Pop Music with a Capital ‘P’: a Definition

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1967’s major investments are ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear’  by Alan Price (who sings ‘well expected everywhere’, which surely ought to be ‘well accepted everywhere’), ‘Peek-a-boo’ by the New Vaudeville Band, ‘Bernadette’ by the Four Tops. ‘Everywhere I Am’ by Plastic Penny has the line ‘got my feet on the ground / you’ve got some good in me’, and the sad lilt jabs. I am fascinated by ‘I’ve Been a Bad, Bad Boy’ by Paul Jones, because it is so loud and so strange, and there it is at number 6 in the charts, hooray. These small black discs are the first things that are truly mine; my choice, paid for with my own scraps of cash, reflecting my own stubbornness. In a dream, I watch them spin and spin, calling out, pointing the way. These are the days when very few people collect records, so therefore whatever they might buy defines their secret heart. Everyone scratches their name on the paper labels because in the event of the discs being brought to parties it’s important that the owner leaves with whatever they arrived with. This becomes irrelevant in the 1970s when the value of records is beginning to be understood, and any defacing will reduce trading prices. In the 60s, of course, it doesn’t occur to anyone that they might one day sell their collection, for who would want such throwaway items?

– Morrissey, Autobiography (Penguin Classics, 2013), ppg. 28-29.

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Pop Music with a capital ‘P’ versus Pop Music as an abbreviation for Popular Music is an incredibly important distinction to make, especially when a strict emphasis on historical time frame is exhibited. Originally, Pop music only needed to be the abbreviated short form of Popular music because the variation of genre in the 1950’s wasn’t the stark difference it would have in 5 or ten years (let alone the 60 plus we have today). You can draw parallel lines throughout the evolution of Pop music to see how it happens and how the genre (Pop with a capital ‘P’) is birthed and the time frame within which it existed occurred.

For example, if we consider 1958 for the simple reason that it was the year that Billboard first introduced its Billboard Hot 100, to this day the standard barer for commercial song success (plus, 1958 also seems interesting to consider as a key blip year in any discussion on the evolution of Pop music as it’s the year that Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army and thus left a humongous void, altering the potential subversive qualities of pop music forever. A void that many feel forever shaped how the music would then be segregated in terms of accessibility going forward). The song that sat atop their inaugural list was Ricky Nelson’s crisp and clean crooned ‘Poor Little Fool’, a song about a self-effacing and forlorn boy who’s had the games of love turned back onto him in a harsh manner.  Nelson was an All-American heart throb as clean cut and mainstream as could be, but when put alongside other tracks from the era that stretch the form as much as it could be stretched for its time (in the indy art vein you’d select something like ‘Maybe Baby’ by Buddy Holly, for adventurous camp you could look at Nervous Norvus’ brilliant ‘Ape Call’ [granted a 1956 hit], for the heavy stuff Eddie Cochran’s thrilling ‘Something Else’ was right next door in 1959, and for the speedier stuff Jerry Lee Lewis made ‘Breathless’ and on Specialty, Little Richard the duo ‘Ooh! My Soul’ and ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’) he doesn’t seem that square. There is more to Nelson’s innocence than, say, Perry Cumo’s variation of it, or Doris Day’s virgin laments that essentially amounted to little more than a gender swap therein (plus, Nelson did get to star, even if Hawks needed to be forced, in Rio Bravo, a role that betters most more respected pop stars attempts at film careers). The point being is that Nelson isn’t comparable to these artists in my estimation, but he’s not in a different universe either. Five or ten years later the same mode of comparison you see the separations form to what we have now that are so radically different; using our earlier categories but just a few years later you see how far we’d already moved. On the indy art side, 1963 had the early releases from the Beatles [‘Love Me Do’], Bob Dylan (his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was a late May release and contained ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’] and the Rolling Stones [their first single, the Chuck Berry shaker ‘Come On’ appeared in early June of that year], while adventurous camp saw something like the truly demented ‘Jack the Ripper’ from Screaming Lord Sutch and his Savages [produced by the inimitable Joe Meek], for the hard and heavy, ‘Louie, Louie’ the garage rock staple from the Kingsman saw release, while the speedier saw a distinct break, from the more raucous ‘Mean Woman Blues’ from Roy Orbison or Link Wray’s Okeh release ‘Rumble Mambo’ while in the peppier vein, ‘Everybody’ by Tommy Roe. Not to go unnoticed either, 1963 saw many key releases from Black America; several of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles gems, the Marvelettes, ‘He’s a Rebel’ from the glorious Crystals, Major Lance’s supremely underrated ‘Monkey Time’, the Chiffon’s ‘One Fine Day’ and Sam Cooke’s emergence, to name just a few. Plus, the first soca recording came in the form of Lord Shorty’s ‘Cloak and Dagger’ and Coxsone Dodd opened Studio One, the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica. All these movements would forever move pop music in unimaginable and spectacular ways.

Considering the landscape of contemporary music now, these early breaking away points become incredibly distinct and the usefulness, and importance of, an understanding of such a time frame on the definition of ‘Pop’ pop music becomes all the more clear. I mean to just see three of the subgenre outliers I used before (indy art vein is something like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s ‘Anne With An E’, heavy pop sees something like Torche’s shimmering crunch on ‘Snakes Are Charmed’ and pure pop you needn’t look farther than Lily Allen’s ‘LDN’) you see that putting all in a generic label of ‘Pop’ would render such a definition irrelevant in its inability to articulate anything specific. All this is Pop(ular) music, but all this is not ‘Pop music with a Capital P’ that was the original point of this discussion. The space that exists between the outliers is infinitely larger now than it was in our previously discussed 1958, and this ‘infinite space’ of separation has been growing very steadily, and the amount it opened each passing year would look very constant if one could pictorially graph it—and the ‘length’ of the space equal within each calendar year with a few benchmark years (say, 1966/67 or 1977) showing a little more—whatever year you’d happen to chose in the past five-and-a-half decades. It’s a deliberate evolution with definitions able to be defined to remarkably tangible time stamps.

So roughly when, and why did this happen? When did pop music become more than just an abbreviation for popular music and a genre unto itself, and then why did this era end even if music with a very similar sound that was seeking to do the same thing continued to be made? Since we do have a very specific goal here (finding a definition of Pop with a capital ‘P’) looking back at the rings in the tree trunk for when this specific form came and when it went, can be defined.

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The Importance of the Historical Viewpoint

Pop music is marked as much by what it looks like and how it’s bought and packaged as what it sounds like. Lyrical content is generally similar across its sub genres and languages with the exemplary examples able to find a degree of individuality in the rigidness of the template. Blips of acute savagery within the directness of lyrics—whatever they happened to be aimed at—are the marks of the practitioners of true flair. That’s important for selecting the great singles and establishing canon, but in outlining a genre, you’d need to think about the makers and the buyers. Pop music is a uniquely post-capitalist art form—maybe the only one—meaning that the product being made is creating the purchase desire, and the abundance of purchase is creating an environment that creates the makers. The cheapness of true pop music as a product (in the era in question this is the cheapness of a 45 rpm record) and as a form (brash camp and vain pomp coupled with short attention span duration is nothing more than [glorious] cheap camp) is precisely the point.

These social and economic forces that birthed Pop music will exist before and after the dates I’ll outline, meaning that pop music has been created and is being created now, with one small caveat. Now, and before, there are other elements existing alongside that is creating enough of a push (or pull) in either direction balancing out the other forms in popular music that stray from straight away Pop. When these exist this strongly, say the legitimacy of the long form album as a rival to the purchase of the single, or the individual mp3 buy of any album track in online media players, the artist specified (or in poor cases the record label specified) single is no longer meant to stand out as representation of artist. This important distinction—the artist dictating their message rather than the audience or radio station—is an important point that only truly existed as a norm in the Golden era.

Plus, applying the historical viewpoint is the only way I’ve yet been able to wring from my brain to define anything workable in such a sprawling chaos of joyous, raucous noise.

If you wanted the cheapest, off the cuff era from me right now I’d say roughly when Billboard started (that date discussed earlier) in 1958, and then, I don’t know, maybe early 1968. Consider all the signs pointing in other directions in that year; Gibson patents the Flying V guitar, Jeff Beck Group releases Truth (and sure enough, Led Zeppelin forms shortly thereafter), The Monkees final new episode airs on NBC, David Gilmore replaces Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd, the Who start playing the long form ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’ widespread to (limited) American audiences, FM radio begins taking over in earnest, imperialism is dealt a huge but nonetheless unfortunately not fatal blow in southeast Asia [you’ll recall peace talks started in May of this year], the Beatles White Album appears, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and as if meaning to be a culmination of all this, Jules Dassin unveils his underrated classic Uptight at the end of the year. It’s all there in that film; how the point of the music is changing (Booker T and the MG’s provided the superlative soundtrack album), the attitude of disillusion, [racial] unrest moving from optimistic hope to murderous anger, youth literally crushed by industry (and the symbolic weight that that implies too), to how its release was immediately suppressed. Paramount almost paid for it [reportedly cost about $2 million] then shelved it unseen, only to offer it sporadic limited release, often in drive ins, and then never released the film on video or DVD and long denied television rights to destroy audiences seeing it in syndication. The outlets of making the noise and the desire to make it (in the mainstream at least) start all drying up, almost too perfectly coincidental.

Or, if you wanted to get poetic, you could just say the the Golden Era ended because it couldn’t handle the stress of Ray Davies abandoning the form after ‘Waterloo Sunset’—which could be the objective pinnacle of the entire genre—with the longer, though no less brilliant, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, while in almost exact comparative terms Brian Wilson followed Pet Sounds—another objective pinnacle—with the failed Smile at roundabout the same time. You can take either end based on your mood; Pop died because destructive forces killed it (racism, capitalism, technological advancement) or Pop music killed itself because it collapsed from the strain of its stretching out. It’s creators were so brilliant that the walls of the genre tent that held it all were bound to burst at some point.

Sure, and we’ll talk specifically about these dates more in a bit, artists from this era existed before and after this time still created genuine Pop music, but everything that started after this, or ended before this, just, to me, doesn’t fit into Pop with a capital P.

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The rise of the bourgeoisie and the rapid economic changes of the 1950s had led to a decline in arranged marriages—except in the rapidly dwindling aristocracy, where lineage was still of real significance. The Catholic Church, which had always frowned upon sex outside marriage, welcomed this shift toward the love match. It was closer to Catholic doctrine (‘Male and female created He them”), and brought its ideal world of peace, fidelity and love a step closer. The Communist party, which was the only spiritual power that could rival the church at the time, was fighting for almost identical objectives. Consequently, young people in the 1950s, without exception, waited impatiently to fall in love, as the desertion of the countryside and the concurrent disappearance of village communities allowed the choice of a future spouse to be made from an almost infinite selection, just as the choice itself became of the utmost importance. (At Sarcelles, in September 1955, a new political movement dedicated to the preservation of the ‘extended family’ was launched; proof in itself that society had now been reduced to the nuclear family.) It would be fair to say that the late 1950s and early 1960s were the golden age of romantic love—a time we remember today through the songs of Jean Ferrat and early Françoise Hardy.

But it was precisely at this time that the consumption of prurient mass-market entertainment from North America (the songs of Elvis Presley, the films of Marilyn Monroe) was spreading all over Western Europe. Along with the refrigerators and washing machines designed to make for a happy couple came the transistor radio and the record player, which would teach young people how to flirt. The distinction between true love and flirtation, latent during the sixties, exploded in the early seventies in magazines like Mademoiselle Âge Tendre and Vingt And, and crystallized around the the central central question of the era: ‘How far can you go before you get married?’ The libidinal, hedonistic American option received great support from the liberal press (the first issue Actuel appeared in October 1970, and Charlie Hebdo in November). Although their politics were notionally left-wing, these magazines embraced the ideals of the entertainment industry: the destruction of Judeo-Christian values, the supremacy of youth and individual freedom. Torn between these conflicting pressures, teen magazines hastily cobbled together a compromise that can be summed up in the following life history.

In the first stage (say, from twelve to eighteen), a girl would go out with several boys (the semantic ambivalence of the term reflected a very real behavioral ambiguity: what did going out with a boy actually mean? Did it mean kissing, or did it include the more profound joys of petting or of heavy petting, or even of full sexual intercourse? Should you allow a boy to touch your breasts? Should you take off your panties? And should you do with his thing?) For Patricia Hohweiller and Caroline Yessayan the problem was far from simple; their favorite magazine gave vague, often contradictory answers. In the second stage, (once she left high school), the same girl needed a serious relationship (referred to in German magazines as ‘big love’). Now the defining question was: ‘Should you move in with Jeremy?’ This was the second and final stage. The flaw in the solution offered by girls’ magazines—arbitrarily recommending contradictory forms of behavior in consecutive periods of a girl’s life—only became apparent some years later with the inexorable rise in the divorce rate. Nevertheless, for many years girls, naïve and already disoriented by the speed of social change, accepted these improbable rules and tried their best to stick to them.  

-Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles (First Vintage International Edition, 2001), ppg 46-47.

How this evolution in the behaviors of social relationships—the revolutions for lack of a better term—was triggered by the widespread commerciality and accessibility of pop music is a direct argument to Adorno’s essay ‘On Pop Music’ that the rigidity of classic pop music structure (genre, form, orchestration and lyrical content) created an atmosphere of cultural simplicity and alienation and was thus conservative in nature. Rather, it was these exact things with a heaping dose of cheapness (i.e. affordability) that made the form available to a large swath of people across many cultures that hadn’t previously had avenues to both grow and express themselves. These articulations weren’t new, hence why many of them were base level (the anxiety—nervous or celebratory—of love constitutes most of Pop’s lyrical content) and why the content is universal across decades, but the sudden availability to express these emotions and buy similar ones made by others like you expressing them this openly created a paradigm shift in views of normalcy (through purchasing power one could become part of the [sub]culture). Suddenly the lower social, gender, economic or (or and) racial classes where repositioned and in open ‘fair’ competition with those around them. Their minds were being changed about their natural reactions to their world around them by those ‘little black spinning discs’ (to quote the earlier Morrissey), but more importantly the medium was—for the first time—a mass one and a very accessible one. And, also for the first time, it was one that didn’t provoke lethargic acceptance or tired inactivity. No, it actually was made to move and make those that were apart of it move with it. Move around left and right, with someone or with no one, down or up, but eventually you’d feel an overall trajectory that was upward.

Curtis Mayfield, it has been said, did more for the Civil Rights movement than Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X. The multitude of message diversity in the pop music subversion explosion amounted to a tidal wave that we probably still haven’t caught up to or properly understood; Mayfield’s ‘I Can’t Work No Longer’ is just as important as ‘People Get Ready’. They appeared just months apart in 1965.

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The Major Epochs

I define Pop as a form that occurred during a very specific time period due to very specific rises in social political forces. Before this period of time it produces music that is all the things Pop music is potentially but classified differently due to these forces not existing at all or at the very least not existing in their fully formed and functioning power. After this specific time period it also produces music that is all the things Pop music is as well, but now with a clear understanding of the existence of this period making the music by very definition ‘post-pop’. The post-pop era was virtually instantaneous to the golden era, which says more about how some artists create (some sample others more predominately as a legitimate means of expression) than offering a working era parameter. Meaning, that as long as some artists were still working within the ideals I define as the golden age the referential works do not set forth the next epoch in our timeline (but I’ll say more on this point in section four).

1. Mass individual transportation and consumer power in the younger social class

The most specific definers of pop music are American teenagers of the mid to late 1950s and British art-school attendees of the early to mid 1960s. More broadly, it is any teenager in a country with a sufficient infrastructure stable enough to produce makers and buyers of a specific type of music fashioned with a philosophy of sudden independence*.

But since most pop music style and structure was laid out by those two sets mentioned in the paragraph directly above, it would be important then to note the paradigm shift in transportation access for both sets and how the era of modern convenience (or ‘Mod Cons’ to Paul Weller) played a huge part for ushering in the beginnings of Pop music. Both cultures (England and America) faced different worlds after World War II. Though both countries found themselves on the winning side, America hadn’t seen much of its infrastructure reduced to rubble over years of continuous bombing raids, and this says nothing of what this constant state of paranoia caused by death and destruction coming from the heavens at any possible moment that England’s populace (and most of Europe) was under psychologically for about 5 years or so. This simple fact—that America’s economy hit the ground running in 1945 or so and England’s needed about 10 or 15 years after that initial rebuild—is instrument in displaying how the youth in both countries saw genuine leisure and consumer power for probably the first time in human history (and is obviously why American pop is identifiable as early as 1954/5 while England’s first ‘English’ records [English versions of American acts don’t count] came about 1961/2]). Human’s overall saw life much easier (thanks modern conveniences) coupled with the reliability in forms of transportation saw the life of teenagers finally become what we genuinely think of it today.

Simple geography then had to play its part; America is a vast country inbred with a strong sense of individuality. This meant that the individual passenger car would become a staple of American ideology and hot rod/car culture is a fixture at every turn in American popular music. Given that much of American populace is only now starting to live in urban environments meant that to get almost anywhere an American teenager of that era had to have a set of wheels and thus, with the sudden money in their pocket and affordability of automobiles, Pop music culture began to come into shape (it’s reliance on the sock hop, dance hall, doo-wop diner and concert—all places a teenager would have to drive or be driven to–shouldn’t be discounted).

Similarly, once England got the bug from imported records and concert tours (as seen across the continent; the Marshall Plan did more to create ‘Americophiles’ than anything by forcing our auditory and visual arts onto the European masses), and had a reliable enough economy, their Pop music started to take shape around the modes of transportation their teenagers had assess to. While early Rocker culture favored English motorcycles like Triumph, Norton, and BSA, the music was American greasers, or greaser retreads, while the first uniquely English Pop music trend, the Mod subcultures (that would form the trunk of the family tree that all English Pop music is now contained within), favored the (Italian designer) scooter retrofitted in the hip Mod way (stickers and excessive rearview mirrors) and to a lesser degree, the tube railway system. The tube is of particular importance because it then saw the music evolve from clubs, and club playing. These dependence on the live performance affected how their music became intrinsically English (while, as I just said American music depended on the created image presented on record played at a cultural gathering; Elvis, Madonna, and Michael Jackson—the Holy Trinity of American Pop [unfortunately] all saw any semblance of artist destroyed by choosing to become commodities first and foremost).

What these two differences meant was somewhat idiosyncratic to how each culture exhibited itself Pop musically; American Pop is highly individualistic and tough leaning, while English is generally more self-consciously arty as it’s aware of itself within the whole (niche subgroups generally purport both individuality and common group sameness) stylistically and historically. Both of these differences would set in motion the Pop era, and quickly be taken for granted by both groups, which is probably why teenager culture has yet to experience the explosion of creativity is did when those originators first had excess to this new idea of mobility.

(*Independence can come from any oppression in a capitalist society; racial, economic, gender bias, [availability—or lack thereof—of adequate] transportation, sexual)

2. The Rise of the 45 as a means to package perfection (the Golden Age) coincides, not coincidentally, with the civil rights movement.

The first 45s, should actually probably be called 16s or 78s as those were the RPMs of the earliest 10 inch records, could be seen in very similar light to what we know today as the single. Their greatest impact on the form of popular music was inherent in the most basic qualities of their makeup. First, being the size and amount of space they offered (one, maybe two songs per side), the cost to the consumer would be relatively cheap, all things considered. For the newer forms of music (blues, jazz, and then pop) appealing to the youth and/or economically oppressed minorities this was a huge game changer. Plus, recording techniques improved to meet this demand and soon pressing machines became somewhat affordable thus creating dozens of small, risk-taking independent labels. For artists looking to create legitimately new sounds and genres, these advancements in technological and economic avenues can not be seen as anything other than earth shattering.

The 78, made of shellac, became the most commonly used format, but these were generally low-fi or at worse, crude in audio quality (not to mention the shellac was brittle and could shatter if accidentally dropped) but since it would take technology almost 50 years to introduce the mono 45 rpm vinyl, it’d be the standard barer for almost half a century. The standard 7-inch was introduced by RCA in 1949, but took a few years to fully take hold, which not uncoincidentally coincided with the rise of the Pop era.

It was finally a form with a proper delivery, an echo with a cave where it had previously had nothing but open spaces (imagine the world of painting before canvas, or better yet, oil paint). Soon, megaphones and devices such as the immortal jukebox were being invented to play these shiny, cheap discs and without their invention, the form might have remained what it was; regional, cheap, easily disposable, rather than what it is; uniting, collectible, immortal. It’d look like a near perfect storm; ever-rising favorable economic conditions create the first youth culture(s) with purchasing power, readily available infrastructure to produce, create, and sell singles (with an audience recognizing the low and high art present) and finally, the beginnings of genuine social change.

It could be debated as to what came first, the movements (civil rights, worker rights [that fully erupted in 1968], non-violent resistance [anti-war, anti-imperialism, et al], gender and sexual equality, etc.) that seemed to all boil over at the same time or the one thing that all the movement had in common: the art of Pop Music. I suppose it’s just important to note that they piggy-backed from each other, and grew in seriousness and brilliance with one another, but then we’d also have to admit that they also began to die, or rather say ‘be stifled out under a more oppressive boot’ as it seems more apropos to the analogy at hand, together too. The easiest way to understand my definition of the term, pop music with a capital P, and when I think it actually existed, is to just note the rising, cresting, and then subsiding of this tidal wave.

I like that analogy best. It implies that one day the typhoon will return en masse and swallow us all up again.

3. FM radio as the prevailing means to deliver youth music

In the easiest way, FM radio can be seen as the first impetus to the downgrading of importance of the Pop single. It’s an obvious thing to understand, early FM radio existed in frequencies better suited for the sonic rigors of the suddenly louder, more Rock oriented sound that was beginning to envelop the pop charts (hell, it probably did wonders to the louder qualities that much pop had too; think of the deep tones of stomper soul for example). Plus, as an upstart, the initial DJs were more adventurous with regards to playlists and song lengths, creating an avenue, previously unexplored, for songs into 6, 7 and 8 minutes (‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ seems the poster boy here no?) to receive steady airtime. The days where record company shenanigans were needed to keep songs under 3 minutes seemed over (Simon & Garfunkel’s breezy fun ‘Fakin’ It’ from 1967 seems the poster boy in this regard; the song was three minutes and fourteen seconds long, but thinking it’d be rejected by AM radio on length alone, the record company listed the run time as the technically correct, if impossible, two minutes and seventy-four seconds) as were the days when station playlists featured nothing but singles. The medium of Rock N’ Roll grew exponentially because of this, especially in more hard and heavy avenues, while the radio saw influx of new, edgier advertisers. Suddenly, just as it was finding its way, FM radio started becoming curtailed and rung in as well. Sure it had better sonic fidelity over AM which provided all the new tunes the explosiveness they needed, but the double edge sword of it all started to immediately expose itself.  While similar big ticket advertising was being done on television or in the glossiest of magazines compared to the small scale ads seen in local papers, or trade magazines, FM radio started attracting the higher demanding (and thus demeaning) clients as well. The scope of ad buys on any medium say as much about a companies influence as anything in the 20th century. Obviously when this starts happening a once promising medium is forever compromised within regards to where content is concerned.

With AM being replaced by a newly compromised FM, the writing was on the wall, and it was two-fold. The stations devoted to pure pop music were dwindling and the form was changing outside the original thesis, just as bigger advertisings were starting to want a say in programming content. To be played on the radio as a pop artist you’d have to appeal to that more than your audience. This, along with the obvious nature of evolution within any art form, led to pop music that was self-consciously ‘pop’. Gloriously subversive Pop and Rock music was suddenly thrust to the fringes,with the exceptions only proving the rule. A definite era was over and while holdovers remained, never again would the world see youth oriented music being created in a real-world vacuum of originality, subversion, and joy.

4. The Instantaneous post-Pop landscape

Just as this was happening and because this was happening, pop began moving into its post-pop phase. Coupled with much of the revolutionary movements discussed at the tale end of this sections number 2, pop became incredibly self-reflective and highly conscious of itself. Not bad things per se, but this was the clear indication that the genre was over, and was now working in evolutionary ways to create new genres.

The best analogy I can conjure is drawing a very similar parallel to the Film Noir movement in American cinema in the wake of World War II. Like Pop music it is a genre defined as much about its stylistic exhibitions (moody photography and evocative locales for Noir) as it is about its content (oppressive world views and fatalistic existentialism) and, and this is my chief reason for comparing the two, they both are defined as existing within very strict time frames. Once the Noir sensibility lessened in the 1950’s (which were initially brought on from the collective societal hangovers of near total destruction via World War II), the strict Noir genre ended. Sure, we’ve had Noir Films since then (and this era is often seen as ending with the release of Odds Against Tomorrow [1959] or Touch of Evil [1958]) but the ‘classic era’ is what is decided as being the era to which we can find the authentic practitioners that were creating films with a sensibility devoid of overly derivative sensibilities. The Pop Golden era is exactly the same, we’ve had songs created after the Golden Age but they are being made to sound like something else, or comment on something else, making them often worthwhile, but by their very nature, derivative. A genre, in these cases, can only be seen as one that is created and maintained with references from outside it (pop had Jazz, Orchestral music, Blues, Rock, Swing, Soul, etc, while Noir had Crime and Thriller films with a German Expressionism style) and when objects are created within a style to reference that exact same style, that object can no longer be part of the essence of that genres benchmark works. They often are just as wonderful or moving as the originals but they need altogether different designation (for example, I feel Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘Joan of Arc’ from 1981’s Architecture & Morality is as great a pop song as we’ve ever had, but it can’t be classified within the strict genre we’ve attempted to outline here because the sensibility and the world to which they are entering is no longer the same).

To continue the initial point, and why I feel stressing it clearly is important is because interesting post- singles still exist within the Golden Era (showing that like Noir the end point, like the beginning point, is one without a specific second or minute event, but rather a hazy time of several months or even years). I generally try to think of it in a way that states that artists working within the Golden Era continued created outside the era because their sensibilities were shaped in it, but artists created derivative work starting the post-era right next to them. The best track I can think of currently is the French Yé-Yé girl classic from 1967, Jacqueline Taieb’s ‘7 heure du matin’. It’s smack dab near the end of the Golden Era, sitting right next to, say, Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Jimmy Mack’. But the song is self-referential; it laments the tale of a girl who fantasizes about earlier (and very much still current) pop star Paul McCartney, while musically it’s more naked in its echoing with a structure built around the Who’s timeless phrasings (musicality and lyrically) found in their late 1965 classic ‘My Generation’. It can’t be seen as an original but it consciously isn’t, and it’s better for it. The concepts built within the song are grand, and expertly performed, they are just in need of a slightly different connotation. Several generations removed from this idea is where we’d see something like the OMD ‘Joan of Arc’, but with its technological makeover the references seem to wash away, but they are there, and they’re no less great for it. It’s perhaps a testament to how sublime the Golden Era was that it has bared decades upon decades of wonderful fruit, and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

5. The Digital Age: Rearticulating the (phony) acquisition of increased accessibly (while losing the boundaries of form)

Since I’ve spent so much time outlining how the world was changing and the sensibilities with it, I feel the final section should be one of pure Politics. The technologies of Pop, often driven by development in how to repackage it or ‘streamline it’ (quotes here because streamlining a product often has no regard to quality or consumer—where streamlining should better something [for example, in how a Pop music collection is stored: streamlining it for a consumer purpose would be to reduce its allotment of necessary space it needs to take up in ones apartment or house] it usually is just offered as a means to repurchase something in a new format) consciously killed the idea of the pop single. A higher priced entire album made more sense for a record company to pursue, the production costs were on average essentially the same as a single, but netted them out a bit more in final gross. Plus, collecting already created singles into full length collections made even more sense, and in the long run meant they could live as much off their back catalogues as they could with actual development and discovery of new artists.

It’s an easy point to argue, just look how each new technology directly avoided the single. A reel-to-reel album (many people of my generation—I was born in 1980—haven’t even seen the bizarre invention that was a reel-to-reel album, but I was lucky enough to have a friend in High School whose father still had one in working condition with several albums at the ready) didn’t even really have a single equivalent (why would it?) and nor did the eight-track tape (again, why would you buy it?). The compact disc followed suit; the compact disc single was always an after thought (same for the cassette tape single), often not even being sent to stores not specializing in the sales of music (whereas 45s were sold in places as alien to music as the grocery store). From here the single, already dying in the minds of the artists because why would you put attention to a form that your master exhibited a disregard for save their biggest acts? Even when the ground-breaking mp3 was invented the trend continued. While it was lauded everywhere as a savior to music in almost every conceivable way; it could be easily stored and took up the most minute amount of space, the quality was better than sufficient, and—perhaps most importantly —it became quickly supported by a wide array of players and devices that made young people easily transport it and play within their social lives (the place where pop music should always live)— yet it continued the view that the pop single was not important. The digital single track buy, for as low as 69 cents seems like a perfect match for the Pop form, but since it doesn’t limit itself to artist or publisher selection as the 45 single did (only specific ‘chart ready’—an often dubious but nonetheless workable term here—tracks, often omitted from full length LP inclusion, were available) it doesn’t support the medium. The user choses what to hear—a completely fine ordering in the economic paradigm I’d normally say—rather than the artist saying, “this is where we are at, and this is how we want to exhibit ourselves”. It’s a colossal shift of attitude putting everything on the same level playing field, often letting as much slip through the cracks as it does letting gems emerge and rise to the surface. A decided upon Pop single is meant to introduce or highlight, not blend in and be normalized.

Perhaps this sounds all a bit grim, but amidst all the darkness, and neglect, the trampling down, and tarnishing, still the Golden Age gleams, and the next stage always promises. The records spin and turn, 45 revolutions a minute, their ideas soaring into a world otherwise deadened by the unorganized clatter of the everyday. Amidst it all are the tunes, and if they’ve sung out but once, they are sung out forever.

_ _ _ _ _

Here is my list as presented on the evenings of May 17th and 18th 2014. It’s already more than likely changed (just due to the my ever-changing moods), and several of these I’d alter if I wanted to articulate it with a more strict adherence to my opening essay. For fun, in parentheses next to the tracks I’d drop within this strictness, I could posit what would take its place should you guys want.

In the weeks that follow I’ll attempt to begin dedicating posts to small essays on these individual songs and others that just missed the cut but remain personal favorites. Happy listening.

50  Nervous Norvus – Transfusion (1956, #8 US, didn’t chart in UK)
49  Rosie & the Originals – Angel Baby (1960, #5 US, didn’t chart in UK)
48  The Raspberries – I Wanna Be With You (1972, #16 US, didn’t chart in UK)
47  Mickey & Sylvia – Love is Strange (1956, #11 US, didn’t chart in UK)
46  Mel and Tim – Starting All Over Again (1972, #19 US, didn’t chart in UK)
45  Lily Allen – The Fear (2008, #80 US, #1 in UK)
44  Bee Gees – I Started a Joke (1968, #6 US, didn’t chart in UK)
43  Jay & the Americans – You’re Living Above Your Head (1966, #76 US, didn’t chart in UK)
42  Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – (I Gotta) Dance to Keep from Crying (1963, #35 US, didn’t chart in UK)
41  The Impressions – You’ve Been Cheatin’ (1965, #33 US, didn’t chart in UK)
40  The Downliners Sect – Cost of Living (1966, #6 US, #6 UK)
39  The Lords – Poor Boy (1965, didn’t chart in US or UK)
38  The Four Tops – Standing in the Shadows of Love (1966, #76 US, didn’t chart in UK)
37  The Ronettes – Walking in the Rain (1964, #23 US, didn’t chart in UK)
36  Los Pop Tops – Oh Lord, Why Lord (1968, didn’t chart in US or UK)
35  Shangri-Las – Paradise (B side to ‘Past, Present and Future’, 1966 #59 US, didn’t chart in UK)
34  The Charmaines – Eternally (1966, didn’t chart in US or UK)
33  Ellie Greenwich – You Don’t Know (1965, didn’t chart in US or UK)
32  The Chiffons – One Fine Day (1963, #5 US, #29 UK)
31  Billy Butler & the Chanters – I Can’t Work No Longer (1965, #6 US, did not chart in UK)
30  Major Lance – Since I Lost My Baby’s Love (1972, did not chart in US or UK)
29  The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice? (1966, #8 US, #2 UK)
28  The Clique – Sugar on Sunday (1969, #22 US, did not chart in the UK)
27  Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons – December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) (1975, #1 US, #1 UK)
26  Gary US Bonds – Quarter to Three (1961, #1 US, #11 UK)

25  Dusty Springfield – What Good is I Love You (1970, didn’t chart in US or UK)
24  Millie Small – My Boy Lollipop (1964, #2 US, #2 UK)
23  The Nightcrawlers – The Little Black Egg (1967, #85 US, didn’t chart in UK)
22  The Monotones – Who Wrote the Book of Love (1958, #5 US, didn’t chart in UK)
21  The Tammys – Egyptian Shumba (1963, didn’t chart in US or UK)
20  Harpo – Horoscope (1976, didn’t chart in US or UK)
19  Love Affair – Everlasting Love (1968, didn’t chart in the US, #1 UK)
18  Sandie Shaw – Girl Don’t Come (1964, #42 US, #3 UK)
17  Twinkle – Golden Lights (1965, didn’t chart in the US, #21 UK)
16  The Equals – Hold Me Closer (B-side to ‘Baby Come Back’. 1966 [failed to chart], re-released in 1968, #26 US, #1 UK)
15  Jan Bradley – Mama Didn’t Lie (1963, #14 US, didn’t chart in UK)
14  The Monkees – Valeri (1968, #3 US, #12 UK)
13  Anna Karina – Rollergirl (1966, didn’t chart in US or UK but was hit in its native France)
12  Roy Orbison – Workin’ for the Man (1962, #33 US, #50 UK)
11  The Tams – Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy (1968, didn’t chart in the US, #32 UK in 1970)
10  Irma Thomas – Break-A-Way (B side to ‘Wish Someone Would Care’, 1964 #17 US, didn’t chart in UK)
9    Helen Shapiro – Today Has Been Cancelled (1969, didn’t chart in US or UK)
8    Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers – I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent (1956, didn’t chart in US, #12 UK)
7    Squire – Face of Youth Today (1979, didn’t chart in US or UK)
   Billy Butler & the Four Enchanters – Found True Love (1963, #134 US, did not chart in UK)
5    ABBA – SOS (1975, #15 US, #6 UK)
4    The Crystals – He’s a Rebel (1962, #1 US, #19 UK)
3    1910 Fruitgum Co. – 1-2-3 Redlight (1968, #5 US, did not chart in UK)
2    The Everly Brothers – Cathy’s Clown (1960, #1 US, #1 UK)
1    JJ Jackson – But It’s Alright (1966, #22 US, did not chart in UK)

3 thoughts on “Pop Music with a Capital ‘P’: a Definition

  1. Robert’s list:

    50 Come See About Me The Supremes
    49 Everlasting Love Robert Knight
    48 Have I The Right The Honeycombs
    47 Put a Little Love In Your Heart Jackie DeShannon
    46 Gotta Get a message to you Bee Gees
    45 I Wanna Dance With Somebody Whitney Houston
    44 Girl Don’t Tell Me The Beach Boys
    43 Knock Three Times Tony Orlando & Dawn
    42 Here comes my baby The Tremeloes
    41 Take on Me Ah-Ha
    40 Little Red Corvette Prince
    39 It Hurts To Be In Love Gene Pitney
    38 It’s All Right The Impressions
    37 Take Good Care of My Baby Bobby Vee
    36 Dancing In The Dark Bruce Springsteen
    35 Come a Little Bit Closer Jay & The Americans
    34 Morning will Come Spirit
    33 Denise Randy & The Rainbows
    32 Suspicious Minds Elvis Presley
    31 Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon Paul Revere & The Raiders
    30 Werewolves Of London Warren Zevon
    29 What Becomes of the Brokenhearted Jimmy Ruffin
    28 I’m Gonna Make You Mine Lou Christie
    27 I Wanna Be With You -The Raspberries The Raspberries
    26 (What A) Wonderful World Sam Cooke
    25 Magic The Cars
    24 December, 1963 (Oh What a Night!) Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
    23 Kind of a Drag The Buckinghams
    22 Cruel To Be Kind Nick Lowe
    21 Do it again a little bit slower Jon And Robin and the in Crowd
    20 Invisible Touch Genesis
    19 Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) Edison Lighthouse
    18 End Of The Line Traveling Wilburys
    17 Hitchin’ A Ride Vanity Fare
    16 She Drives me crazy Fine Young Cannibals
    15 Suspicion Terry Stafford
    14 Laughing The Guess Who
    13 Sugar On Sunday The Clique
    12 Let me be The Turtles
    11 I Know a Place Petula Clark
    10 I Fought the Law Bobby Fuller Four
    9 Cecilia Simon & Garfunkel
    8 When You Walk In the Room The Searchers
    7 Saturday Night The Bay City Rollers
    6 Easier Said Than Done The Essex
    5 Let My Love Open the Door Pete Townshend
    4 I’m Telling You Now Freddie & The Dreamers
    3 I Want You Back The Jackson 5
    2 You’re the One (Re-Recorded) The Vogues
    1 Baby, I Love You The Ronettes

  2. Christina’s Top 15 list:

    15. E.S.G., 6 Pack, Step Off (2002)
    14. Lesley Gore, Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows, Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed up Hearts (1963)
    13. Gloria Jones, Tainted Love, Vixen (1964)
    12. Etta James, 7 day fool, The Second Time Around (1961)
    11. OMD, Egnola Gay, Orchestral Maneovers in the Dark (1980)
    10. Tiny Tim, Ever Since You Told Me That You Love Me (I’m A Nut), God Bless Tiny Tim (1968)
    9. Wham!, Freedom, Make it Big (1984)
    8. The Bangles, Going Down to Liverpool, All Over the Place (1984)
    7. Nancy Sinatra, Don’t Let Him Waste your Time, Nancy Sinatra (2004)
    6. The Go Go’s, Our Lips are Sealed, Beauty and the Beat (1981)
    5. Abba, S.O.S., Abba (1975)
    4. Blondie, Atomic, Eat to the Beat (1979)
    3. Cyndi Lauper, She Bop, She’s So Unusual (1983)
    2. Human League, Don’t You Want Me, Dare! (1981)
    1. Lesley Gore, You Don’t Own Me, Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed up Hearts (1963)

  3. Brian’s list:

    1. The Everly Brothers – Walk Right Back
    2. Del Shannon – Little Town Flirt
    3. Gary U.S. Bonds – Quarter To Three
    4. Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons – Let’s Hang On
    5. The Beach Boys – I’m Waiting For The Day
    6. Adam Ant – Apollo 9
    7. The Box Tops – Soul Deep
    8. The Dukes Of Stratosphear – You’re A Good Man Albert Brown
    9. The Dixie Cups – Going To The Chapel
    10. The Raspberries – I Wanna Be With You
    11. The Jarmels – A Little Bit Of Soap
    12. Dion – Ruby Baby
    13. Devo – That’s Good
    14. Euclid Beach Band – There’s No Surf In Cleveland
    15. Herman’s Hermits – I’m Into Something Good
    16. Gary Lewis & The Playboys – She’s Just My Style
    17. Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders – The Game Of Love
    18. OMD – So In Love
    19. The Honeycombs – Have I The Right
    20. Boyce & Hart – I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight
    21. Maxine Nightingale – Right Back Where We Started From
    22. Buddy Holly – Modern Don Juan
    23. Lily Allen – LDN
    24. The Hondells – Little Honda
    25. The Gentrys – Keep On Dancing

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