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ROCK VS POP
Who Will Win This Historic Showdown
of Battling Genres for
All The Marbles?
There are really two kinds of modern music popular in the world today. One kind is about the wild Id, the Dionysian, the challenge to conformity or tradition, banging on the eardrums themselves, bursts of libido, confrontations to the listener's comfort, an insistence on appreciating forces of nature, the thrust of a threat, a blast of energy to endure or engage, a point of view extolling liberation. That's rock and roll.
The other kind called Pop is about soothing sounds. There's nothing wrong with those either. Fun summer tunes, bouncy roller skating rap, ditties and chants and little bits of nursery rhyme to hum while you do the dishes. This is the stuff most musicians speak as a casual language and dream about when they sleep. Soul snaps its fingers and scats. People want delight as well as dirge.
Modern rock and roll, of course, was birthed in rebellion --both racial and melodic-- because it bubbled up in the 1950's post war cauldron of integrationist American radio culture. It was no doubt divisive for some at first but surely exciting to all. It originated from the blues (which borrowed from the earlier Protestant church hymns), then it exploded into soul and RnB music which travelled across the tracks by train, truck and radio transmitter.
It was applauded and amped by Les Paul and Fender and the Boomin Babies until it was full of distortion and abandonment and overt rebellion and smirking righteousness, drugs and sex and shouting as a form of legitimate expression. Rock was all about releasing the primal animus in a way that obliterated the old mores. Well, who doesn't like to get laid?
With the liberation of TV and post-war teenagers in cars came a form of music which, in the end, subscribed to the idea that the path of true wisdom was by way of the trail of excess to the pleasure palace. The radio was always on in the front seat while you tried to get it on in the back. Before rock and roll existed perhaps jazz and blues played that role to some degree (though they were just jazz junkie needles and funny cigarettes to fear, kept on the down low more often than not). Juke joints, gin, speakeasies, underground illicit activities have always existed in the city.
Meanwhile, aboveground in the dance halls the Glenn Miller Orchestra (for example) was not out to surprise or shock. Pop offered songs made to make you sway and swoon. Pop was a lullaby for lovers and some songs for the Lindy sock hop, not a shock to the system. And that is fine and good, sometimes a simple tune is all humans need to feel happy. Having some fun, dancing to a tune, doing allright, getting moved by the sprit, those are wonderful emotions just short of the truly sublime. We're not always ready for a beauty so deep it's terrifying. Why would we when we got corn candy to munch? Heck, just check out Wanda Jackson!
She wants to be moved and it's gotta be right! Simple, seductive. She's not angry, she's agreeable in her challenge to please please her. And it's all good, she really just wants to wink wonders and get you to clap with her. She isn't telling you what's wrong, she's saying let's jam along with that monster double-neck guitar and mandolin! In the end, the purpose is not to challenge so much as to soothe you and encourage you to enjoy the juissance of life.
Rock, by definition, does not want to humor you as much as it wants to be hard and heard. Even when it soothes it is often only the ether takes you on a trip to the great beyond. Rock wants to skip the sass and frass and just break the bed after skipping class. It wants to go to eleven and bang your head, steal your face and shatter your skull on the boards. It dresses to impress, it's a master of musical finesse and mind-blowing technical feats. It wants a fucking frenzy of serious radio-ready teenage rebellion. It's too cool for country school; your seduction and surrender is what it seeks. There's too much testosterone pumping in its pulmonary system for rock to ever stop jumping its jive and jerking its jizz. Long live rock, the new religion!
Meanwhile, the old congregation carried on. The now seemingly staid church and swing-influenced music of the 1940's (and even modern orchestral pop music --like your grandmother's Mantovani or Lulu or Adele) has always been and must always be performed like it's the glue coming through to you over the radio to keep a weary world searching for a little succor from falling apart.
Pop is about finding that common harmony and searching for the simple uniting melody to put on a parade like Katy Perry, not about sewing division and confrontation. (Even she couldn't make the jump from one chasm wall to the other).
If Sonic Youth comes out the speaker of your grandfather's Philco, you're probably going to switch the dial while he helps fix your bike out back in the garage. (Considering you are still the type to own and use a Philco, this is a pretty safe assumption). That is because radio is most often about keeping you listening so that you listen to the ads between the songs. You may turn the dial and pause at the safe retro rock rebellion of Joan Jett's remake of Crimson and Clover, for example, or even Prince's version. Everyone can agree on that.
Thus, I always tell aspiring musicians: if you want to get on the radio you have to have at least two singers in your band. It's just as simple as that, from Van Halen to Bon Iver, Bon Jovi to Bon Jehovi the RockRapper (I just made that up), no matter how crunchy your guitars are if you don't got no vocal harmony you don't got get over on the radio (nor will you have good grammar). Simple as that. Van Halen is rock, surely, but they still borrow from the pop cookbook with their four-part antics.
Pop is all about the 2 and 4, everybody clap along. Hard rock is all about the 1, the Led Zeppelin drum sound, the big heavy hammer of the gods kicking higher in the mix with a giant splash on the 1.
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