What, exactly, is “pop music”? A new book seeks to clarify

When it comes to the term “pop music,” most people will think of the genre of songs played on Top 40 radio. That’s not wrong, but it doesn’t go far enough in definition.

“Pop”, in case it wasn’t obvious – and it might not be – is short for “popular” songs, designed to sell and appeal to as many people as possible. And although music has been around for millennia, the idea of ​​pop music is a fairly recent invention.

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Bob Stanley, an English writer, former DJ and former member of the group Saint Etienne, has written a wonderful book on the subject entitled Let’s Do It, the birth of pop music: a story. Beginning in the late 1800s, Stanley carefully guides the reader through how music for the masses emerged from the vaudeville circuit in North America and the music halls of the United Kingdom to dominate much of the modern culture.

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The hardcover has 636 pages, including a comprehensive index, and takes us to the rise of the Beatles and the modern era of pop music. History is loaded with treats like these.

The Industrial Revolution led to the mass production of many things, driving down the prices of items and making them accessible to a wide range of people. Pianos, for example, went from expensive homemade instruments to something almost every family could afford. Sales exploded between 1870 and 1910 when tens of thousands of pianos found their way into pubs and drawing rooms on both sides of the Atlantic. This meant that more people than ever could have music on demand from the comfort of their homes. Someone had to be there to play it, but the idea of ​​being able to summon music whenever you felt like it was a huge step forward.

Naturally, people needed something to play. This spawned professional songwriters who congregated in places like Tin Pan Alley in New York (West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) and Denmark Street in London. Songwriters provided notations to music publishers, who then distributed the songs on sheet music to stores. Sheet music was a hugely lucrative business, thanks to all these new piano owners. A 1905 song by Arthur Collins titled The preacher and the bear became the first song to sell a million copies on sheet music.

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Another interesting fact: those who didn’t want a piano opted for gadgets that played state-of-the-art audio recordings on wax cylinders using Thomas Edison’s original phonograph or the rotating flat disc if they chose Emile’s Gramophone Berliner. Phonograph and Gramophone were once brand names. Even though Berliner’s technology, the Gramophone, eventually won this format war, the word “phonograph” became much more common.

These “talking machines” – a generic term for devices that played music – received a major boost with the introduction of the Victrola in 1906. It featured Berliner’s technology housed inside a wooden cabinet. wood so that the whole contraption looked like a piece of fine furniture. As these objects were part of interior design, traditionally a feminine responsibility in polite society, women became the first collectors of music. For many families, it was the wife’s job to provide recorded music when her husband returned home after a hard day’s work. Manufacturers regularly sent representatives to afternoon teas, society meetings, and parent-teacher events to promote their talking machines.

Record labels have done the same. And because Victrola cabinets had a small shelf to store records, women began buying more music to fill it. Thus were born the first record collectors.

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Stanley also connects a few other dots. There was a change in time signatures around 1900 when popular music changed from 2/4 time and 3/4 time to 4/4 time. Martial music was very present in the late 19th century thanks to brass band stars like John Philip Sousa. Traditionalists were all about the waltzes. But with the rise of ragtime, more songs were performed in 4/4 time until it became the dominant time signature, which continues today.

In 1906 the Bakerloo and Picadilly underground lines opened in London, making it easier for working-class people from more remote areas of the city to travel to Oxford Street where they could sample culture and the music of richer people. This music then returned with them to local music halls, boosting their popularity. As Irving Berlin, one of the first successful “pop” songwriters, said, “[This music’s] the appeal is to the masses, not to the classes.

The First World War also played an important role in the development of pop music. When America entered the war on April 6, 1917, the US War Industries Board declared that “music is essential to winning the war” and even though paper was rationed, it ensured that the music industry music gets as much paper as it needs to throw millions and millions and millions of songs onto sheet music.

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Another connection. When, in 1917, the Navy Department shut down Storyville, New Orleans’ tolerated red-light district (too many sailors had STDs), dozens of black musicians from brothels and bars were fired. Many of them migrated north, up the Mississippi, settling in places like St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis, spreading a new type of music called “jass” (yes, that’s how ” jazz” was spelled at the beginning) in other parts. from the country. Jazz would become the engine of popular music for the next 30 years.

This leads us to the rise of R&B and the eventual birth of rock and roll in the 1950s. There is also good attention given to Broadway and the role it played in creating music for the masses.

If you’re the kind of music fan who wants to know how we got to where we are today, let’s do it will open your eyes – and ears – to a part of music history you may not realize exists.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s podcast on the continuing story of new music now at Apple podcast Where google play

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