The Modern Pop Sound
“Pop music” has referred to very different sounds over the years. In the 50s and 60s, pop usually referred to rock’n’roll artists such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles. By the 70s, pop often meant disco, with groups such as Abba.
From the 80s onwards, hip-hop and electronic dance music started to make an impact on the pop sound. While different styles of pop music have always influenced each other to create new genres, from the 90s onwards pop was a mixture of so many different styles that “pop” had become a genre in itself. The 90s pop sound was a mixture of soul, disco, house, rock, and hip-hop. Over the 2000s-2010s, other styles like trance, drum & bass and dubstep also made strong contributions.
Some early pop groups like Take That started off as disco or dance artists. Here’s one of Take That’s first songs.
Over the next years other “boy bands” such as Westlife, Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone, dominated the music charts in the UK. While some songs drew from house and disco, others were more influenced by hip-hop.
Not all songs were influenced by electronic dance music. Many slow ballades drew from rock and disco, with a more laid-back vibe.
Other ballades drew on gospel and spiritual roots, with a more soulful feel.
In the late 90s, a girl group called the Spice Girls became hugely successful, ending the era of boy-band dominance.
In the US pop music was more influenced by soul, resulting in a sound called Contemporary R&B (contemporary means ‘modern day’). Here is Destiny’s Child, the girl group that launched Beyoncé’s career.
This song by Girls Aloud from the early 2000s is a perfect example of the mash-up of different styles that defined pop music from the 90s onwards. Like a collage of different genres and sounds, this song starts off with a jungle beat and bassline alongside Latin sounding string accompaniments, before dropping into a chorus with a surf-rock style electric guitar playing Middle Eastern scales.
Pop Music Over the Last Decade
In the 2010s, EDM had taken off, taking elements from trance (big melodic synths) and house (“4 to the floor” drum machines), and blending them with more poppy vocals and verse/chorus structures. The next artist I want to show you also uses some elements more traditionally associated with classical music – a string quartet:
Other pop artists are still inspired by a more retro disco sound, like this song by Dua Lipa, which has very classic sounding disco drums, strings, and bass, and also samples a jazz record from the 1930s. Here’s the sample first, then see if you can hear it in the Dua Lipa song which follows.
One of the biggest hits of the last few years blended modern trap style beats with traditional Latin music. Notice also the ‘autotuned’ effect on the rapper’s voice. This effect has been used a lot over the last decade and is a defining sound of 2010 productions. Like all musical trends, autotuning like this will go out of fashion fairly soon. But in 30 years time, when you’re all old, there will no doubt be a 2010s revival where producers are copying this effect to sound retro (old fashioned)!
Like the Amen Break that we looked at last week, this sample and melody has also been used extensively by other artists over the decades! You may also recognise it from other songs.
Two of the best-selling artists of the 2010s were Adelle and Ed Sheeran. Sheeran blended his singer-songwriter vocals and guitar sound with housey or hip-hoppy beats and synths.
Adelle had an even more stripped back approach, singing traditional ballades with just vocals and piano.
This kind of approach has more recently been used by Lewis Capaldi.
Beyoncé also explored more stripped back instrumentation in this country-pop song, Daddy Lessons.
Other Pop Trends
One thing pop music is sometimes criticised for is that it is unoriginal, recycling ideas again and again because it’s popular and people know it sells. This isn’t entirely fair as there is lots of very good, fresh sounding pop music, and no music is ever completely original. But I want to finish with a couple of funny videos which show two themes that are incredibly common in modern pop music: the ‘millennial whoop’ and the ‘I V vi IV’ (1 5 6 4, a chord progression which is used over and over again in pop music, ie C, G, A minor, F). Warning: once you watch these videos you will never be able to un-hear these trends! How many do you recognise?
Did the four chords sound familiar? We’ve had two songs using this chord sequence in this lesson alone – both Adelle and Lewis Capaldi both used the I V vi IV progression. Go back and listen to the choruses if you like to see!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these lessons looking at the history of music, and you’ve discovered some music you like along the way. There are so many other style we haven’t managed to cover, but we need to move on now – next week we’ll begin a new topic!