Pop Music – Defining the a Bucket of Ambiguity

Continuation of the Pop Music Series (1st article, 2nd article)

What is pop music?  What makes something pop music?  Typically when we think of pop music, we think of Britney Spears, 50 Cent, Chris Brown, John Mayer, Justin Timberlake and Lady GaGa to name a few.  After pondering a bit longer we realize that U2, Coldplay, as well as the Foo Fighter belong in this category.  So how did makes these become labeled Pop?  The most obvious answer is that they are all very POPular.  They are the ones that have the big posters at Best Buy.  Let’s face it, we will never seen a “They Might Be Giants” album advertised at Best Buy.  The day I do I will buy YOU a tasty smoothie.  Anyhoo, here are some guideline to consider.  Note that they are guidelines and not cold/hard/fast rules, because it is easy to find an exception to any these guidelines.

Things that make the artist less Pop
1. Songs greater than 5 minutes in length
2. Instrumentals – the artist has songs without singing or rapping
3. Weirdness factor – Accordion and Tuba solo’s
4. Melody catch – You need to listen to the song 5 times to remember it
5. Ugly Looking – With the exception of Tom Petty
6. Not American Idol material – I’d love to see Tom York, Trey Anastasio and Micheal Stipe on that show
7. If you have a band – Current top Pop artists are: Lady GaGa, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Jesse McCartney, Beyounce, Jason Mraz, Demi Lovato, Plain White T’s only 1 band in the bunch

Things that make the artist more Pop
1. Songs less than 5 minutes in length
2. No Instrumentals
3. No Weirdness – Drums, Guitars, Piano, Vocals
4. Catchy Melody – The song sticks to your mouth like Elmers
5. Good Looking – With the exception of Tom Petty
6. Probably do good on American Idol
7. Most likely a Solo artist
8. Artist has an association with the Disney Company
9. Lyric’s about simple concepts (love, dancing, and being a smooth criminal)

Now that I’m done getting that off my chest, I’m going to take you down a completely different path, the realtruth of the matter.  All that “Pop” music is, is a term used for marketing.  I’m willing to bet that Ricky Martin sold more albums as a pop artist than a latin music artist.  Once the Decemberists gained enough popularity from the Indie people the marketing people thought “Let’s label them Pop and try to get more people on the bandwagon, they’re current fan base will stay.”  A similar concept exists for Christian music.  The label of Christian music is there to sell to a specific group of people.  If such a label didn’t exist, Mark Shultz and Casting Crowns would be having a lot more trouble succeeding.  Both of these labels are less about style and more about marketing to specified people groups.

The label Pop music exists to conduct the selling of music.  The attributes that quantify what Pop music is can and probably will change over time.  Pop music genre is always going to be the bucket that the most people will be dipping into for more music, meanwhile the marketing people will be deciding what goes in that bucket.





  1. … and then there’s Nickelback, who keep writing the same song over and over because they know the formula for making radio hits and lots of money. There’s a certain sell-out factor to many of the biggest Pop rock bands (3 Doors Down, Goo Goo Dolls, etc.)

    I think it’s important to also take into consideration who is being marketed too and thus buying “POP” music- It’s all teenagers. In my classroom, the students often request to listen to KDWB, and they go absolutly crazy when each new unbelievably crappy song starts up. It’s really all a matter of personal taste, and for kids its all they know because they haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of music.

    One more question you raise: When does an Indie band cease to become an indie band? Some of those indie bands are filling arenas now- Arcade Fire, the Hold Steady, Death Cab- Does that make them Pop becuase they’re popular? In art there’s a big debate now about “de-skilling”, or the trend among contemporary artists of making thier work unpolished and resisting perfection. I think it’s similar with a lot of indie music, but as many of those bands start to influence the mainstream at the outer edges the lines get blurred. THis is a interesting topic….

  2. Nate, good words. I have often been ridiculed by you and others for distancing from things (music, films, etc) that are consumed as ‘popular’ by the general public. So the question, am I a snob for never wanting to go to a U2 concert? I respect their influence and music, but equally resent that they can’t play in clubs any more and that everyone, even those with no musical taste, likes them. We all like uncovering the unknown band, saying, “I saw them with 10 drunk guys at the 400 in 1998 and I said, they are going to be big” (yes, I am alluding to Cake’s ‘Rock and Roll Lifestyle’ circa 1994). Am I stuck up or resisting pop movements? Or could there be something to artistic discernment there? Doesn’t great art by it’s nature avoid widespread success in it’s life? Before the 20th century, what artists legitimately received the notoriety they deserved? A handful? And those who did spend their success making borderline crap (read here Matisse and his paper cut-out dancers or whatever in the world Picasso’s late works are supposed to be). Maybe, just maybe, money and fame retard art in a way that is irreparable.

    Any thoughts?

  3. Wow. Where do I start? The point I was making was that many current artists and musians resist refinement in favor of a lesser product that doesn’t fit into the classification of the popular. I wasn’t advocating for or against this- in my oppinion it leads to stuff that’s sometimes really cool and different but often times sucks. I guess a good example musically would be The White Stripes. They have a few tunes that rock, and more than a few that produce instant migranes, but in general there a total embracing of making noise and very little in the department of refined music- which is just fine and isn’t neccesarily right or wrong. What is right or wrong anyway?

    As for your artistic analysis, I don’t want to go too in depth because this isn’t the proper forum and we can debate this sometime. However, I will say that deskilling is a post-modern idea that can be traced to minimalism in the 70s, so your comparison to 20th century artistic outsiders is apples to oranges. Also, to say Picasso and Matisee made “borderline crap” is a blanket statement and there were many artists who gained notariety during thier lifetimes for doing things countercultural. I do agree that money and fame affect all creative areas, but if that’s the case what do you think of artists like Warhol and Jeff Koontz?

    Finally, you should be able to enjoy u2 regardless of everyone else’s like for them, and I think people who ignore music all together becuase of it’s mass popularity aren’t getting it. Case in point: I think John Mayer is great, but when I went down to the Quest to try to get in to see him a few years ago and saw only 18 year old screaming girls, I had no desire to go in so I left. Is there a problem with that? No. Still, John Mayer is no less of a talent.

    As for deskilling, I resent a lot of the artists (and musicians) who present garbage as valid art. I would argue that in music, less refinement isnt neccesarily deskilling- Some of the best music is that which is wonderfully simple and yet remarkably complex at the sametime. That’s not deskilling- that’s the musical equivelent of a beautiful painting that makes you see something in a different way.

  4. Good words. I suppose that I have a tough time appreciating popular music when it’s happening. I would like to see U2 be more like Radiohead. Radiohead could be at the height of popularity and play huge venues while still being totally indie. They are trend setters. As soon as people start hopping on in large quantities, they morph into something even more often. When everyone starting recognizing Amnesiac as a work of art, they put out a comparatively straight laced “radio ready” Hail to the Thief. Maybe they are the prime example of how to be popular and not ‘pop’.

    We can discuss artists later. I see Warhol like Radiohead in a sense. Always ahead of the curve in a sense and a ‘happening’ in and of himself. Jeff Koontz is the equivalent of the Pretenders. Popular yes, but does anyone actually not turn off the radio when they come on? And Koontz’s whole goal (as I understand it) is to piss people off. It’s surely apples and oranges there. No musician could make a living very long seeking to piss people off. Oh wait, the White Stripes.

  5. sex pistols? The Ramones? Punk in general?

    You’re right when you say that Radiohead is very much an indie band while being big, but you don’t think there are people who jump on the Radiohead bandwagon because they’re popular? I think it’s definately posh to like Radiohead- it prooves somehow that you have sophisticated taste. Does this in any way deminish Radiohead? Not at all, but it seems then by your reasoning that the determining factor for where a band fits is the kind of people who like them… I don’t get that-

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