A brief history of pop music
Quite some time ago, the term pop music was brand new, referring to the hip new genre of ragtime, which was sweeping the nation.
One hundred twenty years later, ragtime has mostly faded from public memory, but the pop music label remains relevant.
Every era, every year, is defined by the popular music of that time. Somehow, this music manages to be simultaneously disposable and timeless, and despite the incredibly wide range of styles that pop music encompasses, it tends to contain similar themes.
But how can so many songs and artists fall under the same immortal category?
To put it briefly, pop has the unique ability to morph and evolve without losing its essence. Thousands of artists have been able to create music under the same label while still maintaining an individual sense of style.
Perhaps it’s this flexibility that allows the genre to appeal to so many. In fact, our guest expert on the subject of pop music, recording artist Sorana, was heavily inspired by the passion and artistry of a particular pop icon.
“I decided I wanted to be a singer one afternoon when I was three years old and I was singing, ‘I Will Always Love You‘ while Whitney Huston was blasting out my boom box. Ever since that day, I’ve always had this unstoppable passion to be on stage and sing. It was all because listened to Whitney and I understood the power of her music.”
Sorana, recently signed to APG/Atlantic, will serve as our guide through the intricacies and commonalities of pop music as it stands today. Hopefully by the end we’ll have a better understanding of why pop continues to shape generations of musicians and listeners alike.
Different and the same
To start, let’s take a closer look at the structure of a pop song and the musical elements at work.
Pop music almost always uses the following structure template: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus.
There are variations, of course, including Genesis’s famed album title ABACAB, named after the structure variation the band used after Peter Gabriel’s departure to pursue his solo career.
This structure, and even the common song runtime of 2-4 minutes, have their roots in the early day of commercially available music.
78 RPM records (and later 45 RPM 7” singles) could only hold a few minutes of music on each side. If you wanted listeners to remember your song, you needed to repeat song elements.
In this way, pop music came into its own.
But as Sorana noted during our discussion, that same basic structure can be tweaked and reformed so many different ways that it always allows for a sense of modernization.
Specifically, pop’s ability to borrow from other contemporary genres helps it stay young and fresh, speaking to audiences that are craving a new sound.
“I do think that pop is constantly evolving. Pop music started to borrow elements from other genres, always creating a new vibe. This blending between pop and other genres keeps pop music interesting. But the thing that keeps pop music popular is the chorus. In my opinion, every hit song has a big pop chorus at its core.”
This same-but-different approach can be compared to storytelling. The Hero’s Journey, the basis for almost every story in human history, utilizes a steady structure while switching out character quirks and story settings.
A pop song’s chorus can be compared to the climax of a story. Sure, it needs the other elements to keep it afloat, but what fans remember is that singular moment, when a piece of art reaches its peak.
Pop music has continued to deliver powerful choruses, and sometimes that’s more than enough to embed a song in a listener’s memory.
A fascinating topic within pop music is the way in which international pop music reflects the fluidity and give-and-take of the internet age.
Globalization has had a profound impact on the way we make music, and as Sorana explained, a country’s own pop music can typically be traced back to multiple sources.
“Each country has its own particular taste and unique way of making pop music. For example, in Romania, my home country, our pop music is a combination of the Arabic scale and Latino-inspired beats. I think that in every country, pop music is influenced by folk music, the language, and the common character of the people.”
Traditions find their way into our music, even if we don’t really notice it.
When it comes to American pop music, basic pop song structures are layered over with pieces of other genres that we currently love. In particular, trap and country music have found their way into our Top 40.
Neither of these supplemental genres is a dominant force, but their wide appeal makes it easy for them to slip into pop songs.
If you want a fascinating few hours of listening, check out an international pop playlist sometime. Try to take note of the dozens of different stylistic influences at work. Chances are each song will pay tribute to its home country and the music that’s most popular there.
In terms of lyrical content, pop music tends to be quite focused. Whereas the instrumentals on pop songs reflect their country of origin in some way, pop lyrics almost always discuss universal human topics.
Before we move on, go ahead and take a guess as to which emotion-based topic has remained the most popular with recording artists of all stripes.
If you’re at a loss, Sorana is here to help:
“I think the main topic that we can’t stop singing and writing about is love. No matter how many songs I write about true love and heartbreak, I don’t think it’s possible to really understand what it means, why it happens. Love is a mystery, it’s the sentiment that unites us, and I think we keep singing about it in the hope we will someday understand it.”
Love and relationships remain the driving force behind all pop music, regardless of time period and musical style.
From an academic point of view, the history of pop music can even be seen as a decades-long collaborative project between all pop artists: working together to uncover the subtleties of love and loss, infatuation and disenchantment.
Even more interesting is the fact that the topic never grows old. There will never be a time when audiences complain that pop songs focus too much on emotional states.
As humans, we crave that kind of relatability in our art, and for the last one hundred years, pop has been there to help us process complex feelings and desires.
The chameleon quality
In closing, I wanted to briefly touch on the perceived future of pop music and where it might go from here.
If we see popular music as a reflection of the social and political developments of our time, then the next few decades promise to be especially interesting.
We can expect to see artists grapple with understanding their place in it all, as well as struggling against alienation and technological overload.
Sorana described the songwriting process as a highly personal search for meaning and an attempt to bare one’s own self to the public.
“I’m happy that writers and artists are free to create music that represents their soul, a unique blend of emotions, notes, and sounds that manifest a personality. This is a crazy thought, but maybe one day every artist will create their own genre, just like everyone has a different personality with their own traits.”
We may very well see this kind of hyper-personal pop music come to fruition. Internet culture has already given rise to a very specific brand of micro-pop that allows for endless customization and specificity.
It seems clear that pop isn’t going anywhere. It will keep shifting, blending chameleon-like into a diverse range of styles and subgenres.
Most importantly, pop music can carry with it a great deal of substance and artistic weight. Even songs that aren’t especially lyrically complex become vital cultural touchstones purely because so many people connect with them.
That kind of mass appeal should be celebrated, not criticized. Like it or not, pop speaks to everyone, something that no other genre has been able to achieve.
So dig back through some of your old favorites and find some new ones, too.
There’s no substitute for what it feels like to be alive right now, and pop is here to document it.