pop and rock

   Defining what does and does not constitute pop and rock (or more simply ‘popular music’) is difficult. The criteria could be ethnic, generic or geographical, or relate to ownership, modes of production or consumption, or factors such as age or class. The mythical ‘birth of rock ’n’ roll’ —the first successful ‘youth’ style to achieve global impact —is usually located around 1955; there are conjunctural factors—demographic, economic, generic and technological—that reinforce this particular date. Often overlooked is the shift in status between the live performance and the recording that also takes place during the 1950s. In this decade, pop’s audience increasingly consumed the music via processes of mediation. Elvis Presley was the first major figure to tip the balance decisively in favour of recordings, television and film. Popular music from this period on was an essentially commercially mediated form, as distinct from previously successful idioms and styles such as jazz, folk music, blues and ‘tin pan alley’. 1950s rock ’n’ roll was mainly a teen phenomenon. As the 1960s progressed, and in the wake of the unprecedented global impact of The Beatles, the audience for pop rapidly broadened. The 1960s saw the first attempts in Britain to validate pop as an art form in ways similar to the incorporation of film into a high-culture canon some years earlier. Many view 1967 as the highwater mark of pop as a unified artistic and cultural movement, ‘the year it all came together’, in theorist Simon Frith’s terms. Following this specific moment, the beginnings of fragmentations based on factors such as race, age, sex, class and genre began to surface, and these have since become more pronounced. The construction of ‘rock’ with its connotations of authenticity, profundity and virtuosity, as opposed to ‘pop’, characterized by many as ephemeral, commercially standardized and immature, that begins to gain a hold in Britain during the late 1960s sets the tone for many subsequent binary distinctions: white rock versus black soul, art versus entertainment, and underground versus commercial. There is often a barely concealed class-based agenda at work in drawing upon such distinctions.
   Progressive rock, fusing elements of blues, jazz, avant-garde and classical music idioms, was the dominant form for the bourgeois audience for pop from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. By 1975 the distinctions between this form (and others such as heavy metal), as opposed to those styles aimed more at the disco or ‘commercial’ market, were at their widest.
   The impact of punk rock and roots reggae, the emergence of a European sensibility which largely dispensed with the dominant values of ‘soul’ and ‘warmth’, and the increasing availabilities of new technologies all combined to reshape music, and audiences, in the late 1970s. More importantly, by the mid-1980s the rock mainstream’s hostility to dance music (and ‘pop’ in general) had diminished, and important styles based upon the fusion of elements, cultures and genres such as new romantic, electro, house and hip hop made an impact. Since this period dance styles have proliferated, and the emphasis on rhythmic repetition, stable tempo and time signatures coupled with the widespread use of digital technologies has, to some extent, filtered into almost all forms of popular music.
   Since 1964, Britain has been a hugely influential force in global popular music. Being a small country with a centralized music press and the tendency to experiment and innovate in the areas of youth interest (particularly music and fashion) has resulted in a large number of subcultural developments of a specifically British nature achieving widespread attention. These range from Merseybeat and mod, through to skinheads, punk, rave and Britpop. Scenes based on one specific area have also made an impact, from the days of ‘swinging London’ through to the ‘Madchester’ club scene (see clubs) in the late 1980s and the Bristol-based ‘trip hop’ culture of the early 1990s. With the proliferation of media outlets for popular music that is a feature of the contemporary era, we now have the impetus of advertisers seeking to target specific niche markets through ‘narrowcasting’ and ever more distinct formatting, particularly on radio. In the 1990s, under the broad umbrella of ‘dance’, there were at any one time dozens of identifiable subdivisions all servicing the lifestyle needs of disparate audiences. Despite the important musical crossovers achieved during the post-punk era, other factors contrive to reinforce cultural fragmentation, and the trend seems likely to continue.
   The post-rock ’n’ roll era has witnessed the gradual shift away from ensemble playing of acoustic and amplified ‘traditional’ instruments towards studio-based styles utilizing electronic and digital instrumentation, thus allowing for performance removed from the constraints of dexterity, real time and established notions of artistry. By the early 1980s complete albums were being programmed rather than played using early digital microcomposers, sequencers and drum machines, a successful example being the Human League’s Dare, in 1981. In very broad terms this has benefited musical styles based upon notions of groove, cyclical repetition and ‘cut and paste’ collage. Music composition has in many cases come to resemble architecture, manifested visibly as bits and bytes on a computer screen. More organic genres drawing upon traditional methods, such as grunge and Britpop, have continued to surface, but most of the major musical trends since the punk era have been groove or dancepop based. With the exception of hip hop, lyrics have receded in prominence within popular music as a whole, with the human voice being used increasingly as a form of punctuation or for its percussive qualities rather than as the bearer of a linear narrative. Melody, harmony and ‘nice tunes’ have not been dispensed with in contemporary popular music, but their significance within certain key styles of dance and rap has certainly diminished. In addition, the percentage of music that is broadly or completely vocal-free has been one of the most significant yet overlooked trends of the past decade. Within many contemporary styles there have also been considerable shifts in timbre, tempo and song structure, with the classic historical models based around verse, chorus, bridge, key change and instrumental breaks being decisively challenged. Music making has always relied to some degree upon technology, but the pop era has seen the distinctions between human and technological output become increasingly blurred. Multi-track tape recording, with its inherent implications for composition, musicianship and artistic status, progressed rapidly between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s. During this period, capabilities in British studios stretched from two- and three-track to sixteen- and twenty-four-track. In the 1980s this analogue process was augmented, and often superseded by digital recording drawing upon computer technology. During this decade, a standardized interface linking computers to musical instruments (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI) became widely available. This system has further distanced the composer from the constraints of real-time playing, and has had a huge impact upon musical styles, timbres and wider ethical issues relating to authorship and ownership. Another crucial technological development is the sampler (see sampling), which allows for the digital recording and manipulation of any sound source. Many contemporary musical styles rely heavily upon such technologies as part of the writing and performing process.
   The history of mixed-media recorded texts has a long lineage, and many major bands made ‘promo’ films during the 1960s, but the pop video as creative work and marketing tool only came to world prominence in the early 1980s. Music video, and devoted media outlets such as MTV, have exerted a profound influence upon all elements of popular music.
   The recording and promotional budget of an act now has to be spread more thinly. This has resulted in a conservatism on the part of major record companies regarding the sort of performers being signed and subsequently actively promoted. Leading on from this scenario, much of the 1980s has seen the global sales dominance of a few performers with the image and resources to meet the demand for audio-visual material: Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson are the most prominent examples of the new sort of global pop star. Video has also foregrounded the importance of pop’s iconic elements: sexuality, dress, movement and physical gesture. In the early 1980s, many of the British wave of ‘new pop’ performers (Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham and so on) made their world breakthrough via video and MTV The proliferation of data made possible by mixed-media formats like video ties in with many elements associated with the condition of postmodernity: pastiche, irony, depthlessness and hybridity. And although many critics claim that the form has already exhausted itself, under its impact pop can no longer be thought of as a primarily aural from. During the 1990s the Internet began to exert an influence on many aspects of popular music. As well as allowing for the downloading of musical data using MIDI, the Internet can, to an extent, subvert the ownership and control of popular music by the global corporations. Music can be distributed by groups or individuals without the need to have a recording contract. Although the more utopian claims on behalf of the Internet must be treated with some scepticism, the long-term impact upon the world of popular music may well prove to be considerable.
   The commercial marketplace has long been dominated in terms of ownership and distribution by a few large record companies—usually referred to as ‘the majors’. The last forty years has seen these majors develop into total entertainment companies with ownership of every stage of the production process (including studios, manufacture of instruments, technology, publishing, distribution and retail and entertainment outlets). More recently, the majors have become pan-global operators. The chief source of income is often not from sales of records but the ownership and exploitation of rights, principally concerning publishing and licensing. Research into the workings of the global record industry suggests that organizations such as Time Warner, Sony or EMI are so huge that a fair amount of autonomy is by necessity granted to national, regional or local branches. A typical ‘independent’ label will often preserve a degree of autonomy and enter into a fairly flexible relationship with the ‘parent’ major to ensure distribution and promotion of its acts. Such relationships can allow for options to continue or cancel, based usually upon financial considerations. This major/indie relationship does allow for the counter-argument to the many more pessimistic scenarios of domination and cultural imperialism that have been forwarded, wherein indigenous ethnic and ‘non-commercial’ music are strangled in the global grip of the majors. However, while diversity and a richly hybridized world of popular music now exist, and are disseminated to ever greater numbers, the inevitable inequalities of economic and cultural capital do apply. It remains difficult for any act to ‘cross over’ without considerable concessions being made to the business strategies of the global corporations. Almost every year sees an ‘obituary’ of pop being written by a cultural analyst. In the 1990s, these arguments have taken on a new dimension. It is said that for a variety of reasons, today’s youth are ‘postpop’. As well as the perceived ‘decline’ in the quality of songs and artistry many see the major rivals to pop as the new computer-based forms of entertainment, such as video games, CD-Roms and the Internet. Research shows that popular music is now merely one component struggling to be heard in this information overload, and is no longer central. Popular music, for some critics, no longer defines the experience of growing up, and the projection that follows posits a situation wherein popular music will be intrinsically linked to a precise historical period. Whether such observations will come to pass, or whether they are the opinions of critics unable or unwilling to come to terms with the huge musical and cultural shifts that have taken place over the last few decades, remains to be seen.
   Further reading
    Frith, S. (1983) Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, And The Politics Of Rock, London: Constable.
    Jones, S. (1992) Rock Formation: Music, Technology And Mass Communication, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
    Negus, K. (1992) Producing Pop: Culture And Conflict in The Popular Music Industry, London: Edward Arnold.
   RON MOY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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