Pop music as a genre features a noticeable rhythmic element, melodies and hooks, a mainstream style and conventional structure. The term is also sometimes used to refer to any piece of music that appears in popular record charts due to a high number of sales and/or airplay - a subject treated in the article Popular music.
In opposition to music that requires education to appreciate, a defining characteristic of pop music is that anyone is able to enjoy it. Artistic concepts such as musical form and aesthetics are not a concern in the writing of pop songs, the primary objectives being audience enjoyment and commercial success. This of course does not imply that those goals are achieved by every song in this genre.
The term "pop music" was first used in 1926 in the sense of "having popular appeal", but since the 1950s, it has been used to designate a musical genre, originally characterized as a lighter alternative to rock & roll.
The standard format of pop music is the song, customarily less than five minutes in duration, and with an instrumentation that can range from an orchestra to a lone singer. Despite this wide scope, a typical lineup in a pop band includes a lead guitarist, a bassist, a drummer (or an electronic drum machine), a keyboardist and one or more singers, who may or may not themselves be instrumentalists.
Pop songs are generally marked by a consistent and noticeable rhythmic element, a mainstream style and traditional structure. The most common variant is strophic in form and focuses on melodies, catchy hooks and the appeal of the verse-chorus-verse arrangement, with the chorus sharply contrasting the verse melodically, rhythmically and harmonically.
Some of the most common themes in pop music are romantic love and feelings. Pop music often uses the technique of taking themes from other records producing a satirical or self-referential mixture of past styles. It also employs techniques of sampling and sequencing to introduce individuality and creativity.
The origins of pop music can be traced back in Napoli, Italy, in 1679, when Alessandro Scarlatti composed his first opera, or even earlier, when Francesco Provenzale coined the musical language that Scarlatti popularized: light, lively and catchy. They placed the emphasis on arias, clearly separated from the "recitativo", and grounded the arias on a strong sense of rhythm and melody.
An important turning point for popular music was the "speed war" of the late 1940s: a battle among the record labels of the day to enforce their own standard. The dominating format, the 10 inches (25 cm) 78 revolutions per minute (rpm) disc, was challenged in 1948 by the new 33 ⅓ rpm 12 inches (30 cm), and then in 1949 by the 45 rpm 7 inches (18 cm). Next came the switch in the material records were made of, from shellac to vinyl; the new component, combined with the slow 33 ⅓ rpm playing speed, allowed recordings to extend their duration further than was previously possible, and gave birth to the long playing record (LP). Changes continued with the invention of the multitrack tape recorder, permitting completely electronic studio recordings for the first time, and the advent of stereophonic sound in 1958.
These technical advances brought about a recorded music that was standardised, of better quality than ever before, and most importantly, easier and less costly to produce, which meant it could be offered to the public at consistently lower prices. In just one year, 1954 to 1955, the average selling price of an LP in the US dropped from US$5.95 to $3.98. Cheaper records led to greater demand for record players, which in turn became less expensive and continued to boost sales.
These changes in sound recording, coupled with the improved economic circumstances of the era, led the general public to purchase records like never before. Music ceased to be a minority ware with limited following and became a mass-market commodity with an enormous audience. The new financial prospects and opportunities for secure investment attracted capital, which began applying commercial merchandising techniques to music: advertising, tie-ins, cross-media marketing and others. The most infamous of these is the payola, whereby record labels pay radio stations or disc jockeys to play particular songs, artificially influencing their popularity.
The emerging role of investors in the music industry led to tensions between the creative and the productive sides of the business, with the former accusing the latter of excessive concern with commercial success. In many cases the artists won and retained the idiosyncrasies of their style.
Pop did not have as easy a start in the United Kingdom as in the United States due to intense regulation of radio play, known in the day as needle time. This legislation required the BBC, the only broadcaster legally allowed to play music, to do so for only a few hours a day for fear of damaging the revenues of the music industry by allowing the public to hear songs without purchasing them. The ordinance lasted until the launch of Radio 1 in 1967.
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In contrast to genres with clear origins and a traceable evolution, pop developed, and continues to expand, as a haphazard merging of styles. Pop is an amalgam of successive fashions, of elements of many differing styles that have been successful over the years and have ended up incorporated into the genre. This section introduces the most significant tunes of each decade, and shows the progression of pop to its current form. Because performers of all varieties have released tracks that can be classified as pop, this article analyses songs, and does not list names of acts, bands, musicians or singers. For these please see the List of artists who reached number one on the Hot 100 (U.S.), List of artists who reached number one on the UK Singles Chart and List of artists by total number of U.S. number-one singles.
At the start of the 1950s songs in the pop genre were crossover styles from the standard formats of the day. In country music, instrumental soloing was de-emphasised and more prominent vocals added, commonly backed by a string section and vocal chorus, as exemplified in "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window", which became a hit in both the US and the UK in 1953. Two years later American folk music entered the pop spectrum with a modern version of a traditional tune, "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (1955).
Vocal performers of the great American songbook classics, crooners and big band singers, incorporated elements of other styles and orchestral enhancements to their repertoire, giving them greater formal complexity than their traditional antecedents. The Marc Blitzstein arrangement of "Mack the Knife" is an emblematic example, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1954, as did "Singing the Blues" in late 1956 and early 1957.
This was also the decade of the advent of rock and roll, a massively influential genre that spawned innumerable changes in the social and cultural fabric of the US and the world. The convulsion began when "Rock Around the Clock" crowned the charts in the spring and summer of 1955, and continued with "Heartbreak Hotel", and "Tutti Frutti"
Previously regional or niche formats became mainstream for the first time, some going on to become genres in their own right. Latin music entered the general consciousness with "Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White)" in 1955, and Italian popular music with "Nel blu dipinto di blu" in 1958.
The decade kicked off a style that is still recorded today, the novelty song, combining humorous or parodic lyrics and simple, catchy melodies: "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" (1960). In 1961 a new format arose around close vocal harmonies and lyrics reflecting the Californian relationship with surfing, girls and cars: Surf pop. This very successful style is epitomised by tunes like "Surfin' USA" (1963), "California Girls" (1965) and "Good Vibrations" (1966). An unusual combination of minor chords and an unexpected synthesizer formed the basis of one of the greatest hits of the first half of the decade, "Runaway" (1961), whilst in the second half a four-note electric bass riff offsetting a simple melodic arrangement brought commercial and critical success to "Windy" (1967).
The music that had radiated from the US to the rest of the World in the previous decade bounced back in this one, bringing with it nuances, variations and completely new styles. In the United Kingdom teens developed a feel for rock and roll and the blues, blending them with local traditions like skiffle and giving rise to music they could relate to and perform with conviction. Youths with electric guitars began joining beat bands and writing and playing up-tempo melodic pop. Some of these enjoyed success only in Europe ("Apache" (1960), "The Young Ones" (1962), "Keep On Running" (1965) and "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" (1969)), as others crossed the Atlantic and became the British invasion (1964 to 1967), delivering a whole new range of influences to US pop with songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand", "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Downtown" (all 1964), "Yesterday" (1965), "Yellow Submarine" (1966), "To Sir, with Love" (1967), "Hey Jude" (1968) and "Get Back" (1969).
African American music broke into popular culture in a big way in this decade, bringing with it new blahhh blahhh grooves and tempos, such as doo-wop, a style giving prevalence to melody-dominated homophony and vocal-based harmonies; rhythm and blues, a combination of jazz, gospel and blues; Motown, soul music with a prominent and melodic bass line, a distinctive chord structure and a call-and-response singing style:
|"I Can't Stop Loving You" (1962) |
"He's So Fine" (1963)
"Hello Dolly!" (1964)
"Baby Love" (1964)
|"Reach Out I'll Be There" (1966) |
"(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" (1968)
"I Can't Get Next to You" (1969)
Producers' involvement in the business reached new levels in 1965 when Raybert Productions set out to create a pop band from scratch, selecting the members by their looks, dancing ability and appeal to different personalities of fan, rather than musical prowess. The company controlled every aspect of the group, from choice of music to individual behaviours, and guided them to extraordinary success in music, television and cinema. This type of prefabricated band was termed manufactured pop and is the precursor of boy bands and girl groups. The greatest hit by the original act was "I'm a Believer" (1967), followed shortly after by a number one from the second of these manufactured groups, "Sugar, Sugar" in 1969.Many new and different styles of popular music developed during the 1960s, in the aftermath of Rock 'n Roll. For example: Motowna: This was a type of soul music Examples are Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. Soul: based on the Atlantic coast of the US, soul music was also lyrical but somewhat more aggressive than Motown. Examples are Wilson Picket and James Brown. Protest music: the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and unrest over black civil rights gave rise to this type of angry folk song usually sung by a soloist with guitar accompaniment. One example would be Bob Dylan . British music: Britain developed its own distinctive style, and the two best-known bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, were hugely popular in the US as well as in Britain. At the end of the 60's David Bowie mixed theatrical performance with his music to create a style known as Glam Rock.
Many new and different styles of popular music developed during the 1960s, in the aftermath of Rock 'n Roll. For example: Motowna: This was a type of soul music Examples are Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. Soul: based on the Atlantic coast of the US, soul music was also lyrical but somewhat more aggressive than Motown. Examples are Wilson Picket and James Brown. Protest music: the Cold War, the Vietnam war, and unrest over black civil rights gave rise to this type of angry folk song usually sung by a soloist with guitar accompaniment. One example would be Bob Dylan . British music: Britain developed its own distinctive style, and the two best-known bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, were hugely popular in the US as well as in Britain. At the end of the 60's David Bowie mixed theatrical performance with his music to create a style known as Glam Rock.
Singer-songwriters and other folk-based artists were the biggest contributors to the pop genre in the first half of this decade, from 1970's "Bridge over Troubled Water" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You"(although this was not actually a singer-songwriter effort, but a was written by one of the last remnants of the Tin-Pan-Alley/Brill Building days, Burt Bacharach and Hal David), through 1971's "It's Too Late", to 1972's "American Pie", "Alone Again (Naturally)" and "Without You".
The main influence in the second half of the decade came from disco, a dance-oriented style with soaring, reverberated vocals, a steady beat and prominent, syncopated electric bass lines: "Disco Lady" and "Play That Funky Music" (both 1976), "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" (1977), "Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive" (both 1978), "Bad Girls", "Le Freak" and "YMCA" (all 1979).
Country music re-entered pop in 1973 with "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" and in 1975 with "Rhinestone Cowboy", whilst the African American rhythms that had so affected the genre in the previous decade were still producing hits and expanding limits in this one. Disco, an almost entirely African American creation, was joined in the charts by protest songs ("War" (1970)), soulful ballads ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (1972), "Killing Me Softly with His Song" and "Let's Get It On" (both 1973)), and by more upbeat compositions ("Best of My Love" (1977)).
Sounds from the UK continued to permeate pop music, with pop rock songs like "Maggie May" (1971), "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" (1978) and "My Sharona" (1979); blues-based tunes in the style of "In the Summertime" (1970); and simple pop ditties such as "Save Your Kisses for Me" (1976) "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and "Silly Love Songs" (both 1979).
In the same way that Britain contributed to the genre since the 1960s, pop artists started appearing in other nations in the 1970s, some with surprising longevity and significance.
Special mention must go to Sweden for ABBA who took over the music world with songs like "Waterloo" (1974), "Fernando" (1976), "Take a Chance on Me" (1978), "Dancing Queen", "The Name Of The Game" and to Boney M for the hits "Daddy Cool" (1976), "Ma Baker" (1977) and "Rivers of Babylon" (1978).
The mutual benefits the film and music industries could afford each other were evidenced in this decade by the songs from movie soundtracks that became chart-toppers: "Eye of the Tiger", from 1982's Rocky III; "Flashdance... What a Feeling", from Flashdance (1983); "Footloose" from the eponymous 1983 film; "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" from 1984's Against All Odds; "Into the Groove" from 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan; and "Say You, Say Me", out of the 1985 blockbuster White Nights.
The return influences of pop were having a greater impact in this decade than ever before. Hits in the US charts came from the UK, "Careless Whisper", "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" (both 1984), "Faith" (1987), "Got My Mind Set on You" and "Never Gonna Give You Up" (both 1988); and from Australia, "Need You Tonight" (1987).
The rock genre delivered a good number of pop hits this decade, with bands otherwise protective of their roots delving briefly into commercialism. See "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" (1982), "Centerfold", "Every Breath You Take" (both 1983), "Down under" (1983, also from Australia), "I Want to Know What Love Is" (1985) and "Sweet Child o' Mine" (1988).
Producers wishing to multiply their markets tried bringing two accomplished acts together, aggregating the fans of one to those of the other. The concept worked, and the following combinations became hits: "Endless Love" (1981), "Ebony and Ivory" (1982), "Say Say Say" (1983) and "On My Own" (1986).
Pop music came of age in this decade, crowning its own King and Queen of the pop in Michael Jackson and Madonna. Primary examples are "Rock with You" (1980), "Billie Jean", "Beat It" (both 1983), "Like a Virgin" (1984 and 1985), "Bad" (1987), "Dirty Diana" (1988) and "Straight Up" (1989).
The African American influence reached new heights with songs like "What's Love Got to Do with It?" and "I Feel for You" in 1984, "Shake You Down" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" in 1987, "My Prerogative" in 1988, and "Miss You Much" in 1989.
A new kind of release debuted in this decade, the charity record, aimed at raising funds for a particular cause held dear by the performer(s). The first of these came from the United Kingdom in 1984, "Do They Know It's Christmas?", followed in 1985 by "We Are the World", and by "That's What Friends Are For" in 1986.
Many popular songs came from female artists. A few of the most significant are "Hold On", "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "Vogue" (all 1990), "Rush Rush" (1991), "Save the Best for Last" (1992), "The Power of Love" and "Hero" (both 1993), "Creep" (1994), "Waterfalls" (1995), "Wannabe" and "Always Be My Baby" "Un-Break My Heart" (all 1996), "You Were Meant for Me" (late 1996 and early 1997), "How Do I Live" (1997), "Ray of Light" and "Believe" (both 1998), and "...Baby One More Time", "Have You Ever?" (both 1999).
Following-up on the positive results of the eighties, the music and film industries continued to benefit each other in this decade, including pop songs in movie soundtracks and releasing them as singles. Defining hits of the genre include "It Must Have Been Love" from 1990's Pretty Woman; "I Wanna Sex You Up" from New Jack City and "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (both 1991); "End of the Road" from Boomerang and "I Will Always Love You" from The Bodyguard (both 1992); "Can't Help Falling in Love" from 1993's Sliver; "Gangsta's Paradise" from Dangerous Minds and "Kiss from a Rose" from Batman Forever (both 1995); and "Because You Loved Me" from Up Close & Personal (1996).
Dance music broke out of a specialised section of the market into pop in this decade, with hits such as "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" (1991) and "The Sign" (1993). Simultaneously, African American influences continued with traditional pop and hip hop-inspired tunes. Indicative examples of the first are "Black or White" (1991) and "You Are Not Alone" (1995), notable instances of the second being "Baby Got Back" and "Jump" (both 1992), "On Bended Knee" and "I'll Make Love to You" (both 1994), and "I'll Be Missing You" and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" (both 1997).
Pop became truly international in the nineties, with hits coming from diverse and distant locations:
- Germany, "The Power" (1990), "Rhythm Is a Dancer" (1992) and "Mr Vain" (1993);
- the UK, "The One and Only" (1991), "Ebeneezer Goode" (1992), "Things Can Only Get Better" and "Love Is All Around" (both 1994), "Spaceman" (1996), plus one of the best selling singles of all time, "Candle in the Wind 1997";
- Spain, "Macarena" (1996);
- Italy, "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" (1998);
- the Netherlands", "Boom Boom Boom Boom" (1998); and
- Australia, "Truly Madly Deeply" (1998).
In a similar vein to the previous decade, female singers had a big influence on the pop genre in the noughties, with soulful ballads, hip hop pieces and dance tracks: "Music","Oops!... I Did It Again" , "Genie In a Bottle", (1999) (2000); "Fallin'", "Love Don't Cost a Thing", "All for You" and "Can't Get You out of My Head" (all 2001); "Foolish", "What about Us?" (2002); "Crazy in Love" and "White Flag" (both 2003); "If I Ain't Got You", "Toxic", and "1, 2 Step" (all 2004); "Hung Up", "We Belong Together", "Hollaback Girl" and "Since U Been Gone" (all 2005); and "Girlfriend", "Umbrella", and "Gimme More" (all 2007)."piece of me" "Break the Ice" "No Air", " Disturbia" " Womanizer" (all 2008).
Traditional rock and pop rock made forays into pop with consecrated artists and newcomers both introducing songs to the genre: "Smooth", "Maria Maria" and "It's My Life" (all 2000), "Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)" and "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" (both 2001), "This Love" (2003), and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (2005), "Burnin' Up (The Jonas Brothers, 2008)." Entirely digital productions integrated new technology and sounds, and as electronic dance music entered the mainstream, pop artists started using producers and remixers who contributed their styles to the genre: "Feel Good Inc." (2005) and "Crazy" (2006) are good examples.
Once more, African Americans contributed heartily to pop with diverse styles. Some hits were hip hop-based, such as "I'm Real" and "Dilemma" (2001 and 2002 respectively), "In da Club" and "Ignition" (both 2003), "Yeah!" (2004), "Candy Shop" and "Don't Phunk with My Heart" (both 2005). Other chart-toppers were variations on reggae beats ("It Wasn't Me" (2000) and "Get Busy" (2003)) or more traditional rap compositions ("The Way You Move" (2003)).
The international appeal of pop was evident in the new millennium, with artists from around the world influencing the genre and local variants merging with the mainstream. Latin pop was successful with songs from Spain, "Hero" (late 2001/early 2002), "The Ketchup Song" (2002); and Colombia, "Whenever, Wherever" (2002) and "Hips Don't Lie" (2006). Russia made its breakthrough to the international charts with "All the Things She Said" (2002) which even topped the UK Singles Chart.