Has pop music stopped evolving?
The last 100 years saw tremendous changes in technology that presented itself in the evolution of pop music. In the last 20 years, the evolution of technology has accelerated, but has the evolution of pop kept pace? Here’s a look at the state of pop in 2017.
The advent of commercial radio changed the world and to anyone alive today it can be hard to imagine a time before we had free entertainment coming out of the air and funnelled through magic sound boxes. The first use of radio was military but it wasn’t long before capitalists figured out how to monetize the technology. It’s hard to get historians to agree on the when and where the first commercial radio broadcasts happened. In America, the first commercial radio stations with regularly scheduled broadcasts began in 1920 with WWJ out of Detroit, and KDKA out of Pittsburgh although some sources claim KQW in San Jose, California was the “First Commercial Station” because of its broadcasting in 1912.
Regardless of who was first and where, about 100 years ago radio became a major force in people lives and “popular music” and the changes it would go through began to be synchronized nationwide. Over roughly a century, the changes in pop music have been measured by decade, but that seems to be changing in the early 21st century. Let’s look back and see how we’ve marked those changes:
The decade from 1920 through 1929 was dominated by Jazz, although ragtime and Broadway show music were also big. Radio and the technology of phonograph records introduced jazz to people living in even the most remote locations. The biggest recording star in the world in the 20’s was Al Jolson, with hits like Swanee, My Mammy, Ol’ Man River and many others, Jolson was the first real “king of pop”. However, the change to be noticed is the difference between the kind of music Jolson was doing to that of where the decade began with the opera tenor, Enrico Caruso, having a hit record with Pagliacci.
The 30’s saw Jazz expand with the era of big bands with lots of brass featured in orchestras from Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James and others. Bing Crosby was the new “pop star”, taking the place of Jolson a decade earlier and marked a big change in vocal styling. The decade also gave rise to the popularity of singing cowboys like Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Jimmie Rogers. Already we began to see that ten years was enough to time for popular music to shift dramatically.
The Big Band era continued into the 1940’s and bandleaders like the Dorsey Brothers helped launch the careers of singers who then gained great popularity as solo artists, most notably Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was the first “teen idol” and his vast appeal to the “bobby soxers” highlighted what would become the prime demographic audience for popular music, which had up until then appealed mainly to adults.
In 1951, a disc jockey out of Cleveland, Ohio by the name of Alan Freed was playing rhythm and blues music for a multi-racial audience, and coined the phrase “rock and roll”. The decade was a boom for small singing groups and street corner quartets with a style called “doo-wop”. The popularity of the electric guitar was a force for change in this decade. Artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis mixed blues and rock and roll. Elvis Presley became the first bonafide “rock star” while artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline ushered in a new popularity for country music. Television became a stimulus for change as well with shows like American Bandstand. The changes in pop music were coming bigger and faster now.
Perhaps the most obvious big changes in pop music happened in the 1960s. A decade that began with rock and roll being softened and sweetened for white-middle-class America ended with psychedelia, heavy metal, the birth of Southern rock and an overall sense of anything goes in pop music. The “British Invasion” created a world wide change and Beatlemania was perhaps the biggest pop-culture phenomenon in history. The drug culture played a role in shaping the music of the decade as well as “the era of free love”. Folk music, and particularly the influence of Bob Dylan, who crossed genre lines and created controversy, had a big effect on pop. Soul, R&B and Motown were all big forces. The difference between what you may have heard on pop radio in 1960 was a world away from what you would have heard in 1969.
FM Radio, 8-Track tapes and cassette players not only brought higher quality audio into homes, they provided the mobility of pop music. For the first time, car stereos became an important technology. The decade started with expanding the heavy metal, hard rock and southern rock that had begun in the late 60’s and ended with Disco and Punk dominating opposing ends of the spectrum. The age of electronic music was born as synthesizers became popular and by the end of the decade, the first drum machines and sequencers could be heard on pop records.
MTV killed the radio star. Not really but did kick the radio star square in the balls and music now had to be created with a visual in mind for pop culture. The punk of the previous decade gave way to New Wave, the term Classic Rock was born for people who were refusing to let the music of the 60’s and 70’s disappear. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and other artists mixed dance with bubble gum pop to feed the hungry video oriented pop culture. Big hair took over the Hard Rock genre and brought glam into the mainstream. Rap, which would later change it’s name to Hip Hop became all the rage and Electronica and Techno were beginning to flourish and pop tried to reflect some of all those styles.
The 90’s saw a wide variety of styles making it into pop, including Grunge, which was the bastard stepchild of Punk, Hip Hop, R&B, Singer-Songwriter, Electronica, Techno, Alternative Metal, Skate Music, Ska and Country. The radio of landscape of the decade was diverse but as the decade ended the corporations that controlled the airwaves began to blur the lines so that stations could appeal to a wider audience. It wasn’t uncommon to hear Nirvana, Shania Twain and Snoop Dog played back to back on a single station. Still the changes in pop from the beginning of the decade to the end of the decade were pretty obvious.
2000 – 2017:
The cross-genre melting pot created at the end of the 90’s on radio may have had a slowing effect on the evolution of music. The music heard on radio in 2000 doesn’t seem very different in substance or style from the music heard on the radio in 2017. This is not to say that pop music has gotten better or worse. It seems to be stagnating though. As with previous eras, technology is playing a part in the way music evolves and the advent of streaming services where users can create their own stations and playlists may play a part in the state of pop.