Pop Music Musicology

By the early 1960s, knowing the dollar value of rock-n-roll, the majority of what the music industry promoted as rock-n-roll was little more than a reproduction of the hard-edge, teenage-angst, innovation known as rock-n-roll. Instead of performers writing their songs, songs were written by professional composers, recorded by session or studio musicians, and sung by teenage crooners such as Fabian and Dion. Some of the methods of Tin Pan Alley (such as coupling lyricists with professional melody writers) were utilized in the 1960s by New York City songwriters such as Carole King and by the Detroit-based youthful impresario Berry Gordy, whose Motown Records produced a string of hit records.

Unique local styles around the United States came into existence in the early 1960s, for instance, so-called “surf-rock” or “beach-rock” emerged in southern California, which was largely conceived by the Beach Boys; in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the growing urban folk movement included Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul, and Mary; and in the Northwest, the rough sound of groups like the Sonics began to develop.

In 1964, the Beatles arrived in New York City, and with them, came the British Invasion. The invasion, constituted by British pop bands that were heavily influenced by the blues, rhythm and blues, and rock-n-roll, reinvigorated mainstream popular music. Ironically, this reinvigoration came in part by reemphasizing long-standing aspects of American music. Each of the invading British pop groups developed their own unique style: the Beatles integrated the guitar-based rock-n-roll of Chuck Berry with the innovation of Tin Pan Alley artists; the Animals concocted a fusion of the blues and R&B influences, and in 1964, turned out a hit with their rendition of the Anglo-American ballad, “House of the Rising Sun”; while the Rolling Stones included characteristics of urban Chicago-blues into their then-considered eccentric, dynamic sound.

The Beatles

In the late 1960s, stylistic diversification and corporate expansion in the American record industry began. This phenomenon birthed an innovative youth-oriented popular market, defined by wide-ranging styles of rock music – including the Beatles’ prominent studio experiments; Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton’s psychedelic rock; and Southern rock, hard rock, jazz-rock, folk rock, and the like.

At the same time, the successor to R&B, soul music, integrated a wide range of styles, including Aretha Franklin’s gospel-based act, James Brown’s multifaceted funk and virtuosic stage performance, and Marvin Gaye’s expressive, soulful singing. Country-western music (contemporarily centered in Nashville, Tennessee) likewise transformed, with performers such as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., and Waylon Jennings coalescing rudiments of old country-western music standards with the elements of rock-n-roll and mainstream pop. Consequently, these artists facilitated the rising popularity of country-western music.

The 1970s saw a furthering scope of the music industry’s compelling specter. Seeing the popularity of music which had originally been highly individualistic, the music industry sought to mass-produce and mass-market those music styles. The new industry-fabricated mainstream, loosely known as corporate rock, spotlighted glamorous superstars playing to massive crowds in sports arenas. Although a number of distinctive rock sub-genres (such as disco, glam rock, punk, new wave, reggae, and funk) were surviving outside of the mainstream under independent labels and marginalized musicians, the music of the 1970s is commonly considered to be less individualized. But, by 1978, arena concerts were seeing a dramatic drop in ticket sales, and from 1978 to 1982, record sales suffered a $1 billion loss. The music industry became cautious and pulled back on its corporate rock manipulation in the mainstream.

Peter Frampton

But in the mid-1980s, an economic revival fortuned the music industry, coming in numerous and fortuitous forms. Contributing to this resurgence was a number of factors. Foremost was the advent of the music video – which, until 1981 was resigned to relative obscurity – made its mainstream debut with the premier of a 24-hour music video channel, MTV (Music Television). Just two years later in 1983, the digitally recorded compact disc was introduced and helped foster the newly stimulated demand for popular music.

Then, in 1982, Michael Jackson released the album Thriller, which became the biggest- selling record in history up to that time – and for a few years to come. With its colossal success, it established an empirical pattern that record companies relied upon – a few big hits would generate profits that exceeded the sales of marginal, nominal artists. A new breed of charismatic and idiosyncratic superstars produced the other big hits of the 1980s – each of whom attracted mass audiences by breaking through conventional social boundaries. Those entertainers and musicians of the time include Bruce Springsteen, the working-class, bar-band hero; Prince, whose 1984 single “When Doves Cry” topped both the mainstream pop and the black music charts – becoming the first song in more than twenty years to top both charts; and Madonna, the ambitious performer from a working-class background who remade herself as a pop icon.