Music for the Listener
Music for the Listener

Chapter 13

American Popular Music

Chapter Ancillaries More Info: History of Minstrelsy
More Info: Smithsonian on Minstrelsy
More Info: Tin Pan Alley and Early Broadway
More Info: Elements of the Musical
More Info: Rock Music Timeline
More Info: History of the Drum Machine
In this class, the term "popular music" is used broadly to refer to music that is (1) mass produced and broadly disseminated via the mass media, (2) listened to by large numbers of American and international audiences, (3) draws upon a variety of preexisting musical traditions. Popular music is governed by market forces; it is ever-changing and continually impacted by social, political, historical, and other extra-musical circumstances. As you will read below, it is the combination of these factors that have historically steered the direction of popular music in America, and this can be seen by studying the evolution of commercial, mainstream (other terms for "popular") genres over the past 100 years or so.

Popular music is sometimes defined by the way it differs from classical or folk music. However, it is important to remember that major stylistic categories are partly the product of marketing strategies by record companies. Their goal is to define types of music in the hopes of defining the audiences to whom they can sell the music. (Is this a bad thing?)

This chapter will focus primarily on American popular music of the twentieth century, roughly from 1900 to 2000 (the final chapter in this online textbook will discuss popular music in the 21st century), and we will use this timeline to introduce some of the key musical styles that came to prominence in each of the decades of the 20th century, in broad terms.

Minstrelsy (1830-1900)

In any discussion of American popular music, it is important to discuss its roots, or foundations. The first form of distinctively American musical and theatrical entertainment was the minstrel show (before that most songs and entertainment in the United States were from the British, European, or African traditions). Minstrel shows began in the 1830s and featured mainly white performers who blackened their skin and sang and acted in parodies of African American music, dance, dress, and dialect. Today blackface minstrelsy is appropriately regarded with embarrassment and anger, but it is impossible to understand American popular music and culture without learning about minstrelsy and its profound impact on mainstream traditions in the United States. When this style of performance first started, it emerged from the predominantly working-class urban zones where interracial interaction was common (for instance, in New York City's Seventh Ward). The lower-class white youth expressed their own sense of marginalization through identification with African American cultural forms. However, as the minstrel show evolved in the mid to late 1800s it became more overtly racist by portraying the characters as rigidly stereotypical; it devolved into a reflection of the symbols of racial difference after the Civil War.

The minstrel show was influential for several reasons: (1) It was a variety show, with music, dancing, comedy skits, and short plays, and this successful format was influential for over a century of entertainment in America; (2) the influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society and musical culture at large cannot be overstated.

Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Jazz (1900-1945)

As discussed in the Jazz chapter, ragtime is a style of music that employs lots of syncopation and was composed and performed by mostly Black American musicians around the turn of the twentieth century. It was usually played on the piano, and the most well-known and successful ragtime composer and performer was pianist Scott Joplin. It was the predominantly popular form of music in America from approximately 1895-1919. The ragged rhythms and upbeat feel had a great impact on jazz and other popular music styles like rhythm and blues, rock, and country for years after it faded from the spotlight.

Tin Pan Alley was both a location in New York City where all of the sheet music publishers and songwriters were located, and the name for the genre of music that was produced at that location. There are differing accounts for the origins of the name, but the most popular story states that the name refers to the sound of the cheap, tinny upright pianos that could be heard as you walked through the neighborhood. It was on West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in the Flower District of New York, and it was the center of the music industry in America for a time. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, sheet music was the primary source of income for musicians and composers because this was before radios and phonographs became mainstream. What many people did have in their homes was a piano, and so the music coming from Tin Pan Alley was made up of simple and straightforward songs that were easily performed by amateurs. Also, the songs were relatively short and had lyrics that were easy to remember and reflective of the era. These key elements of the music of Tin Pan Alley became a model for popular music songwriting in the United States. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is one of the most famous songs from Tin Pan Alley.

The most well-known composer of Tin Pan Alley was Irving Berlin. He wrote over 3,000 songs, seventeen film scores, and 21 Broadway show scores, and some of his famous compositions include "God Bless America, "White Christmas", and "There's No Business Like Show Business." Other renowned Tin Pan Alley composers include George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern.

If you are a fan of Broadway musicals, you may recognize a few of the names above. Many Tin Pan Alley era composers and songwriters also regularly wrote music for the stage; indeed, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley are closely connected to one another. They were both located in New York City and in the early decades of the twentieth century they utilized the same techniques for songwriting, however, Broadway featured songs as part of a theatrical production (a narrative arc with dancing, acting, etc.) while Tin Pan Alley primarily produced the sheet music and marketing for songs produced there. Like Tin Pan Alley, the term "Broadway" refers both to a specific location and to the style of music heard there. Broadway is located near Times Square and is home to 41 professional theatres, and together with London's West End, it represents the highest professional and commercial level of live theater in the West. It still happens sometimes today, but in the early twentieth century songs that were featured in shows on Broadway became huge hits across the country (remember, this was before everyone had record players and/or radios). Broadway songs are characteristically catchy, simple, easy to remember, and they often progress the plot and/or feature themes of love. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs occasionally feature thinly veiled social and political themes in the lyrics, and this is a common feature of many popular songs in modern times. Broadway theater has been around since the eighteenth century and continues to be very popular and influential today.

Jazz was discussed in-depth in a previous chapter, but it is important to reiterate here that during the swing era, jazz was the dominant style of popular music (approximately 1935 to 1945). Bandleaders like Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington were superstars with hit songs played on radios around the world. After World War II the predominance of the style waned, due in part to the shift away from jazz's commercial, mainstream success and towards the small group styles like bebop and cool jazz that prioritized the concept of art over entertainment. Also, a rise in star singers like Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, and Bing Crosby sang in an updated jazz style that became the mainstream pop music of the era (featuring songs like "Come on-a My House" by Clooney and "How Much is that Doggie in the Window" by Page). This brings us to the Postwar era in the United States, in which several vernacular and commercial styles started to coalesce into something new and unique: rock and roll.

The Road To Rock And Roll: Mainstream Pop (Derived From Jazz), Country/Hillbilly/Western, And R&B (1946-1954)

The 1950s were a time of great contradictions. Joseph McCarthy/the Red Scare on the one side and Martin Luther King, Jr on the other; wholesome, family entertainment in the form of Leave It To Beaver but also Playboy magazine; consumerism and the Civil Rights movement all existed in the same time and space in America. The years after WWII were a time of economic prosperity (the rise of the suburbs for instance) for many Americans, but also socio-economic disparity and racial segregation (Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 ruled that schools must be de-segregated).

A baby boom occurred during and immediately after WWII that led to a lot of teenagers in the 1950s, the largest group ever up to that time. They had disposable income to buy records, go to concerts, and drive around in their cars listening to the radio. In fact, pop music and culture became devoted to the "Boomers."

Due to the prosperity that the country experienced after the war, money was invested in industry and technology that affected popular music and culture, and these supported the creation of rock and roll: In terms of musical influences, four main musical "ingredients" came together to create rock music: Hillbilly music was a collection of rural, folk styles that developed into country music and was named for the southerners of British descent that played it, primarily in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains. It was very localized, and mainly popular in the southeast United States and played on the local radio stations in the region. The musicians of this style travelled around, so the instruments were usually portable; the fiddle and the banjo are two of the most common in this style of music. Styles of hillbilly include bluegrass, honky tonk, and hillbilly boogie, and The Skillet Lickers were one of the most popular groups.

Western music was also regional, heard mostly in the southwest, and it combined western styles (think Texas or Arizona) with jazz. It was very popular from about 1920 to the late 1940s. "Singing cowboys" became popular in song and notably in movies; Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were two of the most popular. Musically, it combined instruments like fiddle and steel guitar with Dixieland or traditional style jazz horns like the saxophone and trombone. One of the most well-known groups that performed in this style was Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

R&B, an abbreviation of rhythm and blues, evolved out of the blues; there are five distinct types of blues and they are Country, classic, Delta, urban, Chicago. Urban and Chicago blues most closely relate to R&B with their use of electric instruments and slightly more upbeat lyrical content, whereas the older, more traditional Country, classic, and Delta blues styles were often sad songs that reflected a sense of hopelessness experienced by people of color in the early twentieth century. R&B emphasizes the rhythm and was much more upbeat and happier, meant for dancing. However, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson and classic blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were big influences on R&B and subsequently rock and roll. R&B was also regional, because there was not a national audience for Black music at the time. In fact, R&B was originally called "race music". It was music by Black artists primarily for Black audiences; in contrast, country and western styles were by white artists intended primarily for white audiences.

Chess Records in Chicago was a hub for the recording of Chicago blues and R&B of the early 1950s, with artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry making records there (It was also featured in the movie Cadillac Records). Muddy Waters was very influential to R&B and was one of the first to use a hollow-body electric guitar. This was mainly because there were more instruments in Chicago blues, it was louder, so the guitar needed to be louder. Waters is important to the development of the guitar as the lead solo instrument in rock and roll.

In brief, it was the amalgamation of Black R&B and white country and western styles that created rock and roll and brought enormous changes to American popular music and culture that are still felt today. The combination of these styles with a large fanbase of progressive and youthful Baby Boomers contributed to the mass-market phenomenon of the style.

The Birth Of Rock And Roll (1954-1959)

The very first type of rock and roll was called rockabilly, and it was a combination of R&B and hillbilly musical styles that featured electric guitar, drums, and vocals. The first rock and roll song was "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner, and it was recorded in 1951 by Sam Phillips in Memphis but sold to the Chess Brothers in Chicago for distribution. Sam Phillips used the money he made from the song to open Sun Records in 1952, where he discovered Elvis and recorded Johnny Cash and many others in the 1950s.

1954 is often considered the year that rock and roll began, and that is mainly because of the number of rockabilly records that were released that year. A cover of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" by Bill Haley and the Comets, "Sh-Boom" (both the original version by the Chords and a cover by the Crewcuts), and songs by Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Johnny Cash were released and made significant impacts on the commercial success of rock and roll at the time. Notably, Bill Haley was a country and western singer and guitarist who saw the popularity of "Rocket 88" and decided to start playing covers of R&B songs. Conversely, Chuck Berry was a R&B guitarist and singer who decided to perform country and western styled songs. It is interesting that two people from different backgrounds and cultural experiences arrived at a similar musical destination at the same time.

In 1956, Elvis Presley entered the building. While he was not the progenitor of rockabilly, he was the person to bring rock and roll to the masses and he was the first superstar of the genre. He had what some people refer to as the "it" factor: he was handsome, he could dance, and he was a magnetic performer. Elvis quickly earned the title "The King of Rock and Roll." Buddy Holly famously stated, "If it weren't for Elvis, none of us would be here."

Other notable rockabilly stars were Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Carl Perkins (who wrote "Blue Suede Shoes"), Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers.

Brill Building Pop (1959-1963)

Rockabilly exploded onto the scene in the 1950s but faded to the background relatively quickly. This was because of its rebellious nature; many parents and authority figures in the United States at the time believed that it was a negative influence on the youth because of its sexual suggestiveness and its connection to African American R&B and dance styles. Chuck Berry famously stated at a rock and roll show, "Look at that, salt and pepper all mixed together", a reference to the desegregation that the youthful attendees had demanded. At many concerts in the 1950s the audience was separated into Black and white sections, and the Boomers, with their progressive attitudes towards issues of race, often physically tore down the barriers between fans. A backlash against rockabilly ensued, and by 1959 the music of clean-cut, innocent looking teen idol pop stars was being promoted by the government and record companies.

The Brill Building was located in New York City, and it was a facility with multiple floors full of record producers, songwriters, and recording studios. It was the 1960s version of Tin Pan Alley, and it became a factory with an assembly line for hit pop songs. The music produced there dominated the pop charts after rockabilly and before the British Invasion occurred. The music was mostly about things that teenagers cared about, like puppy love, school, and cars, and it was performed by boy and girl groups as well as good-looking solo singers (this was a contrast to the rockabilly stars, who were often accomplished instrumentalists; teen idol pop stars did not play instruments and sometimes would lip-sync their performances).

Some of the songwriters who were employed in the Brill Building included Carole King ("The Locomotion", "Will You Still Love Me"), Neil Sedaka ("Breaking Up Is Hard to Do"), and Leiber and Stoller ("Hound Dog", "Love Potion #9"). The most famous producer that worked there was Phil Spector, who developed a unique production style dubbed the "wall of sound" that has been very influential to pop music. He helped develop the idea of the recording studio as an instrument, and combined classical music techniques and approaches to pop music geared towards teens. He produced records with everyone from the Ronettes, to Tina Turner, and the Beatles.

The Tin Pan Alley idea of a concentrated area for songwriting, recording, and producing music carried over to other cities, and this resulted in a particular style and sound being associated with certain regions of the United States. Chess Records in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s and Motown Records in the 1960s and 1970s are other significant examples of this approach to the production of mainstream music.

The British Invasion, Blues Revival, Motown, Soul, and Folk Rock (1964-1970)

In February 1964 the Beatles came to America for the first time and this ushered in a new era known as the British Invasion, or Beatlemania, changing the direction of popular music forever. Why and how did the Beatles make such a significant impact? In a nutshell, the Beatles combined elements of guitar-driven rock borrowed from rockabilly, the lyrics and polished stage looks of teen idol pop, and skiffle (a combination of blues, jazz, and country developed in America but adopted by musicians in England). The Beatles and other bands from the United Kingdom that followed such as the Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks brought their British musical chops and sensibilities to American music, and it was incredibly successful. The Beatles are the best-selling musical act of all time, with estimated sales of 600 million units worldwide.

Musicians in America responded to the British Invasion in a couple of ways. First, the genre of power pop developed and it was comprised of strong vocals and vocal harmonies combined with energetic guitar riffs (short fragments of a melody, often repeated). Bands like Badfinger and The Knack ("My Sharona") are power pop groups. Second, bands reacted in a quite literal way by poking fun of the Brits. Paul Revere and the Raiders enjoyed some success with their hit "Kicks" and they wore Revolutionary War costumes in their performances, and the Monkees were a band that was created by record company executives to compete with the Beatles in terms of mainstream popularity and record sales. They had several top hits and a popular television show. Another American reaction to the British Invasion was the emergence of garage bands. Teenagers around the United States were compelled to start their own bands after hearing the group, and because they weren't trained musicians there were a lot of one-hit wonders later in the 1970s and 1980s. A good example of this is the song "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen. Finally, the blues-based rock of the British bands ignited an American and British blues revival. Prominent artists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin grew out of this blues revival, and it also popularized the electric guitar even further.

Many other styles of music were popular concurrently with the music of the British bands, and three of the most prominent were Motown, soul music and folk rock. Motown was a record company located in Detroit, Michigan, also known as the Motor City. In many ways it was similar to the Brill Building in New York, except that all of the songwriters, producers, and musicians who worked at Motown were African American. The Supremes (one of the best-selling girl groups of all time), Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5 all came from Motown.

Soul music is a combination of R&B and gospel, and it was primarily performed by African American musicians such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, and many others. Soul was also a significant part of the Civil Rights movement, with songs like James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect" providing the soundtrack to the fight for equality for people of color and women.

Folk music was involved in this fight too, and artists Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang about the perils of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, the importance for workers to unionize, and civil rights issues. Folk music had typically been performed on acoustic instruments so that the words could always be heard over the music, but in 1965 Dylan shocked his fans by going electric. It caused quite a stir, but in making that change he effectively created folk rock, a combination of folk lyrics with electric rock instruments. Folk rock was very popular in the late 1960s and 1970s and performed by artists such as The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield.

Hard Rock And Heavy Metal, Reggae And Rap, Funk And Disco, and Punk (1970-1980)

In the 1970s the United Kingdom (made up of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland) went through a serious economic depression. As a result, the folk and psychedelic rock of American hippies did not speak to the British youth, who had no jobs and felt like they had no future. Out of this scene grew music that was heavier and louder, more aggressive, to reflect the angst that the teenagers felt at the time and that mimicked the sounds of the factories where their parents worked. The archetype for heavy metal was the band Black Sabbath, which was created in Birmingham, England in the late 1960s. They were influenced by the riffs and blues-based music that Led Zeppelin had started playing around the same time; it was like nothing they had heard before. Heavy metal is characterized by loud, distorted guitars, powerful drumming, screamed or shouted vocals. Initially, it was not popular in the mainstream and was considered to be a bad influence on young people because of its dark lyrical themes. Hard rock, on the other hand, in some ways sounded similar to heavy metal but was radio-friendly and had distinguishable lyrics; it is a more mainstream version of metal. Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, and Heart are considered hard rock bands. Punk music was another style that emerged as a reaction to the dire economic situation that people experienced in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Punk was all about ethos, and the music reflected the attitudes of the performers and their promotion of anarchy, alienation, and antiestablishmentarianism. It was fast and loud and featured shouted vocals. The Sex Pistols, Iggy and the Stooges, and The Clash are some representative punk bands.

We discussed reggae in the non-western popular music chapter, but it should be revisited briefly here. Reggae music and other styles from Jamaica have been very influential to American music in many ways, but one of the most impactful is their role in developing hip hop and rap. In the early 1970s a Jamaican disc jockey named DJ Kool Herc moved to the Bronx, a borough of New York City, and started spinning records on the street corner for the dancers that were hanging out there. Jamaican DJ's had pioneered the concept of playing a record and manipulating it in different ways to change the sound, and also of rhythmically speaking over the sound of the record. This is how rap was born. It took until the 1980s for the genre to gain mainstream traction, but thanks to Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, and Melle Mel, some of the earliest rappers, hip hop (the collective term for fashion, dancing, and music) has dominated the popular charts in the United States since the 1990s.

Two styles that came to prominence in the 1970s were funk and disco. Funk is a style of music that is defined by its elaborate and rhythmic bass lines, and lack of harmonic movement. The emphasis is on the short rhythmic lyrics and the groove rather than the harmonic foundation. The genre grew from James Brown's music of the 1960s, specifically the sound and feel of hit songs "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "Cold Sweat." Three of the most significant funk bands of the time were George Clinton's Parliament Funkadelic or P-Funk All Stars, Sly and the Family Stone, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Disco is electronically-produced music for dancing, and it was derived from funk. Disco is short for "discotheque" the French word for nightclubs that feature dancing. Disco got its start in gay nightclubs in New York City and was initially ignored by radio, but it started to reach mainstream popular music audiences through the promotion of the DJ's who created it. Some of the early disco tracks were remixes of Motown and funk songs. The meteoric rise in the popularity of disco angered fans of rock and metal for various reasons, but one of the main reasons was its lack of human instrumentalists. The beats for disco were generated using new technologies like the Moog synthesizer and the drum machine (the TR-808 was invented in 1980). The best-selling disco artist was the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, and other popular acts were The Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor ("I Will Survive"), and Chic. Interestingly, disco still exists today but it now goes by several different names, most notably EDM (electronic dance music).

Mtv Stars, Hip Hop And Rap, Hair Bands, and Country (1980-1990)

The music industry changed immensely when Music Television premiered as a cable network on August 1, 1981. Almost overnight, the ability to see and hear artists at the same time transformed how the public consumed music, and made stars out of several iconic musicians. MTV had mutually beneficial relationships with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Prince, and part of the lasting legacy of these artists can be attributed to the success of the network. Pop music, hard rock, heavy metal, and rap all benefited from the network's success (and vice versa). Another popular style that was often heard in the 1980s and on MTV was glam rock, or hair bands. Hair bands are heavy metal bands that are more commercially viable than the earlier metal bands from the 1970s. Their thematic material mainly centered around partying, drugs, and sex rather than the dark, occult themes of the underground metal bands. Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Guns 'N' Roses, and Poison were some of the most successful hair bands of the 1980s.

In 1986 rap finally started to spread to mainstream audiences around the United States partially due to the release of a collaboration between Run-DMC and Aerosmith, "Walk This Way." This was a savvy move by the two bands because it brought rap to millions of rock fans and it brought rock to fans of rap, broadening their overall fanbases. Later in the 1980s artists Slick Rick, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Hammer, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, N.W.A. and Ice-T went mainstream.

Country music, like rock and its related styles, has gone through many iterations over the decades of the twentieth century. There are traditional country artists and there are also those who have combined elements of rock and rap into their styles in recent years. The main thing that Nashville has done is to evolve by featuring different types of artists from diva singers like Faith Hill and Martina McBride to outlaw country stars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, to more recent artists like Carrie Underwood, Kane Brown, and Mickey Guyton.

Grunge, Female Pop Stars, and Boy Bands (1990-2000)

While pop artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson maintained their success in the 1990s, the hair bands suffered a similar fate to that of the rockabilly stars of the 1950s: they were completely diminished by another genre that came to prominence. Grunge is a combination of heavy metal and punk and it started in the mid-1980s but became dominant as a genre in 1991 with Nirvana's release of Nevermind. Whereas the music of the hair bands had come to represent 1980s excess and inauthenticity, grunge was perceived as authentic and culturally relevant. Similar to the way the Beatles had forced a sea change in 1964, Nirvana changed the direction of American popular music by bringing alternative rock to the mainstream. Other notable grunge rock bands were Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam.

Following on the success of Madonna in the 1980s, several female superstars with impressive vocal talents dominated the pop scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. Artists like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Cher, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain enjoyed elevated record sales and mainstream success in pop mixed with other genres like R&B, Latin, and country. They were followed in the late 1990s and early 2000s by artists like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, who combined vocal skills with pop and dance styles.

Boy bands and girl bands experienced a resurgence around this time. NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, and Boyz II Men made impacts on the commercial scene along with Destiny's Child, TLC, the Dixie Chicks, and the Spice Girls, who all achieved significant mainstream success.

Tastes of the public change quickly, causing styles of popular music also to change. In order to study popular music, it is necessary to have knowledge of the stages in which popular music has developed and the roots and trends that have contributed to its development. If you're interested in learning a lot more about American Popular Music, take the class MUSC 11500!