The intellectual playwright Henry in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing has a hilarious sequence in which he is asked to choose his favorite music on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Henry has to decide whether to play the music that he believes his audience will appreciate him for or to be true to himself and play the kind of pop music he enjoys. Henry thinks, “If you can fit some Pink Floyd in between your symphonies and your Dame Janet Baker, it shows a refreshing range of taste or at least a refreshing candor — but I enjoy Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders performing ‘Um, Um, Um, Um, Um.'”
The image of pop music itself is problematic in a field where public perception is paramount. Many people look down on it, and even lovers of one kind of pop music may think that other types of pop music are worthless and don’t deserve to be called music or art. However, this is not a novel occurrence, and this issue has existed since the dawn of popular music. Pop music has been ridiculed, mocked, and called “simply pop” for as long as anybody remembers.
The first step in answering the question of whether or not pop music is art is to define what is meant by “pop music.” It is at this initial, most elementary level that most disagreements emerge. Some people think of pop music as meaningless or temporary. For them, it’s more corporately-driven music aimed at a naive youth market. To them, pop music is anything that doesn’t qualify as “rock,” “folk,” “jazz,” “indie,” or any of the other a hundred genres out there. Pop, in their view, is a dreck that no serious music enthusiast would dare to listen to. Pop music has become a distinct style in its own right. Others, however, may think of pop encompassing a wide range of musical genres and artists, from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to The Beatles and Madonna. Still, others may consider pop music a catch-all for anything that isn’t classical, expanding the concept further. Others don’t think “pop” music qualifies as music at all. It’s best to avoid a rehash by looking back at how the concept of “pop music” came to be in the first place.
Exactly what does “pop music” entail?
Throughout history, humans have always needed to express themselves creatively, and music has been an integral part of that process. Radiocarbon dating puts the discovery of a flute in a cave in 1995 in northwest Slovenia at roughly 40,000 years ago. Whether Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons were created is still up for debate, but it illustrates how long we, or at least our ancestors, have been enjoying music. Musical styles have seen incredible transformations over time, with the introduction of new instruments, the development of innovative techniques for playing them, the evolution of different voice techniques, and so on, as individuals have gained knowledge and experience.
When, then, in the history of civilization, did music start to be considered “pop”? Pop was originally an abbreviation for “popular music,” or the kinds of popular songs across cultures and periods. Historians often refer to the broadside ballads that were so common throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods as “early pop music.” Sheet music for these profane, humorous, and sentimental songs of the streets and taverns was peddled by street sellers, and it was bought and played by both landed gentry and serfs in the fields. Sir Julius Benedict, a Victorian-era composer born in Germany, performed in events billed as the London Popular Concerts.
However, most music historians concur that the birth of the recording business marked the beginning of pop music as we know it. Record labels are used to color-code songs according to the genre to assist consumers in narrowing their options. Classical music was sold on red vinyl by RCA Victor immediately following World War II; country and polka were on the green; children’s music was on yellow, and so on; regular pop was reserved for black.
Many musical genres, such as jazz, blues, country, and so on, we’re just the popular music of the period and location in which they emerged. It is generally agreed upon now that pioneers of jazz like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and later bebop players like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were among the finest artists in their respective fields.