clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, February 09, 2004
The comments to this Woebot post (yes, yes, poptimism again, I know) have finally prodded me to make a post I've been meaning to make for a while...

This area is a minefield. You do what I would tend to do and equate Pop with chart music. I think other people involved in the debate thihk of Pop much more broadly. That's one source of misunderstanding; one of many! :-)
Posted by: mark k-punk at February 8, 2004 05:31 PM


Yeah the main stumbling block is the wideness of frame of reference. I like to set the parameters of 'pop' much wider than 'the charts', maybe I'd set them as 'recorded music designed to have instant appeal to a wide potential audience'. Or I'd try and draw a line between music made for specific communities and music made for imagined communities (a fancier way of saying 'demographics', eek!). Of course every definition can be shot down. Most people set the boundaries of pop wider to be honest, I'm sure I read discussion of the Junior Boys in terms of 'pop' on K-Punk and they haven't had a sniff at the charts! I think I'm going to stay out of the debate from now though because I'm not listening to anything much right now so I'd feel like something of a hypocrite.

Posted by: Tom at February 8, 2004 06:02 PM

Luckily, I can sort it all out.[1]

This is indeed a problem for our little conversations here; I think it's clear by now that when Tom says "pop," he's thinking of something different than when Simon says "pop," and all of these are different from when the NME or the Grammy committee says "pop." We need some way to resolve this.

On the one hand, it's understandable that everyone's conception of genre is going to be slightly different, partially because of their original entry point into the genre (someone who came to industrial via Nine Inch Nails is going to have a different idea of what "industrial" sounds like than someone who came to it via Throbbing Gristle, for instance), partially because of value judgments people associate with the genre ("Nirvana's not pop! They're way too real!" "The Offspring are so not punk! They suck!"), along with various other factors that might cause two people to slot a group into two very different areas; if nothing else, Simon's prog survey is evidence of this. And this is valuable, and is the source of a lot of delightful arguments. As long as people sort of acknowledge this--"Well, I don't think Dizzee Rascal is hip-hop, but that's because of blah blah blah"--it's perfectly fine, and not really that confusing.

But the problem is that "pop" isn't like industrial or punk or ambient or salsa: it's a high-level genre that rarely contains a song that isn't also wholly contained within another genre. Thus, electronic pop, R&B pop, rap-pop, pop-rock, folk-pop, pop-country, etc., etc., etc. And it means a number of different things. So we need something to differentiate exactly which conception of pop we're talking about.

And that's why I made this handy classification guide!

  • Level One Pop or POP-I
    Pop-as-market-phenomenon. Chart pop. Any song or album--but not artist--that makes it onto the charts, "the charts" here generally regarded as being the Billboard Hot 100 singles and top 200 albums in America and whatever weird definition you Brits and Europeans and Japanese use that's the equivalent. Generally regarded as widening to include an album which includes a chart single but which itself is not on the chart, unless the sound of the non-charting songs differs significantly from the sound of the single. A very strict, mathematical formulation: anything that's popular is pop.

    Can be widened to Pop-I.5, or what Pitchfork is currently calling "Uncharted Pop:" music that sounds like the current pop sound but is not actually, for whatever reason, on the charts.

    So, by this definition:
    Britney Spears is pop-I.
    Magnetic Fields is not pop-I.
    Folk Implosion's "Natural One" is pop-I but the album from which it came is not.
    Yo La Tengo's "Nuclear War" EP is pop-I.
    MPath[2] is pop-I.5 but not pop-I.
    Boston's first album is pop-I; their last is not.
    Basement Jaxx is pop-I in Europe but is not pop-I in America.
    Guns 'n' Roses is pop-I.
    A Guns 'n' Roses tribute band is not pop-I.
    A recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony is not pop-I.
    Christian Marclay is not pop-I.
    Benny Goodman is pop-I.
    Squirrel Nut Zippers are not pop-I.

  • Level Two Pop or POP-II

    Pop-as-sound. Anything that sounds like anything that's ever been pop. So when we call, say, the Rosebuds or Beat Happening "pop," despite the fact that they'd be happy to get onto the CMJ chart (which, no, doesn't count for pop-I), let alone even sniff Billboard's panties, this is what we mean: the sound, not the sales, make it pop. The pop sound it's referring to can be a pop sound that was on the charts, but it can also be anything that's just become generally popular over the years. (It does not, however, usually mean a retro sound that refers to something that was not pop; you don't hear people calling post-punk revival bands "pop" for this very reason.)

    It's safe to say that this conception generally runs at least 10-15 years behind what's actually popular at the time. For instance, someone today throwing in handclaps or backup vocals going "ooh," or an analogue keyboard, would be regarded as including "pop elements" (and, of course, given that it's a pop-II conception, this could be said regardless of the song's actual success or failure in the marketplace) whereas someone including a Timbaland-esque beat would be said to be including "hip-hop elements," and someone including a grunge sound would be said to be including "grunge elements" (although I've never actually heard this said about anyone, now that I think about it). This is the common usage, but it doesn't actually apply to this definition, so someone writing a song that sounds like the Neptunes would be just as pop-II as someone writing a song that sounds like the Beatles.

    This classification can be roughly divided into "retro," i.e. straight mimickings of past pop groups, and "poppy," which appropriates a general sound or elements of a sound that was pop at
    some point but can't really be pegged to anything specific or which doesn't sustain the aesthetic over the life of the project.

    So, by this definition:
    Britney Spears is pop-II.
    Magnetic Fields is pop-II.
    Folk Implosion is pop-II.
    Yo La Tengo's "Nuclear War" EP is not pop-II.
    MPath is pop-II.
    All of Boston's albums are pop-II.
    Basement Jaxx is pop-II.
    Guns 'n' Roses is pop-II.
    A Guns 'n' Roses tribute band is pop-II.
    A recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony is not pop-II.
    Christian Marclay is not pop-II.
    Benny Goodman is pop-II.
    Squirrel Nut Zippers are pop-II.

  • Level Three Pop or POP-III

    What musicologists and classical music folk mean when they say "pop music." Any music that is not art music. Music that is, or that can be, made by amateurs. Depending on your views on jazz, any music that is improvised in whole or in part, or (if you want to include most jazz) which does not proceed from some master plan.

    It's unclear where "world music" fits into this; in a conservatory, it'd be in the ethnomusicology department, but for our purposes, it's unclear where, say, African tribal music belongs. It's pretty clearly not anything we would think of as pop (obviously and perhaps unfortunately, since pop-II's definition flows from pop-I's, pop-I's should be amended to state that the charts are generally those charts in the "first world"), but it's also not anything we would think of as art music. Maybe call it "Level 0.5 Classical" or something.

    Needless to say, very few people who have a passing familiarity with the Smiths are ever going to be using "pop" in this sense, but it's worth throwing in there since just because those people generally aren't part of our conversations these days doesn't mean that this particular worldview of music, i.e. the music theory one, hasn't profoundly shaped the terms of the debate.

    So, by this definition:
    Britney Spears is pop-III.
    Magnetic Fields is pop-III.
    Folk Implosion is pop-III.
    Yo La Tengo's "Nuclear War" EP is pop-III.
    MPath is pop-III.
    All of Boston's albums are pop-III.
    Basement Jaxx is pop-III.
    Guns 'n' Roses is pop-III.
    A Guns 'n' Roses tribute band is pop-III.
    A recording of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony is not pop-III.
    Christian Marclay is pop-III.
    John Zorn is probably pop-III. (Experimental music is where this gets tricky; ditto for highbrow electro artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre.)
    Benny Goodman is pop-III.
    Squirrel Nut Zippers are pop-III.

    So there you go. Of course, I don't really expect anyone to actually use this classification scheme, but I've thought a bit about it and I think these three levels are a pretty useful breakdown of the ways in which we use the term "pop." If you want to clarify, or add sub-levels (as I have with pop-I.5, for instance), feel free. I may post a revised version without the intro later.

    [1] This all actually comes from a nighttime conversation with Miss Clap, who said that the problem is that when I say "pop" I don't really mean "pop," I mean this thing I've decided was pop. But I thought it was still pop, just a different pop, and so we broke it on down. At any rate, assist for this goes to her.
    [2] A failed Florida hyper-pop band that only sold 30k records or so.