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Pop music, as the name suggests, is popular not just in various societies but also to different age groups. In this ethnographic work, I chose to study pop music, especially its history. Pop music is a general term that encompasses genres such as hip-hop, rhythm and blues, rock, rap, soul and country music. Hatch and Millward simply define pop music as “a body of music which is distinguishable from popular, jazz and folk music” (1).
Pop music has evolved with the industrial revolution, defying all odds to come of age. It is a multimillion-dollar industry propelled by the media and record companies. Attending a pop music live concert is a memorable event that everyone should look for. Pop music gives people something to identify with as I discovered after attending one such concert.
The stage was three feet above the ground. The cameras were rolling, some across the stage, and others above our heads. At the back of the stage, a few feet above it was a gigantic screen.
The stage lights, of virtually every colour, were magnificent. Some were on top of the stage, others on the upper balcony of the auditorium, directing all their magnificent colours to the stage. This was modern technology, at its best. On the right side of the stage, at the back, was the drum set. Three electric and box guitars hung on their stands on the other side. All the microphones were set.
The performing artist, Gordon Lightfoot, entered the stage, followed by his band. The drum set, the guitars, the vocals, all combined their musical sounds to back the lyrics. One song after another was performed. Gordon paved way for Joni Mitchell and later Leonard Cohen. It was a euphoric atmosphere and everyone could feel it. The Lyrics talked of a wide range of issues from love to the composers’ perception of life
Here I was, amidst hundreds, thousands to be precise, of loud screaming pop music fanatics. Their sound was deafening. Looking at such a crowd, I could not stop thinking of the hundreds of thousands, probably millions of dollars the event organizers gained. After a glance to my left and right, the back, I realized most of the people in the auditorium were young. Some holding up placards, others holding beer bottles waving them sideways like flags. A teenager standing beside me, on a sleeveless top, had tattoos all over her right arm.
She had one big tattoo of someone who looked like Michael Jackson with the words, ‘love you forever’. An unimaginable number of earrings were on her ears. She had two rings on both sides of her nose. After some time during the concert, I discovered she had another piercing on her tongue. In front of me were two young men with an amazing hairstyle. At this point, I was battling with one question on my mind. Has pop music always attracted this kind of crowd?
In the seventeenth century, as the middle class was emerging in big cities, pop music became the idealistic approach to depict their lifestyle. It was not called pop music back then. Classical music was for the high class, the affluent in the society, but the rapid urbanization brought by the industrial revolution came with a type of music popular to the middle and lower classes. It addressed their issues; defining who they were and what they experienced in everyday life.
It displayed the civil injustice in the society. It was their most powerful tool. It traces its roots back to the sixteenth century, in Napoli Italy, by composers like Alessandro Scarlatti and Francesco Provenzale who brought live into music. They made it a more appealing and interesting form of entertainment. Later, music became an art that could be performed in weddings and other parties.
The industrial revolution gave birth to a new class of people, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, middle class people, in turn paved the way for populism, which created a perfect platform for pop music to thrive. The American and French revolutions, which brought changes in cultural dimensions, came only to fuel this kind of music to greater heights.
With the establishment of the ‘Opera-Comique’ theatre in Paris 1715, forms of entertainment were diversified to include dance and comedy, which would later form part of pop music. Unlike the operas, pop music could be performed in a casual environment and settings, a condition, which was comfortable for the bourgeoisie. Music became easier not just to compose but also to perform.
This was in complete contrast to the complexity in operas, which strictly followed musical notes and only the experts could compose or perform. Pop music could address the issues affecting the bourgeoisie, their day-to-day life and plight. Due to the simplicity in this new type of music, amateurs could compose their own music and even perform. It is the kind music, which did not require one to go to a theatre to listen.
You could listen to it while taking a drink with friends at a cafe. This gave rise to café concerts. Video technology, multi track recording and digital editing from the 1980’s increased the quality and hence popularity of pop music. All along, creativity and innovations with invention of new styles in musical art were the key ingredients in pop music.
The Blues genre begun among poor blacks in the American Mississippi region and later spread to other parts. Soul music and Rhythm and Blues (R&B) developed under similar circumstances. Despite the racial prejudice at that time, these genres of pop music grew against all odds to be appreciated by a majority of people. Legendary artists like Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson brought a revolution in pop music. In the 1980’s, it gained acceptance in the Christian circles.
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Currently, pop music is a powerful tool used by present day politicians to pull crowds and achieve their goals. It comes in handy for right activists to voice out their opinions. Other industries use it to advertise their products and services; pop artist are used to popularize clothing designs, jewellery, cars to the masses through their songs. It is supposedly used by secret organizations to pass subliminal messages.
One thing that became crystal by the end of the concert was that pop music has become part of peoples’ lives. It revolves around real life situations like broken relationships, romance, and domestic violence among other issues, which are relatable to the common person. It is as Frith described it, “designed to appeal to everyone” (95). The society benefits on one hand from the entertainment and issues addressed, while the industry players from the sales on the other.
Hatch, David, and Millward, Stephen. From Blues to Rock: An Analytical History of Pop Music. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
Frith, Smith. The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Ed. Will Straw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.