While most people think of pop music as a genre on its own, it really hasn’t been for most of history. The term “pop music” is basically used to describe any popular music within the mainstream. Of course, you’ll get a lot of different definitions for it, depending on who you ask. The real answer lies somewhere between them because pop is just a broad-strokes term to label music that appeals to a wide audience and typically stays within the conventions of the genre it draws on for inspiration.
If you want to look at pop as a genre, it gets a bit more complicated. Pop borrows from and overlaps with rock, urban, dance, Latin, and country music throughout history.
In this article, we’ll try to flesh out exactly what pop music is, name some of its defining traits, and hopefully, give a reasonable explanation of why people think it’s a genre.
Pop Music Defined
There are two main definitions that come to mind when thinking of pop music today. The first is that it isn’t a genre at all. Many people simply use the term pop music to refer to any kind of music that was popular at the time. It’s often confused with music that charts consistently on popular charts like the Billboard Music Charts. But just because something is popular, it doesn’t make it a pop song.
The second definition of pop music is if you look at it as a genre. (Get ready, this may confuse you). Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in the 1950s. Until the 60s ended, pop and rock and roll were the same genre.
To best define pop music as a genre, we should look at what experts have to say about it. Pop music as a genre is used to characterize music that can be distinguished from jazz, classical, rock, and folk songs. It’s also typically a style designed to create instant singles aimed at teenagers.
It can incorporate elements of other genres, but its overall definition is continually evolving and changing as music evolves and changes. The best way to look at pop music as a genre is to try to nail down the common elements of it.
Here, I’ll try to give pop music as simple a definition as possible since that was probably a bit confusing to try to read through.
Pop music is any music made after the 1960s that was commercial, ephemeral, and accessible.
The Elements of Pop Music (Sort Of)
Nailing down key elements of pop music can be tricky, mainly because pop music borrows so much from other genres. What we consider the pop genre is really an amalgamation of traits from other styles of music that coalesce into something with a wide appeal. Basically, pop music will freely take traits from rock, classical, folk, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, electronic, and basically every other possible genre.
It’s most often characterized by a few small yet defining qualities that almost always appear in pop music.
Pop music will nearly always have a danceable rhythm or beat. It tends to have repeated choruses and hooks, and it’s almost always on the short side when it comes to length. Pop music tends to be written in basic formats, such as verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It’ll have simple melodies, generally stays pretty positive, rarely challenges audiences socially or mentally, and tries to cater to mass appeal while avoiding alienating any group of people.
One of the key elements of pop music is its broad appeal. It’s the reason why it regularly climbs music charts and finds spaces internationally where other genres can’t. It’s generally relatable and palatable for most audiences, even if you hate cliché tempos and beats. You’ll often end up hearing catching vocals that can get stuck in your head for days (Can anybody remember Call Me Maybe?).
Most pop music is also accompanied by mass marketing campaigns run by major record labels. Once a song comes out, you’re going to see it everywhere. On TV, on the radio, on social media, everywhere. The goal is to sell as much of the music as possible before it goes out of style, but the pushy marketing has also earned it a lot of criticism.
Pop music would continually blur the lines between distinct genres. If you look at it today, most people would be hard-pressed to say that it defines a distinctive sound. You’ll often see it criticized as being overly-simple and repetitive. It’s also seen as something that can be picked up and learned easily, unlike other music styles that can take a long time to master.
Pop artists generally perform fewer live concerts than musicians in other genres. In many cases, it’s because the label uses some sophisticated mix to make the song sound the way it does, and they can’t replicate it outside of the studio. That was the reason why so many pop stars were caught lip-syncing their lyrics rather than actually singing during live performances. The practice was all about maintaining an image rather than genuine skill, and pop has increasingly focused more on that than the actual music it produces.
In many cases, pop music can also be characterized by the fact that the artist doesn’t write their own music or play any instrument. It’s common for there to be a complete lack of instruments, using solely synthesizers and soundboards for the background music of songs.
Unlike other genres like rock, classical music, and jazz, pop musicians tend to avoid any complex solos or time signatures and stick to simple music techniques that have a proven track record.
The Strange History of Pop Music
Pop music originated around the 1950s in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Generally, pop music and popular music were interchangeable terms at the time, though popular music meant any kind of music that was popular, regardless of the genre or style.
During the 1950s and 1960s, pop music and rock music were synonymous, with pop music as a style encompassing the fledgling genre that was rock and roll. After the 1960s, pop music would go on to refer to commercially viable music that was accessible and had mass appeal.
As pop music developed, it continued to absorb elements from different styles of popular music. Early pop took on elements of the sentimental ballad and used the vocal harmonies of both gospel and soul music. Instrumentals from jazz, classical music, and rock were also incorporated but were sped up to give the songs a better tempo for dancing.
In the early days, pop music had more variety than it does now, at least in terms of pitch progression, types of instruments used, and vocal tones used.
By the 1960s, most of pop music fell into one of two categories. Either it was a group consisting of drums, guitar, and bass or it involved singers backed by orchestral instruments. Radio pop songs were commonly using heavy reverb guitar sounds, symphonic strings, and even horn sections from orchestras. It was markedly apparent that pop music was well-organized and played by professional instrumentalists.
Outside of progressive pop, most pop music during the 60s was totally controlled by the recording label. The artists had little say in the creative process, as major record labels looked to protect their investments in the artists by choosing the content themselves. This changed dramatically by the mid-60s, as record labels began letting artists experiment with their sound and give them some level of control over marketing the music they were making.
Unfortunately, by the time the 70s rolled around, creative control was back in the hands of record labels. It didn’t get much better until the internet made it possible for artists to share their work and gain notoriety without traditional label marketing campaigns.
Western pop music styles would eventually go on to spread across the world and cemented common elements of commercial music cultures everywhere. It’s served a few unintentional roles as well, like the Americanization of other countries, homogenization of cultures, cultural imperialism, and ushered along the process of globalization.
In the 2000s, many of the same trends of 90s pop music continued, but with one big caveat. The internet allowed people to download music instead of going to a store and purchase albums (both through music piracy and legal downloads). It was a double-edged sword for the world in truth. People were able to discover artists they liked and propel them to popularity without the need for traditional marketing. However, while it allowed people to find music outside of mainstream sources, it also made it more difficult for smaller artists to make it big since people could just pirate their music.
This was also the time when pop music morphed into a blended style of music rather than anything distinct, allowing artists to change their sound to cater to whatever the dominant genre of the day happened to be. It was a common practice for child actors to go on to have careers as pop musicians. Their name gave them instant credibility with young audiences, especially when it came to Disney Channel stars.
Dance music, themes of escapism, and partying all eventually became increasingly popular. Because pop artists borrowed from so many genres, including their own, each time an influence was added, it blurred the lines between pop music and other distinct genres. The slow decline into less-distinct music is why so many people today feel like all pop music is basically just the same thing chewed up and regurgitated back to us every little bit.
Why Do People Consider Pop A Genre?
Most people consider pop a genre because it’s easy to turn on a radio station and listen to today’s pop hits. Pop also is a genre, despite being a poorly defined one for the most part. The main confusion that leads to the “genre or not” argument over pop music is purely semantics. Some people think it just means music that’s popular, while others consider it a standalone genre that’s distinct from everything else.
In reality, both sides of the coin can be right. The true definition of pop music will change with every person you ask, and just about any genre can crossover into the realm of pop music at any time.
Pop music is basically just music that’s commercially viable, has widespread appeal, and doesn’t push too many boundaries. Yes, it’s noted for having catchy melodies, basic song structures, and perfect radio lengths, but it borrows from almost every other genre to create something that’s both unique and uniform at the same time.
Discerning whether to consider pop music a genre or just a label for music that’s popular is a tricky task that’s better left for you to decide on. For the most part, all of the pop hits you can think of could easily be classified into another genre.
Final Thoughts On Pop Music As A Whole
Pop music is definitely popular and it gets pushed incredibly hard. It’s also one of the least memorable genres of music, with many polls finding that people feel more nostalgic towards clearly-defined genres that they have some connection with. Keep in mind that pop music isn’t going to offend anyone. Almost every pop music controversy over the last couple of decades has stemmed from the artist’s actions, not the music. While it’s appealing, catchy, and digestible, pop music lacks that relatability because a lot of the time, it just doens’t actually say anything.
I guess one way to describe pop music is music for the sake of profit. It gets spit out, sold quickly, and then left in the dust for the next one. In saying that, I don’t mean to crap all over pop music’s yard. There’s some amazing pop music out there, especially in indie circles that aren’t bound by record label overlords. It’s just that the quick and catchy music that comes out of a lot of the pop genre and ends up on the charts rarely has staying power beyond a few weeks.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It just leaves me personally feeling a little “meh” on pop music as a whole. I get the history, I get the importance, I just think modern pop history is missing the things that made it great in the first place.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.