There’s a great deal we can learn from history, both about ourselves and our society. One of the most interesting aspects is that the labels we apply to things are often very, very wrong when looked at in a longer view. A great example of this is when looking at musical genres, and specifically the perennial leader of the charts, pop music.
Of course, “pop” is just shorthand for “popular”, so of course it’s topping the charts — after all, the charts are music’s popularity rankings! But if we dig a little deeper into what pop means, we can find a whole cultural subtext of validity and rebellion, and the nature of commercialized music.
Pop goes the weasel
There’s a significant amount of debate around the nature of pop music, and whether pop music is in some way different from popular music. Opinions vary, ranging from pop reflecting the musical tastes of “classical European tonality, only more simple-minded” (Peter Winkler) to being a commodity “provided from on high (by record companies, radio programmers, and concert promoters) rather than being made from below” (Simon Frith).
Theory aside, there’s good reason to question the nature of pop. After all, what was pop in say, the 60s, would be very different from pop in the 80s, the 2000s, or today — and yet we always can identify the current flavor of pop when we hear it, usually within seconds.
So what is pop — or more accurately, why do we label certain music as pop?
Pop will eat itself
One of the most common threads found in the discussion of pop vs popular vs other genres is the idea of production quality and commerciality, and here we begin to see an interesting trend. Most theorists agree that pop music regardless of era is short, polished, and accessible to the broadest majority. However, these are fundamentally not musical criteria. They are market criteria.
So if pop isn’t a genre, what is it? First of all, using it as a genre category is a bad use of data. Knowing what is popular is fantastic, of course — but calling music “pop” out of context doesn’t help. What it does help clarify is intent, and a sense of an era’s zeitgeist. If we accept the top/bottom analysis, innovation comes from the bottom, commercialization comes from the top — and when a genre has been completely absorbed by society and the industry, pop is born.
This leads to an interesting perspective on genre, data, and music — if pop is a function of cultural dominance, then isn’t deeper knowledge of the state of the musical art a competitive edge? In past years new artists — and through them new genres — have been discovered by talent scouts and A&R people. Now, can the trends be identified by a sophisticated enough algorithm, or is there still a human element?
Pop goes the world
Before we can look at whether data will revolutionize pop, we need to look at what pop was like in the past. Would a singer like Bob Dylan become popular on YouTube, or win The Voice? Would a modern agent let a singer choose to perform under the name Englebert Humperdinck? (OK, let’s be fair, they probably would). They certainly wouldn’t fit the contemporary mainstream profile, and yet both of these artists found massive success in their time.
In the past, pop was a product of the labels picking up on a trend — think the Fab Four, the Beatles — or manufacturing their own Fabricated Four — the Monkees. This sort of thing continues to this day — it’s how we got the Backstreet Boys, One Direction, and the infinite iterations of BritAmericanVoiceIdolmania, or whatever they’re calling talent shows these days. While the pop music creation machine is still in full swing, the nature of what pop is has changed. Now far more ephemeral, pop can shift and pivot on a whim as trends surface and disappear in streaming services and social media, and as a result the industry has become less about making pop and more about finding the next big thing just before it hits the mainstream.
Looking forward, we may soon see a far more variable context for pop, as it merges closer to popular, or better “popular right now.” With better data, both artists and labels can understand what’s happening in this fast-changing world and tailor their work accordingly. One of the most exciting ways this will show itself is in the globalization of music — after all, “pop” not only means different things for different eras, it can mean very different things in different countries.
Here in the English speaking world, we talk of K-pop, J-pop, Canto-pop, but when it hits our mainstream? Pretty much pop. So there’s a wild, rich world of musical potential, driven by the tastes of literally billions of consumers — and yet it’s so hard to see what’s happening in another country’s music markets. We know that consumer taste moves fast and is always looking for the latest pop hit — but how can we feed the need?
A pop Utopia Genesis
At Utopia Genesis, we believe that music doesn’t have any borders, and that more perspectives, more voices and more styles are good for us all — consumers and industry alike. That’s why we are providing blockchain based solutions thanks to Utopia Music collection of music consumption data and extending musician’s income possibilities. Together, we can help make a wider, more exciting musical world for everyone, everywhere.
Interested to hear more? Join us at Discord and Telegram — Utopia Genesis.