The Mancunion

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Column: Talk About, Pop Music

What exactly is pop? Is Pop associated with a certain era? Tom Ingham takes a look

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Pop is one of the most productive nouns in music, but perhaps the most misunderstood. Would anyone describe themselves as a ‘pop’ fan? You’ve got rock, metal, jazz, dance, folk fans – but rarely would someone label themselves as an out and out pop fan. The term originated in the 1920’s as an abbreviation of the word ‘popular’, reflecting what the mainstream was at the time, but pop as we know it (from the late 50’s/early 60’s onwards) isn’t necessarily befitting of this title.

Starting out as a single’s game, pop songs squeezed themselves onto 45’s and were intended to provide three minutes of non-stop satisfaction. Dusty Springfield, Buddy Holly and Elvis all enjoyed success with the single, however nailing them down to a particular album isn’t easy. By 1968 album sales overtook singles as more bands began to experiment with the pop album. The Beach Boys Pet Sounds showed that an album could have more than 2 singles and a load of filler; this was a sophisticated record for the maturing market.

Those early records at the dawn of the sexual revolution provided as many life lessons as any novel could. Pop albeit three minutes at the max played the soundtrack to pivotal moments along the great journey of growing up, the effervescent excitement of ‘she loves you’ could enthral the young romantic whilst Roy Orbison was there for those harder moments.

To say pop was mainstream and popular back in the 60’s and early 70’s isn’t completely true. It was still something affiliated with rebellion; the sight of Ziggy Stardust was something a lot of parents found shocking. But was Ziggy pop? To most he’s a symbol of the Glam Rock genre, but there’s no getting away from the pop values of a song like ‘changes’. Carole Kay, a prolific 60’s session bassist, talked about making a song ‘pop’, and any band could do this, regardless of genre.

Pop in the 21st century has lost a little of its excitement for me, and it’s nothing to do with the songs as Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift prove. Unfortunately we’re victims of technology; the 24hour nature of music was something that just didn’t exist back when TOTP was the only music programme for teenagers. Pop isn’t something to cherish anymore, the average non-muso iTunes reads like one long compilation CD.

Pop can be applied to those early rock n roll bands like The Beatles, to the Soul stars like The Ronettes and all the way to the New Romantics of the 1980’s. It’s a matter of art, not enterprise – being popular has nothing to do with it. Currently pop is being mixed up with dance music, the like of LMFAO just isn’t pop – yes it’s danceable, but that’s all it is. Despite being a somewhat unsavoury term for artists, the label is not as shallow as was make out. A three minute single can teach us about life and love, Phil Spector described them as a “little symphony for the kids” – this ‘party rock anthem’ is most certainly not.

  • Nia

    So what, pop music ended with the New Romantics?

    Number one, this article needs a LOT of editing to tidy up the rough edges.

    Number two, as much as I agree that David Bowie and the Ronettes are as “pop” as they come, I would fundamentally disagree with the author’s snobbish observation that “the like of LMFAO isn’t pop [sic]“. Look, I hate LMFAO, and I’d be delighted if they never recorded music again. But at the same time, the perception that their music can’t be called “pop” because it’s a) not to the writer’s taste, or b) influenced by dance music or trashy R&B, is narrow-minded at best. The beauty of pop music is that it absorbs left-field influences and makes them accessible. Get over yourself.

    • Tom Ingham

      I don’t think pop ended with the new romantics (I say Taylor Swift etc
      are still pop). You’re telling me that Ziggy and even the Thin White
      Duke didn’t have pop songs? My point is pop isn’t an easy label to
      apply. And I stand by my own definition of pop, and I take LMFAO out of
      that category. I think it’s a real grey area, something that most people
      don’t actually agree on. I’d say the Smiths had a lot of pop elements,
      but a lot would say that was an insult.

  • Delia

    hate to be a stickler but pop music has existed for centuries. pop = popular. e.g. greensleeves was pop music. beethoven was pop music. it’s just whatever was popular at the time.

  • Tom Ingham

    I don’t think pop and popular do necessarily go hand in hand