Open Your Ears to Pop
Open Your Ears

When you think about pop music, names like Madonna, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga come to mind. But pop music is more than Top 40 Billboard Singles, boy bands, and female superstars. Pop music has a rich musical history that parallels the development of other genres like rock music, as well as innovations in recording and music technology.

Here’s Michael Jackson, the King of Pop:

The History of Pop

Pop music and rock music developed around the same time, in the 1950s and 1960s, with bands like the Beatles straddling both rock and pop. While what we think of as pop music has evolved significantly from its rock counterparts, both genres share a common history, deriving musical elements from the blues and popular culture.

By the 1980s, pop music had developed its own style – sometimes counter to rock music – focusing on music that appealed to mainstream audiences, embracing capitalism, excess, and fashion.

Using music videos to launch themselves to career stardom, artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper set the groundwork for the pop idol. With millions of dollars in marketing from major labels behind them pop idols took over culture globally, impacting every hemisphere with catchy tunes, rhythmic dance beats, and outrageous personalities.

Pulling from the iconic Marilyn Monroe, Madonna glorifies materialism, fashion, love, and excess in her pop hit “Material Girl”:

Today pop music depends heavily on music technology. Tools like Auto-Tune correct wrong notes and errors in vocal performance, even in live venues, leading to much criticism of the genre. It is not unusual for a pop superstar to falter when they perform without an engineering team behind them tweaking wrong notes.

While this is not the case with musicians like Adele and Lady Gaga, who have shown themselves to be vocal powerhouses, other musicians like Britney Spears and KE$HA have been notorious for bad live performances.

Fans don’t seem to care though, as pop music makes up a significant portion of international album sales annually. Social media has allowed pop stars to connect directly with fans through Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, building in audiences that have a vested emotional interest in the latest comings and goings of their favorite artists. Reality shows, video, radio, and major label marketing power further pushes sales of pop music.

Breaking Down Pop Music

Unlike other musical genres like jazz, classical music, and rock, which followed a natural musical evolution, pop music moved rapidly towards simplification.

Focusing on catchy “hooks”, simple lyrics that appeal to a wide audience, dance rhythms, and basic chord progressions, pop music is less about challenging the listener musically and more about reaching the widest global audience available, usually with an eye towards increasing sales, licensing, and revenues through merchandise and concert tickets.

Musical forms like jazz or rock still depend largely on the appeal of live music and strong vocal talent. But the cultural image of the high-paid commercially successful pop idols comes before their individual musicianship – hence the reliance on technology to make up for what they may lack in that department.

Chord Basics

Pop music relies heavily on a simplified form of standard Western European harmony. With progressions that center on tonic and dominant chords, it is not unusual for a famous pop song to keep to a handful of predictable chords.

In this video, Allesandro Rotondi demonstrates how many pop songs can be played with just four chords – G, D, Em, C (add 9):

Dance Rhythms

Most pop music songs have a fun bouncy rhythm behind them. Often in 4/4 time, the rhythms are simple and meant to be “catchy” and danceable. Many pop songs develop their own signature dance moves, furthering the popularity of the song. Examples would be Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with its signature moonwalk dance, and Madonna’s “Vogue”.

“Gangnam Style” took the world by storm, with its catchy electronic K-Pop beat and crazy music video.

Appeal to a Wide Audience

While some pop songs do address deeper issues, like “How to Save a Life” from Fray or Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”, many are simply “bubblegum pop” marketed to tweens and teens. Lyrics often center on subjects like love, partying, fashion, and popularity.

Breakups are a popular theme, and often songs are fun and catchy with relatable music videos. Songs often have a very simple verse-chorus structure, with catchy “hooks” that make the chorus or introduction memorable. The “hook” can be instrumental, a lyric, or even a crazy sound effect, and is usually the most memorable part of the song.

Listen to the chorus of Taylor Swift’s “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together”:

Top Pop Tunes

While there are literally thousands upon thousands of pop songs that have hit the Top 40, here are a few of the most famous songs from yesterday and today. Notice similarities like simple chord progressions and basic pop rhythms.

As you listen, ask yourself these questions:

  • What makes each song unique?
  • How does each song appeal to a wide audience?
  • Does this song make you want to dance?
  • How is this song different from other genres like classical, rock, or jazz?

Michael Jackson in” Thriller”

Jackson’s Thriller redefined the music video in 1982. With a horrific storyline, high production value, and riveting special effects, Jackson showed how the marriage of pop music and visual imagery could jettison an album to superstardom:

Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”

Houston’s smooth lyrics are perfect for this song that hits upon love and dance – two top themes of pop music. Listen to the simple rhythm and the catchy lyric “I wanna dance with somebody”:

Pharrell Wiliams “Happy”

This unlikely hit tune, straight out of the children’s movie Despicable Me 2, took the radio waves by storm with its very, very “happy” lyrics and unforgettable up-tempo beats reminiscent of an earlier musical period:

Britney Spears “…Baby One More Time”

The princess of pop appeals to the tweens and teens with her fun music video set after a boring school day. With the catchy hook “baby, baby”, her signature vocal sound, and perfectly choreographed dance moves, this tune hit the top of the charts and is still one of Spear’s most popular songs:

Going beyond Pop music: Global Pop

Pop music borrows heavily from other musical forms, and many songs today have ties to hip hop music, Latin music, African music, Bollywood, and electronica. As these different musical styles fuse together, clearly defining what pop music becomes more difficult. Artists easily cross genres. The Digital Age has made this easier with collaboration and communication crossing national boundaries and continents.

Latin Pop Phenomenon

Pop music is a global phenomenon. As English-speaking audiences were enjoying rock and pop music in the 1960s and 1970s, Latinos were enjoying their own pop idols who drew from traditional music of Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean. Earlier legends included Julio Iglesias and Sergio Mendes. The 1990s saw a surge in Latin pop music as it gained international fame with performers like Ricky Martin, Shakira, and the King of Latin Pop: Enrique Iglesias.

Many artists like Christina Aguilera were able to crossover easily to English-Speaking audiences and musicians Shakira achieve global stardom by performing for the Olympics. Latin pop pulls heavily from the simple chord progressions of Western European music, the rhythmic dance of traditional Latin music, and bilingual lyrics that appealed to a wider international audience:

Asian Pop Music

The obsession with technology in Asia has led to incredible hologram concerts, pyrotechnics, and incredible visual exciting concert experiences. Music is tied heavily to electronica and dance music, but some songs also incorporate rock and hip hop.

Genres like K-Pop, short for Korean pop music, combine music technology, dance, and hip-hop in a fun catchy pop music genre that is enjoyed throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Perhaps the most famous innovation is the virtual Hatsune Miku, a pop star that uses the Vocaloid software for her voice and was animated by a team of media artists sponsored by the YAMAHA Corporation:

Permanent Pop

With worldwide popularity and new artists sharing their pop tunes with the planet via social media and the Internet, the genre will continue to provide us with new songs that will make us smile and dance.

Join us again, when we look back to the music that started it all: both rock and pop have their roots in the blues. But for now, whether you are a fan or not, pop music (and the spectacle that goes with it) is here to stay. Would you really want it any other way?

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Series Information
This is part 1 of 31 in the Open Your Ears series.

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