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What Exactly Is Pop Music Anyway? A Few Definitions

Updated on June 4, 2016

You hear the term pop music all the time. But do you know what it really means? It's actually kind of a confusing term because it has a few different meanings. One meaning is derogatory. Let me address two major meanings first. Then I'll explain the negative meaning of the word.

In one way, The Lumineers and Bruno Mars are pop artists. In another way, they're not. In one way, One Direction and Justin Bieber are pop artists and in another they're not. Some princesses of pop like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, and Rihanna are pop artists in both senses of the word. Let me explain.

Pop Music Vs. Pop Music

Pop music has two major meanings. One meaning is music that has broad demographic appeal. It can appeal to kids all the way to older adults. It appeals to both males and females as well as all races and ethnic groups. This is pop(ular) music.

But pop music also refers to a genre of music. It isn't really an easy to define genre because it borrows elements from so many other genres. Carrie Underwood, as an example, is both pop and country. But pop music typically has simple chord structures, catchy hooks and repeated choruses.

Bruno Mars and The Lumineers are pop artists in the popular sense of the word. They have broad appeal but don't really make "pop" music. Bruno Mars is basically an R&B and soul artist. The Lumineers make rock and folk style music. Although, the definition of the genre is so loose, some people may consider them to be pop.

One Direction and Justin Bieber are pop artists in the sense that they make pop music. But they don't have broad demographic appeal. They appeal mainly to preteen and teen girls.

The pop princesses on the other hand are pop artists in both senses. They make pop music. But their demographic appeal is broad. They're popular with kids and teens and in many cases their parents too. They're also popular with young adults who enjoy the club scene. While their fan bases skew toward young and female plenty of males and middle age people enjoy their music as well.

Examples of Noncommercial Music by Pop Artists

An artist can make both pop music and noncommercial music. Many pop artists make albums that combine radio friendly songs with more artistic music. These are a couple of examples.

Ke$ha Past Lives

Katy Perry Brick by Brick

The Derogatory Meaning of Pop Music

The term pop music came into common use in the 1950s to describe rock n' roll because it had broad appeal versus classical, jazz and reggae, which appeal to more limited audiences. However, pop today is often considered derogatory. It's sometimes defined as music made purely for commercial reasons rather than artistic reasons. Music snobs go so far as to say that pop music is not "real music." This definition can be a bit murky though.

A lot of music that is considered classic and art today (Rolling Stones, Beatles, John Denver, etc.) did have popular and commercial appeal when it was first made. Some music that is seen as throw-away and purely commercial now will be considered classic decades from now. It also assumes that having broad appeal and being good are two opposing things. So, I see this definition as simplistic and a little pretentious.

This definition ignores the fact that even pop artists create plenty of noncommercial music. They create songs designed for the radio but many album tracks are made for purely artistic purposes. Katy Perry's debut album One of the Boys had only a few songs that would ever have made it to the top 40. The rest really weren't hit material. Her third single Thinking of You peaked at 29 on the Billboard Hot 100.

About a third of the songs on Ke$ha's current album Warrior wouldn't break the top 40 either if released. Songs like the Flaming Lips produced Past Lives and the country ballad Wonderland were recorded for purely artistic purposes. Ke$ha has also put out an EP of stripped down songs called Deconstructed. The EP was made purely for artistic purposes as well. Lady Gaga has a jazz album in the works. Rihanna has already released two soul/R&B style songs from her current album Unapologetic. So, an artist can be both pop and noncommercial.

Those are the three major definitions of pop music. One meaning popular. Another referring to a specific but hard to define genre of music. And lastly music thought to be made for purely commercial reasons.

Pop Music Through the Decades
Pop Music Through the Decades


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    • JoanCA profile image

      JoanCA 4 years ago

      Thanks Alecia. Classic rock is rarely thought of as pop music but it really is because it does have broad appeal and it was commercial when it was made. And there's always been music that's been made purely for fun that lacks substance. It really is a term many people don't properly understand.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      A lot of interesting points here. I agree that pop is a genre as well as music that's thought of to be not substantive. Generally, most music on the radio is popular even if it doesn't have a pop sound. It's just a fact. Really anything popular can be called pop just like pop music and pop culture. Great hub!