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Pop Facts
Genres > Pop
Pop Analysis

About Pop
When Noel Coward famously referred to the potency of cheap music he defined the power of pop music for all time.

Pop, or Popular, music is a massive genre which encompasses such an enormous variety of styles of music, and is designed to appeal to such a large age range of people, that it's no wonder it's so maligned. Pop music has been accused of appealing to the lowest common denominator, of being crassly commercial and obsessed with the superficiality of image over music.

That's probably true - pop music is generally not about innovation. The aim is to capture the public's ear, not educate or alienate it. Most music genres have defining elements – reggae's heavy offbeats or jazz's improvisation, for example – and pop is typified by its use of the hook. The hook is a short, vocal catch-phrase or instrumental motif within the song.

The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive", for example, opens with a guitar riff that the listener instantly identifies with the tune, as does The Stones' "Satisfaction", and Madonna's "Like A Virgin". Vocal hooks are often simple, easy to remember and repetitive, usually running through the song as a chorus – think of The Police's "So Lonely" or Don McLean's "American Pie".

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.
Noel Coward

Of course, any popular song of the moment can be defined as a pop record – nursery rhymes or "Happy Birthday", folk songs, popular ballads which shadow the prevailing musical styles of the time. And the freedom of imagination and play which pop enshrines has often given birth to at least as much innovation and genius as more serious and self-conscious genres – as demonstrated by artists as diverse as The Beach Boys, David Bowie and Prince.

With the invention of recording equipment and the 78rpm record, the pop song evolved an optimum length of around three minutes. Early pop songs were recorded by the pop groups of the day, the big bands, sometimes using guest singers who sung a chorus or two in the middle of the recording. As these guest singers – young performers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra – began to take centre stage, the pop song became fully vocalised, but allowing for an instrumental solo.

In the middle of the 20th century recording companies realised a good, catchy tune combined with a charismatic or pretty face was an effective way of making money. At the same time the producers of the great musicals realised, like their operatic equivalents of a century before, that simple, retainable tunes were a good way of getting bums on seats.

By the early 60s pop songs had established a standard form, which was a series of verses separated by a repeated chorus. And the 60s also saw the inclusion of the middle eight, or bridge. This would be an additional eight-bar phrase which would pop somewhere in the middle of the song to more or less break the monotony.

Phrases, or the standard line length in a song, tended to be four bars. To further ensnare the listeners, a good pop tune would also have a clear defining beat or, as they used to say on Jukebox Jury, "something that the young people could tap their toe to."

To return to that Coward quote again, pop, at its best, can be a potent emotional force. Musically and lyrically most pop songs are about love – boy meets girl and falls in love, or girl dumps boy – for the simple reason that pop songs are an emotional, not an intellectual, art form.

Pop music today has never been so fragmented, which much of the market firmly directed at teenagers and pre-teens. Today's youth culture likes to dance, so many bands are vocal line-ups over a largely programmed or pre-recorded, repetitious samples and loops.

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