What is Pop Music?

Our mutual friend Dave Freeburg asked a great question recently. The question is, ‘What is Pop music?” Here is his inquiry in full. 

David: Here’s where this stems from: As I was walking Penny, I was listening to my iPod. A song (I can’t remember what it was) came on and it was something I guess I would classify as “pop” music. Traditionally, I don’t like pop music, or at least I claim not to because when I usually think of what pop music is, I think of Kelly Clarkson, Fallout Boy, Britney Spears, etc. etc. But then, I decided, I guess I do like pop music. So I began to think of different songs that I never thought were pop music, but could be defined as so. Case in point: Disarm by the Smashing Pumpkins. Now I would generally put Smashing Pumpkins into some sort of “alternative” genre but if all pop music means is that it is “popular” to the masses, then that song would have to be pop music, because when it came out in 93,94(?) it was uber popular. Same thing with “Jeremy” from Pearl Jam, but are they Pop rock? I’ve heard John Mayer be categorized as Pop rock, but I wouldn’t put him and Pearl Jam in the same category

  I guess my question is two fold:  1) What is a common agreed upon definition of what pop is and, 2) When does a band or a song reach enough critical mass for it to achieve pop status? I guess a follow up question becomes, is this a good thing or bad thing? For some artists (U2) being a “pop rock” band has been great for them for others such as the aforementioned Smashing Pumpkins, it’s the beginning of the end and here’s a final question, one that I don’t have the expertise to answer, to be classified as pop anything, does it have to do with the the way the actual music is written?
Needless to say it’s a great question and a loaded question. I expect Tim to take a crack at this and would love to hear our friend Steve Goold’s take on this one as well. 

Here’s where I stand. Pop music was used back in the 40s and 50s to denote whatever was popular, or music that had popular appeal. But since then, it can mean almost anything. Here are the hallmarks of a good pop song in my mind. Hooky, recognizable melodies. Traditional, and often predictable, chord structure. Under 5 minutes long. Lyrically light, often about love. Most importantly, pop music is written to be enjoyed and to have widespread commercial success. Is any of this inherently bad? Well, look at my music collection. Sting, John Mayer, Pete Yorn – I’ve got plenty of poppy music.

Pop is contextual. Joni Mitchell was pop music in the 60s. Bee-Gees were pop music in the 70s. Duran Duran in the 80s. Smashing Pumpkins in the 90s. If any of these artists released their ‘pop’ songs today they would not receive pop attention. Pop music is a good indication of pop culture in general. And that is the distinction.

Pop music and pop culture often go hand in hand. Kelly Clarkson is much more than a pop musician. Her publicists, agents, etc, have never wanted her to be a mere pop musician, she was groomed early on to be a pop culture icon. We can’t say the same about generations previous. I think a lot of this comes from the R&B world, where rappers and singers are marketed as a CEO of their own company with clothing, movies, music and the whole bit. It a successful business model often, but leave hungry music lovers empty at the end of the day. I think that is what Dave is wrestling with.      

So is can indie music, or even avant garde music be ‘pop’ music? Yes. I listen to two innovative bands that are overwhelmingly pop oriented. Phoenix is an indie rock band from Paris. The Little Ones are a infectiously upbeat band from the states. Both of them could pass on mainstream radio waves. Why don’t they?  

Because all they are selling is music. Look at the inbetween bands these days. Indie rockers appreciate U2 and Coldplay because it appears that it is still about the music. Sure they are rich, beautiful, and good businessmen, but the hallmark is the music. Not the look. Not the other products. It’s about music. They are still a band (as opposed to a Pop icon who uses a makeshift band and studio musicians). 

My conclusion…Pop music is fine, but when it’s more pop culture than pop music, I’ll pass. 



  1. Pingback: What Is Pop Music? « Steve Goold

  2. Pingback: Pop Music - Defining the a Bucket of Ambiguity « Food for the Beloved

  3. A friend of mine who is a DJ at a CHR station used the term “secretary rock,” to describe bands like Creed and Nickelback (at the time) that begin as cutting edge hard rock bands, and within a few years, are common fare among secretaries and such.

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