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History of Pop Music

by Cansu Gülbahar

Pop music is harder to define unlike the other genres of music. Pop music is a short version of the word 'popular.' It's a contemporary form of music that charms a wide audience. It often includes a danceable tempo, easy to remember lyrics and simple notation. Pop music is across a range of countries and cultures. In modern societies, cultural change seems never-ending, so the change is especially obvious for popular music. The biggest reason why pop music has changed is technology’s developments.


The first stirrings of popular or pop music—any genre of music that appeals to a wide audience or subculture—began in the late 19th century, with discoveries by Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner. In 1877, Edison discovered the phonograph, it provided ideas and inspiration for Berliner’s gramophone, which used discs to record sound. This new invention was cheaper and easier to produce sound records. This would have a huge impact on the popular music industry, enabling members of the middle class to purchase technology that was previously available only to a prestigious rich few.


Berliner founded the Berliner Gramophone Company to manufacture his discs, and he encouraged popular operatic singers such as Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba to record their music using his system. In the late 19th century, Numerous producers began to come up in an area of New York that became known as Tin Pan Alley. Then, Tin Pan Alley became the main place of popular music because they were producing music to satisfy the demands of a growing middle class. Whereas classical artists were exalted for their individuality and expected to differ stylistically from other classical artists, popular artists were praised for conforming to the tastes of their intended audience.


In the 1920s, Tin Pan Alley’s authority in the popular music industry was threatened by two technological developments: the coming of electrical recording and the fast growth of radio. Popular music spread rapidly with these developments.



The 1930s


In New Orleans, Jazz incorporated a variety of styles, including African rhythms and blues. Established by New Orleans musicians such as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz soloists in history, jazz spread along with cities. During this time, jazz music began combining elements of ragtime, Black spirituals, blues, and European music. As the decade after, social attitudes toward racial separations weakened and big bands became more racially integrated.


Blues was performed by African musicians. They were dealing with themes of personal adversity, overcoming hard luck, and other emotional turmoil, the blues is a musical form between the singer and his guitar. Blues originated in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. Unlike jazz, the blues did not spread significantly to the Northern states until the late 1930s and 1940s. The electric guitar, first produced by Adolph Rickenbacker in 1931, changed music by creating louder and more impressive sounds. Singers could focus on getting more emotion and belonging in their performances.  Chicago blues musicians such as Muddy Waters were the first people who used electric guitars to combine urban style and classic southern blues. This electrified form of blues provided the foundations of rock and roll.


The 1920s through the 1950s is seen as the golden age of radio. During this time, the number of radio stations in the United States exploded to over 600. The starting of radio broadcasting, provided to local music genres that gained popularity across the country.



The 1950s


New technology continued to develop in the 1950s with the coming of television. The new medium spread rapidly.

A race has started between radio and television at that time. Radio programs started to focus on music to fill airtime, and in 1955 the top 40 list was born. It was based on popularity and the best songs could be played even 30 times in a day by radios. Everybody liked it that time and radio stations began to influence record sales, which resulted in increased competition for spots on the playlist.


The Urban Chicago blues was marketed under the name of rhythm and blues aka R&B. It was admired by white and black teenagers. Songs included sexually suggestive lyrics such as “Sexy Ways” and “Sixty Minute Man”. Because of these sexual lyrics, R&B music was banned from some radio stations. In 1951, a late-night show called The Moondog Rock & Roll began referring to the music he played as rock and roll instead of R&B. It has grown rapidly and gained widespread support among teenage music fans and widespread dislike among the older generations.


Crazy showmen Little Richard and Chuck Berry were the early precursors of rock and roll, and their wild stage performances became characteristic of the genre.


Elvis Presley, a singer and guitarist, was the “King of Rock and Roll”. Presley combined the R&B music of bluesmen with the country-western tradition and added a touch from himself.


Bing Crosby is also a star of this term. His distinctive style was adorable. He is known for his ‘’White Christmas’’ and ‘’My Melancholy Baby’’ songs.



The 1960s


Before The Beatles, popular singers commonly occurred from America. The Beatles was the first British group to achieve great success in the USA. The Beatles affected all kinds of pop music. Also, portable radio was innovated, and it became easier for teens to take their tunes wherever they went. As well, Popular songs were traveling and influencing easier. Bands from California such as The Beach Boys were changing harmonies of traditional pop to surf rock rhythm. The Dave Clark Five is another effective British music group. Their single, “Over and Over” was number one on the American charts in 1965, beating out the Beatles.


The 1970s


After the Vietnam War ended, young people’s selfish views took the place of concern with social issues and political activism.  This change resulted in Glam Rock, an extravagant and unruly form of rock. Glam rock was popularized by people such as Elton John, the Sweet, David Bowie, Gary Glitter, and Slade. It proved to be a precursor for the punk movement in the late 1970s. In the Latest of the 70s, Glam rock evolved to punk a minimalist, angry form of rock that returned to rock and roll basics: simple chord structures, attractive tunes, and politically motivated lyrics. At the same time a more electronic sound, disco also emerged in the 1970s. Popular disco artists like Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees, and Donna Summer became very popular across the country.


But the biggest thing the ‘70s did for pop music was the beginning of the era of the Jackson 5, Elton John, and Queen. Elton John, with his melt of diverse sounds, became one of the biggest pop-rock stars of the time. “Bennie and the Jets” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” are seen today as musical classics. Meanwhile, Queen was entering from their hard rock song into the arena rock and pop-rock that was so popular on the radio at the time. Break Free, Bohemian Rhapsody, and We will Rock You are still legendary songs. The Jackson 5 was becoming a pop phenomenon with their own hit singles, like“ABC” and “I Want You Back”.


There are new genres of music like reggae and metal. Bob Marley increased the musical visibility of Jamaican music, and he became a global figure in popular culture for over a decade. He was considered one of the pioneers of reggae. Also Iron Maiden is pioneers of the new wave of British heavy metal.


The 1980s


While other European young people were reacting to their displeasures with punk, Black American youth chose hip-hop to picture their disturbance. Hip-hop included break-dance, graffiti, and musical techniques of rapping. It was reflecting their urban style. Early hip-hop songs involved all types of music, like funk, soul, and jazz, but they differed through time.

The possibilities Digital recording gave provided pop music to grow even more. Synthesizers and electronic sounds could be put into all genres of music now, and many kinds of music developed, so did genres like pop and techno.

Michael Jackson was becoming the biggest pop star of the decade. His  ''Thriller'' is still the best-selling album of all time. He was followed intimately by the Prince. His music, which was composed of pop, rock, funk, and so much more, coupled with his excessive and garish existence is deathless. Female pop singers were getting more popular in the 80s like Whitney Houston and Madonna. Madonna is still a pop icon because of her ability to adapt to every trend. The 80s was a culture that would carry for decades.


The 1990s and Today


Nirvana was a popular alternative rock band in the 90s. They were a figurehead of Generation X, the baby boomer generation, many of whom came from broken families and saw violence both on television and in real life. In the late 80s, through the 1990s and into the first part of the 21st century, other musical styles appeared.), RNB (Beyoncé), rap, and hip hop (Tupac, Eminem) showed that pop music is always evolving. The 90s was also the era of boy bands and girl bands such as Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls.  Britney Spears became one of the most successful pop singers of the 1990s. Whitney Houston's quiet best hits included "All The Man That I Need" and "I Will Always Love You.”


For many, hip hop lived a golden age in the 90s. Some of the most prominent rap artists of the 1990s include 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, LL Cool J, Eazy-E, Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Will Smith, DMX, Master P, Jay Z, and Eminem.


Electronic music was already rising in the 80s, then it grew faster in the 90s. New electronic music genres occurred such as Rave, happy hardcore, drum and bass, intelligent dance, and trip-hop. Thought of electronic music listening on the dance floor has changed and musicians started to produce music which was rather listening at home. This chill style has been still developing.


Rock music was still important like in the 80s. In the 1990s, many alternative rock bands rose up such as Nirvana and alternative rock entered the musical mainstream Thus many alternative bands became commercially successful in the 1990s. Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Jane's Addiction, Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana, and R.E.M.'s success was the highest level of rock music’s ever seen. The Red Hot Chili Peppers is another fundamental band because of their efficient style. They were combining funk rock with more conventional rock music, and they brought a new taste for alternative rock. A number of metal subgenres emerged in the ‘90s, broadening the genre's reach. Many of the bands that emerged in the late ‘80s reached the peak of their success in the‘ 90s. In fact, some of the most catchy metal albums of all time were released during this decade. Pantera, Sepultura, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax Motorhead, Metallica, Death, Iron Maiden, and  Black Sabbath are the most significant metal bands of this term. Guns N’ Roses and Slipknot are important heavy metal bands in this decade. Black metal was another extreme subgenre in this decade. Scandinavia became the epicenter for this form of music. A number of Scandinavian black metal bands reached their peak of popularity in this decade. Deformed guitars, dark, atmospheric vocals, screeches, makes this genre has a unique identity. Also, they were including lyrics about Scandinavian paganism which can be considered as they are transporting their beliefs today.*


Today we can say pop is a particular genre of music. But it was not like this before, so there is a long history behind it. Pop is a worldwide industry. Pop singers such as Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Ariana Grande are listened to by the whole world. CDs replaced records a long time ago and, downloading from websites is also not preferred by users nowadays. Everybody is using platforms like Spotify and YouTube Music and reaching any kind of music they want. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)



Further References:

BBC, “Making ends meet in the 70s,” BBC News Magazine, June 7, 2007,

History of Rock, “Alan Freed”

The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music

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