Pop music is often disregarded as repetitive and low-effort. Being one of the most formulaic genres and one with the greatest reach, these criticisms apply to a lot of ´artists´, who follow a pattern to produce hit upon hit. However, whether we like it or not, the genre´s popularity means it has a monumental impact on music and aspects of culture in general.
Some of the most talented entertainers have not only embodied the role of a pop icon but also used this title to elevate contemporary sounds and cultural attitudes.
The first pop musician who I think is vital to note is Elton John, a mega superstar who has had numerous hits since his first appearance in the late 60s. With formal musical education, he has brought several unique sounds into the mainstream current of music.
At the beginning of his career, he blended rock and roll with elements of blues, which would later evolve into a more commercial synthesized appeal.
Being a household name and hit-maker, waves of musicians were influenced by John´s versatility and adapted to the change of popular genres which he helped bring on.
Most importantly, John brought important and taboo issues into the spotlight. Being openly gay, John used his voice to support the victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, later establishing the Elton John AIDS Foundation to raise awareness. His efforts paved the way for many future musicians to publicly embrace their sexuality.
In terms of widespread impact, this article would be rendered obsolete without the inclusion of the ´King of Pop´, Michael Jackson. A multi-talented entertainer, Jackson is often credited with shaping how we receive popular culture nowadays.
Rising to stardom in the 80s, Jackson’s iconic music videos helped bring the hugely influential MTV enterprise to fame, and his album ´Thriller´ is the best-selling project by any musician ever, serving as a testament to Jackson´s lasting global impact.
Jackson helped bring not only music videos into the mainstream but also the art of the performance, with his innovative dance moves and dress sense remaining in pop culture to this day, transcending to current multi-talented performers such as Chris Brown and Bruno Mars.
Although a largely controversial figure throughout his career, Jackson had an undeniably positive impact on the world of music. His mixing of soul, R&B, funk and other African-American genres into a mainstream sound can still be heard in its influences throughout pop music today, and his stardom as a black man helped break racial barriers within the music industry, opening the gateways for further inclusivity.
Without Jackson´s groundbreaking career, we might never have had Beyoncé, who has named him as her greatest musical influence. Starting as part of girl-band powerhouse Destiny´s Child and later pursuing a hugely successful solo career, Beyoncé has also left an undeniable mark on the course of popular music.
“Her embrace of feminism has influenced a major change in sexist attitudes in popular entertainment”
With a tremendous voice, she led the way for more dramatic singing in chart hits, with gospel and soul influences. Not only this, but throughout her career since the mid 2000s, she has explored experimental and abstract musical elements in her music. This is most prominently seen in her 2016 album Lemonade, which was not only musically complex, but also lyrically innovative for a ´pop album´, exploring darker social and political themes. Her long-time collaborations with husband and rapper Jay-Z have also helped merge the gap between pop and hip-hop, bringing rap further into the limelight as a high-selling genre.
Like Jackson, Beyoncé has also inspired several black artists to become huge chart-toppers. Most notably, her embrace of feminism has influenced a major change in sexist attitudes in popular entertainment, with songs like ´Single Ladies´ serving as cultural markers of a new wave of female empowerment.
Finally, I think it is necessary to talk about the most influential pop musician of the past 10 years: Drake. Beginning his career in the late 2000s under Lil Wayne´s Cash Money Records, Drake has been a commercial and critical force throughout his career, and in 2018, around a decade into his career, he manages to hold the title of most streamed artist on Spotify.
An R&B singer and rapper, Drake has been crucial in the merging of the two genres which has happened steadily in the last few years. His radio dominance and consistency in charting songs is undoubtedly one of the most important reasons why Hip-Hop & R&B have now surpassed Rock as the most popular US music genre of all time.
With his first few projects, Drake´s insightful and sensitive lyrics helped shift the core of hip-hop from pure machismo and braggadocio style of rap to also more personal, vulnerable reflection.
However, his more aggressive songs have also proved monumental, and his diss track to Meek Mill in 2015, ´Back to Back´ is considered one of the greatest of its kind.
Drake has used his platform to bring new sounds and artists into the mainstream, such as Caribbean dancehall with the likes of Wiz Kid, and UK grime with the likes of Giggs. His OVO Sound label has also been introducing the world to more and more alternative R&B sounds, such as PartyNextDoor and Roy Woods. Many artists nowadays have drawn a lot from Drake´s career, be it in success or musical inspiration, and listeners have subsequently found new and exciting genres through his incorporation of them in his work.
Pop music at its worst, yes, can be repetitive, low-effort, and hugely formulaic. However, generalising the whole genre into these pessimistic boxes is neglecting the major impact both musically and culturally that pop music can have.
Some of the most innovative musicians and entertainers have been labelled under the ´pop´ category, and sound nothing alike. I have used these four examples of icons because their work has shaped the works of masses of musicians of all genres in their time, incorporating elements of their music into their respective endeavours.
“All of these artists have contributed to important and drastic attitude shifts”
Most importantly, however, be it through an embrace of one´s sexuality, a pride towards their race, female empowerment or an acceptance of male vulnerabilities, all of these artists have contributed to important and drastic attitude shifts, both in music and in mainstream media and culture.
You may not like pop music, and you may never seek to listen to it. But one fact can never be denied: pop is always changing, and for as long as it is changing, so will the world of music and popular culture be changing too. And that´s quite an exciting thought.
Mateus de Sá
Featured image courtesy of Markus Welby via Flickr. No changes made to the image.
Article image courtesy of GabboT via Flickr. No changes made to the image.
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