Pop History Essay – for Andy Edwards

A History of 20th Century Popular Music

In this essay I will summarise the growth of 20th century popular music. To begin, by outlining the development of the recording industry I can display how this affected music and also how the emerging recording industry affected music as a whole. Moving on from this I will study the emergence of jazz and blues, referencing specific musicians and their music to interpret stylistic effects. As a continuation of this, I will stylistically analyse the use of improvisation in jazz and blues. Moving on along the timeline I will outline the development of rock and roll in the 1950s. Due to the social and technological breakthroughs of the time this section will be focussed on them. Later, the 1960s and the appearance of rock music, and following on from this an in depth analysis of the following styles; heavy rock/heavy metal, prog rock, jazz fusion, soul and funk, hip hop, punk and indie and new wave/dance music. I plan to write a brief analysis of each along with a historical placement, then select 3 to investigate more deeply. Getting closer to the current day and age, I will explain the emergence of digital technologies and the powerful influence they had on late 20th century music, predominantly those employed in music business. After all this is done I will attempt to draw a conclusion from this. What value does music have in our society? What was ‘good’ about the music styles that developed in the 20th century? What makes music ‘good’?

The development of the recording industry is my first focus as it changed the face of music in obvious as well as more subtle areas. Recording as a process dates back to the early 1800’s, but the most substantial remnants are two recordings from the 1860’s, snippets of two French and an Italian song.(1) Although these are the earliest dated recordings, they are not the most prominent of the early recordings. Jazz and Blues from the 1920’s are going to form the main section of my analysis for this section. To begin with, the basic process of recording created a whole new industry to cater for the demand for recordings produced by the emergence of the industry. Aside from this the recording process began to create a line between the performer and the audience as it created a form of enjoying music without going to live performances. In 1906, Waiting At The Church by Florrie Ford was on one end of the recording spectrum with classical pieces by Caruso on the other. And it was not a very broad spectrum.

Recording created two new forms, Blues and Jazz. With the ability to record and therefore distribute music these two genres brought different elements to music. Blues predominantly focused on the song writing, with the 12 bar blues structure and the subject matter taking supremacy over the instrumentation. Jazz was the polar opposite of this, with the instrumentation being the defining element that made the genre what it was, and still is. The complexity of the parts of the guitar, bass and drums combined with the groove, funk and swing made it a massively popular genre when recording began properly. Another defining feature of Jazz is the idea of having your own sound and furthering this through improvisation. Louis Armstrong is an all-encompassing example of this. His use of effects in his voice, from slides and tonal differences through to playing with time, the use of polyrhythms and his overall groove constitutes as instrumentation as a vocalist, proving that it is not limited to musicians. He paved the way for countless Jazz vocalists to come. Blues on the other hand was powerfully driven due to political implications. Slavery in the USA was the main element behind the birth of Blues. African Americans enslaved by southern plantation owners were subjected to a pressure cooker of sorts. Having their native instruments stripped from them caused them to use western instruments with their native instrumentation. This along with the influence of Western folk music evolved into Blues. When slavery was stopped in 1965, these African Americans who we’re originally slaves turned to their music as a form of employment and a career of sorts. The stylistic elements from the work songs; used in slavery to keep motivation up, give a beat to work along to carried through, meaning that early Blues employed call and response elements. The lyrical content was the most prominent feature of blues, with unfairness and the fight for liberation taking precedence in the songs of the early 20th century. They were performed for expression or entertainment.

Rock and Roll. Where to begin? The early stages of its development began in the 1950s. This genre came to fruition through social and technological breakthroughs at the time. Rebellion amongst the teenagers of the time was an important factor. That teenagers were able to get jobs meant that they were earning money which in turn meant that they could get the clothes, films and most importantly, music that they wanted. Films such as Rebel Without A Cause, starring Marlon Brando embodied this sense of revolt. The subject matter echoed this in turn, with songs such as Jerry Lee Lewis’ Whole Lotta Shakin talking about parties and sex, ideas that would have previously been unacceptable.


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