Hooked on the musical revolution

After modern pop music’s development over the past century, are we ready for a new kind of pop?

“Gangnam Style” doesn’t necessarily mark a North American trend towards Korean pop music, said professor Ken McLeod.
“Gangnam Style” doesn’t necessarily mark a North American trend towards Korean pop music, said professor Ken McLeod.
Photo: 
Pop’s catchiness comes from its melody, as seen from the songs on the Billboard Top 100 End of Year charts.
Pop’s catchiness comes from its melody, as seen from the songs on the Billboard Top 100 End of Year charts.
Photo: 
Credit: 
Compiled by Aviva Jacob

With over 674 million views on YouTube and a number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it seems that “Gangnam Style” might be bringing in a new type of pop music.

“I think it’s opening doors,” said University of Toronto professor Ken McLeod.

Despite this, Korean pop doesn’t seem to be reaching landmark heights anytime soon.

“Do I see this as a major watershed moment for Asian pop music?” McLeod, who teaches in the Faculty of Music, said.

“Not necessarily.”

“Gangnam Style” is a July hit that went viral in August by Korean performer PSY. It represents one of the first times Asian music has successfully crossed into a Western market.

“The basic tenets of what creates a pop hit in Asia and what creates a pop hit in America are pretty much the same,” McLeod said.

“It has to be catchy. It has to capture people’s imaginations.”

A 2005 study by Dartmouth College found that people respond to gaps of silence left in familiar songs by filling them in, singing the song in their heads, as measured through an MRI reading.

Pennsylvania State University professor Keith Duffy said this phenomenon indicates that “a catchy song makes the auditory part of the brain ‘itch,’ and the only way the itch can be scratched is by listening to the song.”

Despite any psychological effects pop music may have, through the past century it’s been youth culture that has pushed the genre forward.

“Music is a really rich mode for youth to be able to identify who they are and who they aren’t, both as separating [themselves from] adults and separating from one another,” said Queen’s University Faculty of Music professor Kip Pegley.

This differentiation began in the 1950s, with the birth of rock and roll.

“When rock and roll began, it was the first time that music was kind of targeted towards a youth culture.”

In recent years, Pegley said pop music’s most popular demographic continues to get younger, with singers like Justin Bieber and bands like One Direction aimed towards the preteen and younger set.

“It started off as being teenage rebellion. Now it’s music that [appeals to] much younger folks,” she said.

Pegley said marketing directly to a younger demographic is a result of how capitalism has influenced pop culture.

“If you look at how jeans are sold or how makeup is sold, it’s something that doesn’t just appeal to the teenage market anymore,” she said. “[The industry was] missing out on a whole broad part of the market … who might put pressure on parents.”

Economical ideas don’t just apply to pop music’s listeners though.

Musicians are often criticized for “selling out” — that is, compromising part of what makes them an original artist in order to make money.

Pegley said this happened with singer Bruce Springsteen years ago.

“He was booed off the stage because [the audience felt] he wasn’t identifying as working class New Jersey anymore.”

According to Pegley, people were offended by Springsteen’s move to California, away from his roots in New Jersey.

“People invest a lot in rock artists … to kind of speak on their behalf,” she said. “They speak on behalf of people in ways that movie stars and TV stars don’t.

“There’s a connection.”

With pop music, however, Pegley said “selling out” is part of the business.

“That’s kind of an expected part,” she said. “You’re going to market on different levels.”

It’s all part of the business strategy behind the pop music market, Pegley said.

Taylor Swift, who has an endorsement deal with Maybelline Cosmetics and has acted in film and television, has a current net worth of around $85 million.

Nowadays, Pegley said music is more cross-generational, and less divided by age, such as with teenagers listening to classic rock familiar to their parents’ generation, or parents who listen to today’s pop.

It’s a result of the emotional connection that’s driven by familiar music, Pegley said.

“The more exposure we have to music of all types, the more we can open to it,” she said. “Exposure’s the key to everything.”

Pop music is a genre that, according to Queen’s University Faculty of Music professor Robb MacKay , has been developing for over a century.

MacKay said modern incarnations of pop music has the same main origins — folk music, Western European music, Afro-Cuban music as well as church music and art, or classical, music.

According to MacKay, folk music paves the way for blues music, a genre that originated from African-American communities in the southern states in the late 19th century.

“[They] were work songs, sung by labourers that sort of brought things together,” he said. “Sometimes it was a report on what’s happening in the community.”

Folk music then gained new popularity during a wave of African immigration in early 20th century United States.

At the same time Tin Pan Alley, a genre of music that came from late 19th century New York City, was growing in popularity.

According to MacKay, early forms of rock and roll came out of a blending of these genres.

“When we think of pop music today we tend to think of the boy bands and the young girl singers [but] they’re still very much along the lines of Tin Pan Alley,” he said.

According to him, modern pop music is still light, non-aggressive and unchallenging for the average listener — a characteristic from Tin Pan Alley’s songs that talked about escapism and romance.

“It tends to revolve around themes of romance,” he said. “It’s supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be escapist.”

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