“I’m always fascinated to see whether, given the kind of fairly known and established form called popular music, whether there is some magic combination that nobody has hit upon before.”
I hear America singing songs of every group of people, people from every race and religion and income level. Every group of people has their own form of music, and with it, their own voice. The music blends cultures together as each style borrows from each other. Endless variations of genres continue to arise and please the ears of America. American music is different from anywhere else in the world because of the enormous mix of cultures that have assembled here.
We are a nation of immigrants, from former slaves turned Blues musicians to the original country western singers. America has an enormous variety of talent. There is a mixture of people unlike anywhere else in the world, and we are always searching for something new. We are constantly looking for the next big thing in music. We are not content to recycle the same melodies and tunes year after year. The music is constantly being changed and innovated upon to satisfy the listeners.
Popular music is music that is mass produced and disseminated via mass media, and typically draws on preexisting musical traditions. Popular music is commercial music. The music reveals quite a bit about our past, about the good times and the bad. It reveals that not everyone has been treated equally and there have been many injustices along the way. The tensions and struggles between races is evident, and the toll that slavery took on many African Americans was made clear by the music of that era. But, it also reveals how beautiful and prosperous this land can be, and our popular music reveals that we remain a strong nation. Elvis Presley once said that “adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.” Elvis truly knew that the spirit of Americans could not be broken, and so he made music to reflect that attitude.
Popular music both reflects and influences changes in American society. The changes in thought that have developed over the years are put into the music. Views on sexuality and racial equality have changed dramatically in the past century, and the music has been there to document that shift. The music has also been there to influence our views and the way we think about things. The song “Strange Fruit” by Billy Holiday, a song about a lynching in Indiana, continues to influence musicians today, as Kanye West recently sampled a version of it in his latest album. Powerful songs influence us by showing us the emotions of another human being in musical form. It gives us a window into the artist’s soul and lets people identify with that musician.
American popular music unifies common groups of people toward action by using common emotions that are shared within the group. Songs reflect the society and culture of the time period they were created in. The book Blues People: Negro Music in White America by Leroi Jones states that “…the music was explaining the history and the history was explaining the music. And that both were expressions of and reﬂections of the people!” This passage perfectly explains how music and history are intertwined. The book also explains how the terrible days of slavery contributed to the creation of the Blues genre from a historical standpoint.
Certain songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind,” become anthems for a generation because the lyrics reflect the issues that were relevant at the time. “Blowin in the wind” features lyrics relating to civil rights issues among other issues that were happening in the 1960’s;
Yes, how many years can some people exist,
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head?
Pretending he just doesn’t see ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
These lyrics can be interpreted many different ways depending on the listener. One could take the lyrics in a racial, religious, political, or any view that they see fit. The listener can choose to think of the song in whichever context they choose, and that is what makes popular music so entertaining to so many people across the globe. They can all relate to the music in their own way.
The message in some songs directly opposes the message in others. For example on the issue of the VietnamWar, many antiwar songs were made, but there were also songs that supported the war effort. The songs “I Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” and “Ballad of the Green Berets,” have completely different opinions. During the 1920’s, Blues music was being formed, and it created a new outlet for African American singers to discuss their lives and assert control over their images. At the same time, racist whites were creating anti-black propaganda and distributing it using mass media sources. These types of clashes between different groups of people were common in American history, and so they are also visible in American popular music.
Songs express the beliefs of the artist, projected onto a large group of people. The artists themselves also act as models for how people behave. Pop star Britney Spears set styles for millions of girls with her bare midriff, clothes and hair. Elvis Presley’s iconic hairstyle was copied by many young fans after he became famous. Our individuality is defined within a communal contest. Often, people use music as a way to relate to others. For example, Punk music gave listeners their own slang, style of dress, and a non-conformist identity. These new identities give people a way to express themselves and their beliefs.
We use popular music to express our own individuality. Personally, my individual identity and beliefs are reflected in musical styles of rock and alternative. On a personal level, the music makes me feel that I am a part of something bigger, and I feel that I can relate to the lyrics more than any other genre. Current popular music as a whole reflects what is going on around me, and so I feel that it reflects my generation. Some may say that popular music has taken a turn for the worse in recent years, but I believe that that has been said by the older generations since the beginnings of popular music.
Diversity is what makes American popular music so unique from any other form of music on the planet. It has the qualities of freedom, constant change and a willingness to overcome adversity that separates our music. There is truly nothing else like it. America’s vast and diverse population is the reason that the rest of the world is so heavily influenced by our music. Americans love for new and unique forms of music continues to shape what we listen to today. Take for example Sam Phillips, the creator of Sun Records, who got his start as a record producer with the motto “We record anything, anywhere, anytime.” This led to him recording new artists that the public had never heard before, and they fell in love with the sound. He became a legend, and is known today as an important figure in the creation of rock and roll. He got his start by seizing an opportunity, and taking risks; a common similarity in many American figures.
What makes American music continue to change and continue to influence millions of people, is the desire to express oneself while creating something new. This quality has fueled the growth of American music since its beginning. The public is always waiting for something new and different to show up and when they hear it, a new genre is born. Examples of this include Beatlemania and the British Invasion of the 1960’s, Jazz and Blues music, Elvis Presley, Surf Rock, Disco, Punk music, electronic music and rap music, all of which were formed by a small number of artists who wanted to create something unique and express themselves, and all blew up into the phenomenons we know today. I believe that American popular music will continue to evolve and grow. It will become something unrecognizable, just as today’s pop music would be to someone from the 20s or 30s. There is no limit to what we can do, and the future looks bright for popular music.
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