The Pop-Canon Revisited

February 14, 2019

From Frank Sinatra to Cardi B and from the Beatles to Brockhampton, (western) pop music has had its fair share of superstars. Not only has new technology made available new possibilities for production and performance, pop music has mirrored and impacted society on a cultural level too. We like to think of Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath as breaking barriers by blowing up speakers, but how has this thought manifested itself in our collective memory?


 [ clickbait quantifications based on charts as displayed above encourage canonisation ]


To speak of popular music requires utmost caution as it is a complex system in itself. Born from a mixture of classical and jazz music, an emancipating youth culture, and international popular demand, it developed on to become one of the most important forms of artistic expression. From the 1950s onward it reached millions (currently: billions) of people worldwide. With so many souls enjoying songs no longer than five minutes, a natural cultural phenomenon starts to take place. One called canonisation.


We tend to talk in terms of milestones whenever history is written. Elvis getting kids to dance weirdly, the Rolling Stones getting kids to revolt against parental authority, and the Beatles getting kids to do whatever because they are allegedly bigger than Jesus. Such events are recycled in other forms of popular media (e.g. Elvis’ dance scene in the 1994 film Forrest Gump) or proudly passed on by older generations. Parents who deemed themselves countercultural back in the day witness their music taste become a standard repertoire that has lost its edge in an age of onstage goat-throat-cutting and obscene sexual display


 [ Elvis and Forrest Gump collaborating on their choreography ]


The more hits of the past are played on the radio, the more of a standard they become. This simply is how music works. Familiarity and repetition go a long way in canonising certain songs. Hence it is no wonder that since the advent of digital media the bulk of ‘80s pop hits has found their way (again) to the dance floor via some teenager’s attic-made club remix. This, in turn, causes for the big hits to become even bigger, suppressing every B-side track, every song that inspired the greats but never gained equal fame, and every song that simply did not make it to the charts. 


That being said, the downsides of canonisation are evidently plentiful. Two major issues, however, need more public awareness in favour of music altogether. First of all, canonisation stagnates musical development. It is no wonder that every act fresh off the “pop track" in conservatory still clings to roughly the same band-setting and instrumentation as the Beatles, and that the easiest way to make a name is through the works of established others (i.e. covers and remixes). Secondly, canonisation presents (music) history as fixed and objective. Given that (pop music) history is dominantly white and male, it only leaves some space for retrospective emancipation.


 [ an uninspiring example of a past classic remixed, in this case Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love ]


What now to do with this canon? Embrace it. Indeed, this sounds schizophrenic having read the blog above, but we will simply never be able to change all of history. The embracing, however, comes with a fair bit of awareness of the fact that it is a canon, that it is not objective but instead morally outdated, and that there is more music outside of it than within it. There is nothing wrong with liking Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Nirvana, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé for their cultural significance. Just don’t forget the fact that there is an unimaginable amount of music made by other artists, equally good if not better. Pop music history is not fixed, we’re writing it as we listen. 

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