What does "Pop" mean w.r.t. music?

I just encountered the following sentence, said of XTC:

This is a puzzling sentence, if you take “pop” to mean “in the popular style.”

And indeed, I’ve never quite understood what “pop” means in a musical context. Can someone explain it?


I’m willing to try. Pop is short for popular, no doubt. I think “popular” was originally used to indicate “as opposed to classical (to mean “serious”)” as if those were the two areas of music one could aspire to. Then the waters became muddied by Jazz, Folk, Country, Blues, Ethnic, and certainly Rock (in its various incarnations and subgenres).

Nowadays, Pop is usually used for the “and other” variety of music that can’t be pigeonholed into a more descriptive and limiting term like Techno, House, Reggae, Latin, Electronica, Emo, Easy Listening, Elevator Music, and probably at least 100 more categories.

Oldies (whatever than means – older than last year?) tend to be either Pop or “Classic Rock” (an oxymoron in the birthing phase). Artists tend to be dead or nearly so. Tony Bennett would qualify if some weren’t bent on making him a Jazz singer or a Legend.

Others will doubtless flesh this out more, but it’s a start.

From AMG:

They have links to some related and more contemporary genres.

I’ve always thought “pop” described music for the fun of it. That is, music that contains no deep meanings, no symbolism or hidden messages, and had (and I don’t mean this in a bad way) no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The subject matter was usually inoffensive: let’s dance, let’s sing, let’s go out on a date; but we will only imply anything further. Pop music broke no new ground musically or technologically; it simply had a great beat and you could–usually–dance to it.

This definition excluded most Folk (pressing for social change), Heavy Metal (let’s act in ways our parents would disapprove of), Psych/Acid/Progressive Rock (the deep meanings), Country (lotta cheatin’ goin’ on), and so on. But by the above definition, Pop would include Disco (let’s dance), Bubblegum (do I really have to explain this one?), and similar broad genres. Mary Hopkins, Olivia Newton-John, Sheena Easton, Andy Kim, the pre-Saturday Night Fever Bee Gees, all the Kasenatz-Katz studio bubblegum groups, Britney Spears, Tiffany–all pop stars. But Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Aerosmith, Genesis, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell–not pop acts.

I think the AMG definition is pretty good. Pop is accessible, short, and lyrically about the personal, I think. Pop songs don’t go on about the evils of the World Bank, but they talk about having one’s heart broken, wanting to get one’s leg over, or despising the weather.

Ironically, I think XTC got the pop label through their own doing - they released a single, “This is Pop?” and it stuck. Poor XTC. They should have been so much bigger, and I think they might have been in the 1990s if Virgin hadn’t been such tossers and allowed them out of their contract. I think it would have come together for them if they recorded at the time when Britpop and bands like the Dandy Warhols were making a splash. And now it seems that Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding aren’t interested in playing together anymore. :frowning: :frowning: :frowning:

I’ve got to disagree with the AMG definition. I’ve always heard “pop” have two different meanings:

  1. Whatever top 40 radio plays, regardless of genre
  2. Music that sticks to traditional verse/chorus/verse structures that emphasizes melody over loud guitars or heavy rhythms. Depending on the context, it can refer to Sinatra-style crooners or what’s called “indie rock” (Rilo Kiley, Belle and Sebastian, Feist, etc.).
    XTC’s “pop” by the second defintion. The reason this has caused them problems is because they’re too loyal to this version of pop to kowtow to the latest production fads.

Yeah, I agree with installLSC. There are two functioning definitions in music terminology today. One is bad — the Britney Spears variety of pop. The other refers, much like the AMG definition, to music that doesn’t rock enough to be actual rock. Some go so far as to say the Beatles were a pop band, not a rock band. The Beach Boys and anything with Phil Spector’s name on it most definitely were. Pop bands in this sense still exist today: The New Pornographers might be the best practitioners of the genre.

The latter variety of pop can address serious situations and have serious lyrics. That said, when it does so, it does it with a wry or humorous bent.

I usually capitalize when I intend it to include such artists as Kate Bush or XTC or Peter Gabriel or whoever. These are artists who work in the Pop idiom–short songs, usually collected in an album, intended largely to be heard as a recording. This is Pop as opposed to “academic” music: music that sprang “from the people” rather from the dusty schools of composition. It includes almost every kind of music that is not meant (usually) to be played by an orchestra and listened to by well dressed people with a program on their lap.

That being, there are really very few boundaries or rules left, so this definition is the vaguest generality is rife with exceptions.