come from art-college roots, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie, Queen, REM, Blur, Pulp, Lady Gaga and too many more to mention. And so the battle lines were being drawn. For pop’s elite in the mid-60s, you were either with them or against them. Fans of Bob Dylan, the darling of intellectual students who loved his political and protest songs, were shocked by what they saw as his “selling out” when he switched from acoustic to electric guitar. One disgruntled fan, Keith Butler, famously shouted “Judas” at him during a show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966. Dylan replied contemptuously, “I don’t believe you.” When Butler was interviewed after the show, he sneered: “Any bloody pop group can do this rubbish!” The implication was that fans had come to see something of artistic merit – not pop music. But the times they were a-changin’.
Snobbery exists around any form of art, and pop would be no different in this respect. While the critics (not to mention many fans and even the artists themselves) sought to draw a line between the artistically credible (rock) and the commercial (pop), other artists refused to be pigeonholed. The reality is, as with all art, that there is good and bad pop music. What proved difficult in the late 60s – and remains tough today – is to explain exactly what makes something good and something else bad. Marc Bolan is a good example of an artist that crossed the divide between rock and pop. His original Tyrannosaurus Rex were an interesting group, certainly closer to the outsider edges of rock than commercial pop, with plenty to attract critics while also appealing to hippies and art students. But when Bolan followed Dylan’s lead and ditched his acoustic guitar in favour of an electric one, shortened the band’s name to T.Rex, and ended his partnership with Steve Peregrin Took, the result was a run of pop singles that brought him greater popularity than any British artist had known since the days of Beatlemania. Indeed, a new term was coined to describe the mania: T.Rextacy. It was clearly pop, very definitely art and, crucially, extremely good.