From the Beatles to Taylor Swift: What Is Pop Music?
An exploration of the American definition of pop music and how this genre has changed—and will continue to change—as a result of technological advancements.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
The unveiling of the iPod in 2001 knocked the music world’s socks off. People no longer had the need for CDs, cassettes, or low-storage MP3 players when they had a gadget that could store up to 1,000 songs tucked into their front pockets. With all the technological advancements in the last two decades, it is fair to say that the production and distribution of popular music have developed wildly, especially considering the effects of social media.
Pop music is defined as a short song, typically around 2.5 to three minutes in length, with a catchy melody, relatable lyrics, and a memorable hook aimed to please the average listener’s ears and top the charts. Despite the term “pop music” first appearing in 1926, the origins of modern pop music lie in the technological boom of the 1950s, which dramatically increased the accessibility of music via radios and television. From the 1920s to 1940s, jazz, swing, and blues were the most popular music genres played on American radio, and from these came the genre of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. The appearance of televisions in American households added a new layer to music: visuals. Artists like Elvis Presley practically built their careers on TV, using costumes and overtly sexual dance moves that appealed to the new and rapidly growing teenage market. In the 1960s, as the price of vinyl records and portable radios decreased, so too did the age of pop music’s target demographic. Boy bands like The Monkees and The Beatles entered the public eye, and the vast teenage audience was eager to watch them perform on their home televisions. The 1967 release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was monumental for music categorization; considered to be the first concept album, it pushed the limits of what rock music sounded like by including psychedelic elements in both the lyrics and instrumentation. As a result of the album’s success, “pop” and “rock” split into two distinct genres. In the ‘50s, these labels were synonymous because they described music that was popular but couldn’t be classified as classical or jazz. After 1967, the rock audience consisted of students, hippies, and intellectuals who valued rebellion and sociopolitical discussions, while pop turned into mainstream, commercial, easy-listening music.
The 1980s brought another technological revelation: music videos on the cable channel MTV. Musicians were not simply performing songs on late-night talk shows—instead, they were promoting their music through well-produced music videos that captured the attention of their target audience on one of the most culturally significant television channels of the decade. The visual element of an artist’s performance became just as important as their actual music. This trend continued into the ‘90s, when pop icons like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, along with newfound boy bands and girl groups, took the big stage. They took advantage of their teenage audience’s craze for a flashy and attractive stage presence to push the profitability of their music.
In the 2000s, digital streaming became commonplace with the invention of the iPod and the development of the internet, two technological advancements that changed the music industry forever. This new digital platform allowed people to discover rising and lesser-known genres with ease, but it also increased the reliance on social media for advertising instead of traditional radio, television, and print advertisements. 2008 rolled around and the market crash resulted in the so-called “recession pop” of the 2010s—songs on the top charts were primarily about partying and consumerism, offering a musical escape from the grim economic reality of rising real estate prices. Songs like “TiK ToK” by Kesha (2010), “We Found Love” by Rihanna (ft. Calvin Harris) (2012), and “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 (2010) were played primarily in clubs and cemented themselves as dance-pop anthems in popular culture. Lorde’s release of “Royals” (2013) marked the beginning of a shift in the 2010s by pointing out the serious economic inequalities resulting from the recession. By the end of the decade, analyses of pop song lyrics showed that music in the top charts had statistically gotten sadder and angrier, especially in comparison to pop songs from the 1980s. This may have been a reflection of Gen Z’s growing disillusionment with politics, climate change, and society as a whole.
In the post-Covid society, social media, especially TikTok, has been the primary influence on the top charts. Now, many artists are on the hunt for the “perfect pop song,” using formulaic algorithms from the analysis of past top hits. Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” is an example of music made specifically for social media; the lyrics in the chorus—“It'’ me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me”—fit perfectly within the 15-second time frame of the average TikTok and are relatable enough for a TikTok trend to arise out of lip-syncing along. Through the constant repetition of “Anti-Hero” on TikTok, Taylor Swift’s commercial success is ensured not only by her loyal fanbase but also by casual listeners who hear her new song on social media and choose to stream it.
Considering social media’s prioritization of short, attention-grabbing sound bites and the introduction of AI into the public sphere, the future of pop music looks bleak. Music production might be made easier through AI’s knack for efficiency, but this comes at the cost of reducing human creativity, resulting in a more conventional sound. This will be profitable for pop stars and producers, but disheartening for advocates of artistry and innovation in the music industry. AI cannot generate niche, imaginative, and unique music because it can only build off of past data. Hopefully, as AI becomes more prevalent in our society, regulations will be put in place to moderate its use in the music industry in order to preserve the spirit of inventiveness that it was built upon.