Popular Music, music produced for and sold to a broad audience. Types of popular music include jazz, music from motion pictures and musical comedies, country-and-western music, soul music, and rock music. Shaped by social, economic, and technological forces, popular music is closely linked to the social identity of its performers and audiences. Early musical styles were also very influential in shaping popular music.
II. Development in America
The most popular songs in America during the late 18th century, as judged by reported sales of printed music, were written by professional English composers for performance in London parks (known as pleasure gardens) or for performance in English ballad and comic opera. The songs often had pastoral themes, were amorous in content, contained ethnic stereotypes, and included Irish and Scottish lyrics and melodies. By the early 19th century, Italian opera had also become popular in the United States. Songs by Italian composers such as Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti were published as sheet music. In addition, the Italian bel canto style of singing—light, clear, and intimate—was to have an influence on the development of the soft, sentimental type of singing known as crooning that became popular in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.
Distinctive American styles of popular music emerged in the mid-19th century. Minstrel shows—performances in which white entertainers dressed in blackface and acted out crude parodies of African American behavior—were the dominant form of popular entertainment in the 19th century. The minstrel theater had a strong impact on the development of popular music in the United States. American performer Thomas Dartmouth Rice demonstrated the profitability of minstrel music with his song "Jim Crow" (1829), which was the first American song to become an international hit. Many minstrel songs were successful in sheet music form, and they became a dominant force in the development of 19th-century American popular song.
Stephen Collins Foster, who wrote more than 200 songs during the mid-19th century, was the first important composer of American popular song. His best-known songs include "Oh! Susanna" (1848), "Old Folks at Home" (1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), and "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864). Foster was a master at creating simple, compelling combinations of melody and text that subsequent popular composers would refer to as hooks (expressing the idea that the music "hooks" the listener's ear).
III. Early 20th Century
Although sound recording was independently invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison in the United States and by Charles Cros in France, the primary means of disseminating popular music until the 1920s remained printed sheet music. By the late 19th century, the music-publishing business was centralized in New York City, particularly in an area of lower Manhattan called Tin Pan Alley. The first popular song to sell one million copies, "After the Ball" (1892) by Charles K. Harris, inspired rapid growth in the music-publishing industry. Composers were hired to rapidly produce popular songs by the dozens, and the techniques of Foster and the pleasure-garden composers were further developed. Songs had to be simple, memorable, and emotionally appealing to sell to large audiences. Vaudeville had replaced minstrel shows as the dominant live-entertainment medium, and singers such as Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker promoted Tin Pan Alley songs on cross-country tours. Ragtime pieces written by professional composers such as Scott Joplin represented another stage in the influence of African American music on mainstream popular music.
The golden age of Tin Pan Alley occurred during the 1920s and 1930s. The best-known songs of this period were produced by a small group of composers and lyricists based in New York City. In most cases, composers and lyricists worked in pairs: George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and beginning in 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Tin Pan Alley songs were popularized in Broadway musical comedies, the successor to vaudeville, and by popular singers accompanied by dance orchestras.
Important technological changes, including the rapid spread of commercial radio, also occurred during this period. The development of more affordable and better-quality gramophone discs made recordings more popular than sheet music in sales, and the introduction of amplification and electric recording led to the development of crooning, the intimate vocal style perfected by singers such as Bing Crosby and, later, Frank Sinatra. By the mid-1920s, almost 100 million records were produced each year in the United States.
The music industry also became interested in other types of music during this period, most importantly "race records" and "hillbilly" music, the precursors of rhythm-and-blues and country-and-western music. Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other influential Southern musicians recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. The African American influence on mainstream popular music became stronger during the Jazz Age, which preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The dominant type of popular music from 1935 to 1945 was big band swing, a style modeled on the innovations of black jazz orchestras. In 1935 Benny Goodman sparked the popularity of the style with his band's recordings of arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, an African American bandleader whose success had been limited by racial segregation. The big band era ended after World War II (1939-1945), when pop singers became more popular than bandleaders, although the influence of swing music could still be heard in "jump band" rhythm and blues and western swing music.
Important shifts in popular music after World War II were tied to social and technological changes. The massive migration of Southern musicians and audiences to urban areas and the introduction of the electric guitar were particularly influential. These changes set the stage for the hard-edged Chicago blues of Muddy Waters; the honky-tonk, or "hard-country," style of Hank Williams; and, in the mid-1950s, the rise of rock and roll music.
IV. 1955 to Present
Rock and roll grew out of the intermingling of several streams of postwar popular music, including "jump band" rhythm and blues, the recordings of blues "shouters" such as Big Joe Turner, gospel-based vocal styles, boogie-woogie piano blues, and honky-tonk music. Promoted by entrepreneurs such as Alan Freed—the first to use the term "rock 'n' roll" to describe this category of music—and recorded by small independent labels, rock and roll was an unexpected success among a newly affluent teenage audience. The pioneers of rock and roll came from varied backgrounds. Bill Haley, whose "Rock Around the Clock" (1955) was the first rock song to gain wide popularity, was a country-and-western bandleader from Pennsylvania; Fats Domino had already been playing New Orleans-style rhythm and blues for a decade; Chuck Berry was a hairdresser in St. Louis, Missouri; and Elvis Presley was a Memphis, Tennessee, truck driver. The market was fueled by mainstream versions of rhythm-and-blues songs performed by white crooners such as Pat Boone. The peak period of rock and roll—defined by the exuberant recordings of Haley, Berry, Domino, Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly—lasted from 1954 to 1959. The most successful artists wrote and performed songs about love, sexuality, identity crises, personal freedom, and other issues that were of particular interest to teenagers.
By the early 1960s most of what the music industry promoted as rock and roll was an imitation of the original form. Songs were now being written by professional composers, recorded with accompaniment by session musicians (professional musicians who perform principally on recordings), and sung by teenage crooners such as Fabian and Dion. Some of the techniques of Tin Pan Alley—particularly the idea of teaming lyricists with professional melody writers—were utilized in the 1960s by New York City songwriters such as Carole King and by the young entrepreneur Berry Gordy, based in Detroit, Michigan, whose Motown Records produced a string of hit records. The early 1960s also saw the development of distinctive regional styles in the United States, such as the sound of the southern California band the Beach Boys; the Greenwich Village urban folk movement that included Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary; and the rough sound of Northwest groups such as the Sonics.
The so-called British Invasion began in 1964 with the arrival of the Beatles in New York City. British pop bands, raised on the influences of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll, invigorated mainstream popular music, in part by reemphasizing long-standing aspects of American music. Each group developed a distinctive style: the Beatles combined Chuck Berry's guitar-based rock and roll with the craftwork of Tin Pan Alley composers; the Animals worked out a mixture of blues and rhythm and blues influences and produced a hit with an old Anglo-American ballad, "House of the Rising Sun" (1964); and the Rolling Stones incorporated aspects of Chicago urban blues into their distinctive, driving sound.
The late 1960s was a period of corporate expansion and stylistic diversification in the American record industry. A new youth-oriented popular market was defined by a broad category of rock music that included the influential studio experiments of the Beatles, San Francisco psychedelia, guitar heroes such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Southern rock, hard rock, jazz rock, folk rock, and other styles. Soul music, the successor to rhythm and blues, covered a wide range of styles, including the gospel-based performances of Aretha Franklin, the deep funk and virtuosic stage techniques of James Brown, and the soulful crooning of Marvin Gaye. Country and western music—now firmly centered in Nashville, Tennessee—had a new generation of stars who combined elements of old country-and-western music standards with rock and roll and mainstream popular song. Country singers Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Dolly Parton helped contribute to the rising popularity of country-and-western music.
In the 1970s the music industry further consolidated its power and once again sought to mass-produce music styles that had originally been highly individualistic. Corporate rock, the singer-songwriter genre, and slick varieties of soul and country-and-western music featuring glamorous superstars playing to massive crowds in sports arenas defined a new mainstream. Although a number of distinctive styles—disco, glam rock, punk rock, new wave, reggae, and funk—were pioneered by independent labels and marginalized musicians, the music of the 1970s is generally viewed as less individualized. The music industry became cautious due to a drop in sales of recorded music by almost $1 billion between 1978 and 1982 and a similarly precipitous decline in income from live concerts.
A number of factors contributed to an economic revival in the music industry during the mid-1980s. The advent of the music video—marked by the debut in 1981 of Music Television (MTV), a 24-hour music video channel—and the introduction of the digitally recorded compact disc in 1983 stimulated demand for popular music. The Album Thriller (1982) by Michael Jackson became the biggest-selling record in history up to that time, and it established a pattern by which record companies relied upon a few big hits to generate profits. The other big hits of the 1980s came from a new set of charismatic personalities, each of whom appealed to mass audiences by extending across traditional social boundaries. Popular musicians of this period include Bruce Springsteen, the working-class bar-band hero; the artist formerly known as Prince, whose 1984 single "When Doves Cry" was the first song in more than 20 years to top both the mainstream pop charts and the black music charts; and Madonna, the ambitious performer from a working-class background who remade herself as a pop icon.
The long-standing struggle between the tendency of the music industry to centralize music and the stylistic diversity of artists continues in the popular music of today. The history of American popular music may be seen as a relationship between a center—located since the 1880s in New York City, with secondary branches in Los Angeles and Nashville, Tennessee—and various marginal zones, located throughout the United States and outside the mainstream of the music industry. Whereas the mainstream music industry reproduces music, establishes stars, and generally attempts to ensure profits, those in the margins typically include entrepreneurs who run independent labels, and musicians who provide impetus for new styles, which are then sometimes pulled into the center and promoted to a mass audience. The mainstream success of "grunge," a hard-edged alternative rock style from Seattle, Washington, which was quickly picked up by the major record labels in the early 1990s, is one example of this process.
Although there have been significant changes in the technology used to produce popular music, some of the aspects of popular music have changed relatively little. Most American popular music still draws upon elements of popular song forms and the smooth, romantic vocal style of the 1920s Tin Pan Alley; the strong grooves, backbeats, call-and-response textures, and emotional intensity of African American music; and the poetic themes and ballad forms of Anglo-American music. The identification of musical styles with complex patterns of social identity—age, race, and class—also continues to shape American musical tastes. Although music styles, recording stars, and hit songs change constantly, strong continuities remain within American popular music.
V. World Popular Music
The recent discovery of non-Western styles by superstar musicians such as David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon might leave the impression that urban-centered, mass-reproduced popular music outside of Western culture is a new phenomenon. In fact, the recording industry was active in Asia and Latin America before the 20th century, and local popular styles were commercially recorded in Africa by the 1920s. One of the major developments in world popular music in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been the emergence of worldbeat, or ethnobeat, a broad category that includes such diverse musical styles as Yemenite Israeli dance music, Caribbean and African popular dance styles, Bulgarian women's choral music, and Japanese salsa bands. Although the influence of American popular music, supported by the multibillion dollar transnational music industry, has in some cases contributed to the decline of traditional musics, there is also a rich history of "cross-fertilization" between popular styles. In the late 19th century the Cuban habanera influenced the development of American ragtime; the Argentine tango gained worldwide popularity during the 1910s, initiating a craze for Latin ballroom dancing in Paris, London, and New York City; recordings of Hawaiian guitar music, country-and-western music, and ballroom dance orchestras arrived in the port towns of Africa by the 1920s; and the Cuban rumba became popular around the world in the 1930s. In many cases the inclusion of imported elements in American popular music has been linked with stereotypes of the exotic. For example, many ballroom dance orchestras in the 1920s performed "Oriental foxtrots," arrangements that owed more to Latin American music than to Asian music.
One of the most popular forms of music internationally is Indian film music, which is produced in studios in New Delhi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and is popular in the Middle East and Africa as well as in Asia. The late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose recording career began in the 1920s, is still popular throughout the Arabic-speaking world. African popular music includes a number of distinctive regional styles, including the juju music of Nigerian bandleader King Sunny Adé; central African soukous, a blend of indigenous songs and dance rhythms with Afro-Cuban music; and South African isicathamiya, the Zulu choral singing style performed by Ladysmith Black Mombazo. The rich variety of popular music found throughout the world continually provides the global music industry with new music trends.