Throughout the past century, popular music has undergone a remarkable transformation fueled by technological advances, socioeconomic changes, and cultural shifts. In Professor John Freyermuth’s Winter Intersession course, Pop Music in the USA, students analyze wide range of genres to understand how certain styles became popular, and why.
We spoke with Professor Freyermuth to learn more:
Pop Music in the USA covers a broad range of eras throughout American history, from Tin Pan Alley to psychedelic rock and beyond. What topics do students explore during your course?
During Pop Music in the USA, we cover a variety of topics discussing the origin and the development of one of the first truly uniquely American artistic exports: popular music. Our goal is to take what we view now as modern popular music and trace back to find its roots and evolution. What was the spark that led to the development of the wide variety of popular music we have now?
Then we talk about the development of the term “pop music.” What it meant, what it means now, who defines the meaning of that, and why it has a negative connotation with so many people now. When did “pop” become a bad word, and why? We also spend an extensive amount of time looking at the impact of societal changes, economic changes, political changes, cultural shifts, and technological changes and the role they play in forming and defining what becomes part of the popular music canon, and the role that popular music inversely has on helping to define what’s popular in our culture.
What defines pop music as a genre, and why does it tend to have this negative connotation you mentioned?
Pop music has an evolving and modular definition, but in the broadest sense, it can be viewed as music made for mass consumption to generate a profit that is disseminated to the masses via media. Essentially, pop music it’s made to generate revenue and fuel consumption.
The reason why I believe people cringe at so many popular artists is because it’s so easy to see that their music is aimed to make money. That’s what trivializes it. All of these artists like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber have demonstrated an artistic ability to make challenging music. They choose to work in this medium, so why do we lambaste them for that? Why do we feel bad about ourselves for liking that? It comes down to superficial consumerism — you’re buying into being part of a larger system and drawing away a little bit of your individuality and identity. It’s saying “I am like everyone else,” and that can be challenging.
Listen to Prof. Freyermuth discuss Pop Music in the USA on the Add/Drop podcast:
Pop music has undergone a tremendous transformation over the past century. What roles have socioeconomic and political factors played in its evolution?
Beginning with songwriters like Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) and moving into the ragtime era and beyond, once it became understood that you could make a living with music and there was an industry born around the creation, ownership, and dissemination of music, music entered the global and American economy as a commodity. That’s when things get very interesting because we start to have targeted marketing of music to age groups — primarily beginning with rock ‘n’ roll.
With the development of the middle class after World War II and particularly with the idea of the nuclear family unit, you had this group of people (13 to 21) that, for the first time, had expendable income. That’s one of the things that pushed rock music to become the popular force that it became. It was marketed to an economic group that had the means, the time, and the desire to consume it.
Then you had these peripheral styles of music that grew up in small vacuums until they developed a commercial force to move them toward the center of the popular music universe. Once a style of music showed that you could make money on it, it’s quickly moved from one area to the other. In the 1970s, born out of disco, it wasn’t until rap music showed that it could make money that anyone took an interest. Before that, it was relegated to lower socioeconomic areas — primarily with an influence of Jamaican music — and it stayed there. It wasn’t until it slowly started to trickle out in clubs in New York City that people were like, “Oh, this is cool, I’d like to get interested in it.” When people started investing in it, it became marketed to a whole new segment of the population.
How has pop music reflected different traditions and cultures throughout U.S. history?
I think at one point over the last 60 years, every segment of the population has had a chance for their music to be the dominant force in American musical consumption. In the early part of the 1990s, country music, for example, was relegated to the outskirts of popularity everywhere outside of the south. No one listened to it or if you did, you didn’t tell anybody because of the negative stereotypes. Then, once you have artists that display the ability to cross over and pull people from that audience — the rural southerners — to a more urban and northern audience, that’s when that music moves from that small section to a larger audience.
In the 2000s, partly thanks to Taylor Swift, you have country music dominating the charts for approximately a six- to eight-year span. Now we’re in the midst of trap music, a form of rap music, being the most popular genre. This is music that was born out of a trap house, which is slang for a place you sell drugs out of and rob people. It is the most obscure styles of music that move from a place where people with nothing are making it for themselves to being a dominant force defining the music industry and becoming integrated into all other styles and subgenres of popular music.
What about artists who combine multiple styles?
You can have a combination of these subgenres, which is really interesting. This is when your two most dominant forms come together, and they’re usually quite disparate. With the huge hit, “Old Town Road,” you had country music and trap music together creating a mega-hit that was selling to all races, all ethnicities, all age groups, all socioeconomic demographics. My dad is an old guy, and he was singing, “Take me down to the old town road,” and he hates country music! That then got him exploring a broader range of genres.
It sounds like there is a lot to analyze. What types of hands-on learning do students participate in during your course?
We will present students with a number of songs from different genres and go through and practice critical listening skills to analyze musical structure, lyrics, and instrumentation. We can then start to overlay that data and categorize music not by the genre that someone plays it in, but its common and foundational elements. Then you can begin doing regional analysis looking at the dialect used by the performers, the tone and tambour of their voice, any use of colloquialisms and references, and then you can find where things diverge.
You’ll find examples like rap music written by poor African Americans in the northeast and country music written by poor white southerners in the southeast. The main difference stems from the region they hail from, the difference is in the colloquialisms and dialect they use, but the form, the instrumentation, the performance, and the subject matter are all incredibly similar.
We’ll even print out lyrics and try to figure out what genre they are. It’s so challenging to place a song within a genre when you’re just looking at what’s being said. So much of what defines music is the holistic combination of all of these different elements.
What is your favorite genre of pop music?
I’m a huge fan of ‘90s rap music. It’s the environment I grew up in, the neighborhood I grew up in, the people I grew up with — that’s what was listened to. Also ‘80s synth pop, that’s more of a guilty pleasure. I’ve been able to branch out to a wide variety of music since then, but I just can’t help it. I hear one of those songs and I still know every word. It’s a heavy sense of nostalgia, and that’s one of the things I love about music. That instant when you’re brought back to that is so incredibly powerful.