Pop Music Review

We did a TON of work in class this past week, so here are some links and review notes to help you prepare for the midterm.

Remember – pop music isn’t just “popular.”  It’s also a way of describing music that features these core elements:

  • short (often under three minutes)
  • verse-chorus-verse structure
  • repeated chorus
  • melodic tunes
  • often use “hooks” (that catchy part that gets stuck in your head)
  • usually use drum, guitar and bass (often other instruments too, but almost always that core)
  • unconcerned with artistic depth
  • the goal is mass appeal – pleasurable to the largest number of people – in order to make money
  • they tend to be ephemeral
  • accessible content

Here are some of the key moments we discussed. I’m not embedding the videos because it would make this post pretty much impossible to load.

1930s & 1940s

We started with talking about the birth of US pop music, and the influences of the crooners and their swoony ballads, along with jazz and big band influence.  Sinatra had all this, plus fan girls called Bobby Soxers.  Here’s some Frank Sinatra.

We also talked briefly about the Andrews Sisters, because this song was part of a film – bringing up that idea of cross-promotion – the film was popular because the song was such a hit and vice-versa.


We had the domination of Elvis Presley, the invention of the contemporary idea of the US “teenager” and televisions in more and more US homes… meaning a chance for pop stars to strut their stuff on TV.  As long as they’re shot from the chest up, since the sexy-dancing is dangerous for our innocent eyes!!!!


Phil Spector and his Wrecking Crew graced us with the “Wall of Sound” recording effect, with its many layers and channels, echo-chambers, and it is so, so, so good, you guys; in class we listened to The Ronettes.

And just to drive home how influential it was, we listened to a contemporary song by Florence and the Machine that uses the same tricks and features.

Speaking of influences… we talked about how the Beatles dominated pop music for a long time – nearly ten years.  While they led the British Invasion, they also used the Wall of Sound recording methods, appeared on television, had crazed fans and short, easy-to-like songs with repeated refrains.

In the meantime, while the Beatles were burning up the charts and selling out shows, proto-punk bands like Paul Revere & the Raiders (but not just men! – we listened to the Chymes in class) were making raw, unfinished sounding rock in their garages.

It’s hard to believe, but even in the late 60s and early 70s, Michael Jackson was influencing popular music. Here he is with his brothers in the Jackson 5.

Finally, in the late 1960s, US American recording companies tried to counter the popularity of the British Invasion by creating a fake pop band based on the Beatles. No one expected the Monkees to actually become popular… but they did – very popular indeed.  While we often think of contemporary bands as launching the idea of “over-produced” pop music, the Monkees were a marketed brand and product long before the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls or Ke$ha.

The 1970s

…were an odd time for music, with disco acts like ABBA…

And glam acts like T-Rex…

And Elton John dominating the popular radio waves…

While punk bands like the Ramones were popular among smaller groups but didn’t hit mass-market popularity until the 1980s.

In the meantime, hip hop and rap were starting to skirt the edges of mainstream pop music as early as the late 1970s… here’s the Sugarhill Gang with “Rapper’s Delight,” and here’s Kurtis Blow on Soul Train  and the magnificent weirdness that is Blondie’s “Rapture.”


The main change of the 1980s is MTV changing the music industry forever, creating a 24-hour, music-video only channel…

But the problem? No one’s really created any music videos yet.  As a result, we had some truly interesting, cinematic, and LONG music videos!  Like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and some very interesting, artsy videos from small, international groups who probably wouldn’t have been noticed otherwise, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha.

But whatever else happened – remember that the 1980s were a truly, truly strange time in music.


Grunge hits the US hard from the Pacific Northwest with bands like Nirvana… and wasn’t limited to male acts (here’s Alanis Morissette.)

We also had the beginning of the popular festivals of the 1990s, like Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair.

Electronic music gained popularity and moved into the mainstream with artists like Moby…. as did some country-pop acts like Shania Twain.


We have CONVERGENCE – meaning a breaking down of genre barriers and mass media cross-influencing all over the place – music inspired by video games, tv shows inspired by music… we’ll talk more about convergence later this semester.  For the time being, consider the full integration of pop and hip hop with artists like Lily Allen and Wiz Khalifa… and consider Santigold’s hybrid rock/hip hop/reggaeton blend.

We’ve also become more okay with manufactured artists like Kesha.

And we’re happy to have greater diversity in our pop superstars and a growing interest in international pop stars. Even if we can’t always understand what they’re singing about…  Here’s Girls Generation (heavily influenced by 90s pop-hip hop, video game aesthetics and new jazz) and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu singing PON PON PON.

We ended by coming full circle, back to movie-music cross promotion. 

Which is perfect, since we’re going to talk about Hollywood movies next week.

Also!!!! After last week’s class, I heard a radio piece on the lasting appeal of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” And then a day later I saw this Gawker post ranking Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson’s singles. 


One Response to “Pop Music Review”

  1. I Love, with a capital “L,” music of all kind; some more than others, and I think that this is because of the core elements it involves. I have noticed that music was more pure and clean back then. I Loved the innocence and the truth, but now I feel as if music is tainting my mind and those of others. I think that music is so powerful; I can always go to a song it will make me feel either happy or sad because I allow it to send out it’s message. The thing is, that the song becomes harmful when I don’t know how to stand my grounds to those song with course words. With my friends I have a totally different vocabulary and this my be very harmful to other people that I may want in my life.

    I think the key thing about music is to be able to ask the right questions, when it comes to constructing who I want to be. I have been doing a lot of questioning and sometimes it gets hard because I want to live in the moment. I have to introduce myself for who I am. This right now is really hard. I am in that moment in life where I repeatedly asking myself who I want to be. The words I want to use without being too ambiguous or bigoted. I don’t want to come off as a stuck up know it all. That annoys me even.

    There is a time and place for everything and music and education has taught me that. I can pick out what I think is good for me and my potential future and go from there. It also has to be a step by step type of thing because if it isn’t than; I will have just created someone that I won’t follow through with. My life is going to consist of so many changes, but it is ultimately up to me who I want to be. I can already tell this is going to be a scary time in my life, but only if I make it scary. I just have to stop caring what others see me as and think about who I want to see myself as.

    I have already been through a lot for my twenties, but I can’t let that affect the person I want to be. I want to stand up for one thing and yet be able to respect the minds of others and say, “Okay this is what you think. I want to know why? I disagree or agree with you. If I agree welcome to my life and If I don’t then Adios.”

    I think that this is why it is important to listen to what the song says and not just the core elements, but also the message that the song is transmitting whether it is a, good or a bad thing. Then again, what is good or bad? Only I can determine that for myself by making the appropriate questions and so can you. I think this is why I love when my professors tell me, “there is no stupid question,” ughh always making me think and shit haha.

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