Genre of the Week: Pop, part 1

When the term was first concieved in the United States "pop" meant broad, mass-appealing commercial music, while more avant-garde music had special genre names. Today, in Sweden, it is the mass-appealing genres that have very specific names, like "hip-hop/R&B" or "schlager", while the more avant-garde music goes under one big collective name - "pop"!

This amazing tranformation shows the nebulousness of the term pop, and not least the huge gap in communication between Europe and the US, where "pop" still refers very specifically to commercial music and the genre "indie pop", however soft it is, is still referred to as "indie rock". With Sweden being extreme the other way (Best Pop at awards shows is the narrowest, least commercial category) the situation is almost as absurd as with the word "liberal", which means "social democrat" in the US and "hardline economic conservative" in Sweden!

The term pop goes back to the 19th century at least and originally referred to all of what we today think of as "popular music". I guess it was naturally so - this was an era of sharp divisions between "high" and "low" music and the concept of "non-commercial" popular music would have been anathema to the Victorians as indeed it was to philosopher Theodor Adorno, who famouly denounced pop in 1941. At about the same time, however, the popular music form of jazz took a decidedly anti-commercial turn and suddenly there were strata within popular music to consider... It is no surprise that "pop" came to be applied to the commercial end - these first few years of the forties also saw the first charts being published and categorisation becoming important.

When the teenagers in the US finally rebelled against the establishment a decade and a half later, their new-found energy was directed against pop. No great shock there. It becomes considerably more problematic when the new music reached Europe without its subcultural context - here the new terms "pop" and "rock'n'roll" became largely intertwined, and the rebelliousness was stripped of its character of authenticity. It was the new unfamiliar music the kids wanted, not "real music". Larry Parnes's manufactured no-talents like Tommy Steele had the same level of credibility as Elvis Presley here in Sweden, and both were definately "pop".

Still, it was the American definition of the word that retained importance for a while. New sounds manufactured along the old models were still labelled pop - teen pop, Brill Building pop and later sunshine pop, bubblegum pop were all american genres with a highly commercial bent. Typically, the aspect of these genres that took hold in europe was not the commerciality but the lack of hard, mean edges - as the rocker/mod rivalry in england came to a final climax in the mid-sixties, there was no problem for non-manufactured mod-derived british invasion bands to label their music pop. Sweet vocal arrangements, orchestrations, pretty melodies instead of commerciality became the hallmarks of pop in England, as futher cemented by the creation of genres like psychedelic pop and power pop. In the US, there was still no problem calling similarly soft material "rock", leading to nomenclature like folk rock or soft rock.

The latter term would have been especially surprising to the English, as during the seventies one more crucial dimension were added to the layers of meaning of pop. In England commercial orientation towards a female audience appeared as a pop attribute to contrast with the male-oriented rock genres like pub rock, prog rock and hard rock. When traditionally feminine attributes became popular again, with disco (a definate pop genre in both countries, at least eventually) and even more so with synth, it was inevitable the term for this music would be "pop". In an echo of the sixties mod/rocker rivalry, the eighties saw a new romantic/greaser rivalry where the former group went towards the pop end to contrast themselves against the highly testosterone-fuelled maleness of the latter.

Today's pop, here in Sweden, is derived from the similarly early-eighties-created genre of indie pop, and is indeed soft and anti-testicular as well as being sophisticated. The only piece of the puzzle left is the dissapearance of the name from the mainstream end - why isn't commercial music still labelled "pop"? Well, from the sixties onwards, other types of commercially successful music have appeared - soul, dance, R&B and dansband/schlager - that eventually squeezed pure pop off the charts. I guess the Idol phenomenon has occasionally thrown pure pop back onto the charts but discount Idol stars and the current swedish hit list is all hip-hop, dance and R&B, plus a small selection of long-established stars like Britney and Lenny Kravitz.

Pop is dead, long live pop. Next week I'll take a closer look at the musical characteristics of the most commercial pop, which have stayed surprisingly constant over the decades.


Rachel said...

Wow! I love you. This is a really interesting post-- not just for your thoughts on terminology, but you touch an the cultural hierarchy that restages itself in the postwar boom with the rise of rock 'n' roll/pop on a mass scale (especially with the new importance of the image with television), and the later backlash in "counterculture", which I would argue codified the pop/rock gender dichotomy.

Do you write about cultural hierarchy elsewhere (19th c, or 20th)? I'd like to know your thoughts.

Birdseed said...

Yeah, I read your post on the counterculture (via History Is Made At Night) as an (increasingly?) male-centered cultural phenomenon, and it makes frightful amounts of sense in hindsight. I'm collecting my thoughts for a response, actually, but as you can see from this unfinished "part 1" I occasionally tend to let ideas run into the sand.

I've written quite a bit on various bits of hierarchy, though mostly class/race/global hierarchies rather than gender ones (though I'm working on that, recently I've tried to write more feminist texts, like "Little Girl Blues" in August). I'm trying to think of what could interest you, but ones I'm fairly proud of in this vein include posts like "Almost" (July), "Hate Thy Neighbour" (May), "Race and the Novelty Song" (April), "Does Your Assigned Stereotype..." (March) and "The Problematic Issue of the White Audience" (January).