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A Brief History of Modern Music, Part I

Dr. Spin helps a fellow POer define the terms of contemporary music.

by Dr. Spin
September 19, 2005

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A Brief History of Modern Music, Part I

Dr Spin,

We probably don't have the many of the same readers (except our common friends).  I have to admit a great ignorance of contemporary music since the Beatles and their imitators.   I lost all track of it about the time that rock bands and racehorses had interchangeable names.  "Three Dog Night?" Can you list for me the various classifications of the music you cover, and the differences between them? "Rock" and "Pop" I think I know, but after that I am lost.  I realize this may be too elementary for your readers.  


Dear Barnabas,

Welcome back to the PO!

Categorizing and classifying contemporary music in this post-millennial world is very difficult and seems very subjective, primarily because Rock music has dominated the scene for over five decades now, subcategorizing itself to include any new musical movement. You claim you know the difference between "Pop" and "Rock," but that line has been so often blurred, many bands are considered "Pop-Rock," especially bands from the 50's and 60's.

Since I cover primarily what I consider "Rock," we'll begin here. Some of what I will say I have covered in previous articles, but for you and readers like you, I'll repeat it here.

"Rock" is a big umbrella that covers a wide variety of styles and sub-genres. The term was created in the sixties, when Rock ‘n' Roll became the dominant music of the Pop charts. "Serious" bands did not want their music considered in the same vein of "Pop" bands. "Pop" is of course short for popular, which was the driving force behind pop bands; their music was radio-friendly. "Rock" was all about experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what was then considered mainstream. In some ways, "Rock" was "Alternative" before such a concept existed. To clarify, bands like Herman's Hermits or the Archies are considered "Pop," bands like Cream and the Who are considered "Rock."

This is not to say Rock artists were not concerned about hit records; on the contrary, Rock artists, while experimenting with new instruments and sounds, knew the only way to have these sounds heard was write songs that appealed to a mass audience. Thus the line between "Rock" and "Pop" is often blurred, and no band did it better than the Beatles. Bands like the Beatles could take the exotic, non-Rock ‘n' Roll instruments, such as the sitar, and incorporate them into well-crafted pop songs, like "Norwegian Wood."

Some bands concentrated on a specific sound and thus subcategories of Rock were created. "Raga Rock" was the label given to songs that sported a heavy Eastern (read India) influence. Bands like the Byrds and individuals like Michael Nesmith began blending Rock with Country, creating "Country Rock," a genre most epitomized by bands like the Eagles.

"Acid Rock" was the name given to the obviously more drug-enhanced music of the late sixties. Acid Rock actually gave birth to new categories; the more lofty, whimsical numbers of this genre inspired some of the more classically trained musicians to add elements of classical music and jazz, forming "Art Rock" or "Progressive Rock." The darker, more blues-influenced bands inspired "Hard Rock" and "Heavy Metal." The birth of Heavy Metal is a hotly debated topic amongst its fans, though most Rock historians agree it was the band Steppenwolf that coined the phrase with their 1969 hit, "Born to Be Wild" ("heavy metal thunder…")

It is right around this point that the modern music scene becomes blurry and definitions less distinct. I can go on to tell you that as music became more and more "corporate" (that is, slickly produced) there began an underground movement called "Punk." "Disco" became the epitome of all that corporate music was, glitzy, over-produced, and vapid. Punk was a slap in the face of "institutionalized" Rock; a raw stripped down version of everything Rock was supposed to be, simple three-chord songs under three minutes played loud, fast and in your face. It didn't matter if the lead singer was tone-deaf, or if the musicians really didn't know their instruments; the attitude was what Punk was all about.

Since then, Rock music has revolted and counter-revolted on itself so many times, it's no wonder you're confused. Punk was replaced by MTV and "New Wave" (highly synthesized music), which got usurped by "Alternative" (bands that went back to guitar-based songs), which led to a rise of Heavy Metal and "Glam Metal" (male bands with lots of mascara and big hair), which led to "Grunge" (flannel shirts and no mascara), which led to a resurgence of "Boy Bands" (pop music where the singers just sang and had other musicians play their music) to "retro" bands, etc, etc. Suffice to say whenever Rock music becomes too synthetic or overly produced (too "mainstream," if you will) there is a new movement to pull Rock back into the underground.

I still have not covered R&B, Soul, Rap, or Hip-Hop. These genres and their sub-genres I do not cover as extensively and know less about. This article is already much longer than I expected, and too long to continue. However, Barnabas, for you and readers like you, I will attempt to define more of modern music for you in upcoming articles. Webmaster, I guess this defines my first "series" of articles. 

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