Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The roots of popular music can be traced to eighteenth-century Britain. Publishing houses sought to entice customers with sheet music of the era’s catchiest tunes. In those pre-recording days, reproduction of favorite songs was a do-it-yourself affair. The music industry has since exploded into a multi-billion dollar international business. “Popular music” is itself an economic term applied to commercially distributed songs with wide appeal. It extends to multiple genres, making any unifying characteristics difficult (impossible?) to identify. The most that can be said is that popular songs exhibit some degree of formulaic writing.
Sure, there are trailblazers and experimentalists that occasionally appear in the homogenous landscape of pop, but taking risks is usually bad for business. By definition, popular music has to be popularly successful, and doing so requires following patterns and upholding conventions. Oftentimes what separates one band or vocalist from the next is timbre—the distinctive quality of “the sound”—rather than the music itself.
The conservative nature of pop irks many critics and social theorists. Bill Martin denounces “today’s hits” for their “gusty sentimentality, purely formulaic songwriting, [and] thinly veiled and uninteresting plagiarism of hooks that worked before.” Theodor Adorno noted that a popular song must be familiar enough for people to accept it, catchy enough to sustain interest, and just different enough to be distinguished from other similar songs. This frustrated Adorno both as a devotee of the musical avant-garde and as a critic of capitalism. Not only was popular music incapable of producing anything new, but its conformity also pacified listeners into accepting the capitalist status quo.
Of course, popular music is not always as cookie-cutter as the harshest critics contend; but it is certainly consistent enough, musically and lyrically, to deserve that reputation. The question is whether this is a bad thing. From a user’s perspective, it obviously isn’t: “give the people what they want” is a worthy approach, both financially and socially. On a deeper level, complaints about unoriginality may be missing the point. Throughout history human cultures have celebrated aesthetic stability. There are centuries of repetition in every Peruvian rug and Alaskan totem pole. Emphasis on innovation is the exception, not the rule.
The guild system of medieval Europe is a good example. The workshops of stone makers, goldsmiths, and fresco painters were filled with masters, apprentices, and journeymen who diligently followed guild statutes. They worked as an anonymous collective, and their products were valued for adhering to set formulas. With the rise of Renaissance Humanism, individuals began seeking their own recognition. They became known as “artists,” while those who stayed in the guild were called “artisans.” This marked a separation between craft, where accurate copying is the highest aesthetic, and art, where uniqueness is key.
Part of the issue when it comes to popular music is that the word “artist” is overused. Giving everyone the title of “recording artist” sets the bar too high, and understandably rubs some critics the wrong way. Perhaps it is better to think of pop musicians as craftspeople, and their music as songcraft.
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