How many of you were trying to remember the tune or the words? Well, as it turns out there are many different variations of this little “ditty” from England, where it originated, and when it crossed the pond to the U.S., several more iterations were soon floating around. It was the early 1850s when the sheet music for this tune first appeared, and it was a variation of “The Haymakers,” a tune dating back to the 1700s. The original British lyrics go like this: “Half a pound of tuppenny rice, / Half a pound of treacle. / That’s the way the money goes, / Pop goes the weasel.” When the song crosses the Atlantic in the 1850s there are several changes made to it. But it is the one from the mid-20th century that I remember as a kid: “All around the mulberry bush / The monkey chased the weasel / The monkey thought it was all in good fun / Pop goes the weasel.”
I hope you enjoyed that little diversion down memory lane! However, what follows has nothing to do with this tune…well, not directly anyway. I was listening to some music the other night, and came across a singer from St. Petersburg, Russia named Maya Feedova, accompanied by a German nu jazz lounge act called Club des Belugas. When I looked them up, I was a bit surprised to see that Feedova was pegged as a “pop” artist, mainly because I have a certain personal criteria, if you will, as to what I consider to be “pop” music. I hope you will excuse the cheap…okay, really corny segue, but it was after listening to these songs that I started thinking about what pop music is, and then the above “popped” into my head. I will give you a moment to stop groaning! I have included below a few of the songs I was listening to, so you can decide for yourselves whether you feel they are “pop” songs, and after you’ve enjoyed the music, what follows is my attempt to make some sense of what constitutes “pop” music over several generations.
Maya Feedova & Club des Belugas – My Coconutnut Song”
Maya Feedova & Club des Belugas – “Love is Like A Legend”
Maya Feedova & Club des Belugas – “Let Me Go.”
Two of these songs are originals, although there are two previous versions of “Let Me Go,” both with different lyrics. The “My Coconutnut Song,” is a song by a Filipino national artist, Ryan Cayabyab (“Da Coconut Nut”), which was originally popularized by the band Smokey Mountain in 1991. It has been characterized as a “wackily irreverent novelty hit,” and after listening to it, who could argue with that? Nowhere in that assessment is the word “pop” used. Just saying!
All of this begs the question: “So, what is “pop” music and where does the term come from?” As you might imagine, it is a genre of “popular” music that originated in its modern form during the mid-1950s in the United States and the United Kingdom. And if we take the word “popular” here literally, this makes perfect sense, because the timeframe of the mid-50’s coincides with the first release of portable, transistor radios (1954). Who didn’t have one of those glued to their ear in the late 50s and early 60s? I know I did! In this sense I am equating popularity with accessibility, and this new technology made the music of our youth infinitely more accessible. The terms “pop” and “popular” music are often used interchangeably, although popular music really describes all music that is “popular” and includes many different genres. If you find this confusing, I am sure you are not alone! It gets better…well not really, but faint hope is better than none!
During the 50s and 60s, “pop” music encompassed rock and roll and the many youth-oriented styles it influenced. And the emphasis here should definitely be on the word youth. Rock and pop remained synonymous until the late 60s, after which pop music became associated with music that was more commercial, ephemeral, and accessible…yes, there’s that word again, but this time with a slightly different connotation. Here “accessible” refers to a song not more than three minutes long; in other words, songs played on AM radio stations. For example, The Doors “popular” songs like “Hello, I Love You” (2:38 min.), “People Are Strange” (2:11 min.), and “Touch Me” (3:05) would all be considered “commercial” because they allowed the station to get in their required allotment of advertisements in between the songs. Songs like “When The Music’s Over,” which clocks in at 11:05 min., were generally the purview of FM stations that were just beginning to be available. So, The Doors may have been a “popular” group at that time, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to all their music being “pop” or “popular.” Even the original “Light My Fire,” a song that defined The Doors in the early days, is 7:00 min. long; so, what we were most likely hearing back in the day was a shortened version for commercial radio.
Consider the following. In 2022 some of the most popular “pop” artists were/are: Bad Bunny, Ed Sheeran, Drake, The Weekend, BTS, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Rhianna, and Ariane Grande. An impressive list. I have heard of most of them, listened, on occasion to a few of them, but I would not consider any of them to be in my “popular” wheelhouse. Now, some might think that this has something to do with my age (70+), and perhaps on a certain level it does. But if anyone were to take a quick peek at my iTunes library, they would know right off that this is not the case. Perhaps I am somewhat of an anomaly with respect to my music listening choices. So be it. And this, in turn, got me thinking about my parents and the music they listened to and enjoyed. When I was 17, in 1967, my parents were 41 and 40, and although they were not what I would call avid music listeners, they tended to lean towards the music of their youth, which means (if we take the age of 17 as the example), music from the early 40s. This was the big band era of music, ensembles like: Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, and Benny Goodman to name a few. It was also the era of singers such as: Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and Doris Day, as wholesome a group as you’ll ever find…well, except maybe for Frank! When I was 40 in 1990, a sampling of what was on the air then goes like this: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, 2Pac, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Beastie Boys,
I listened to all of these acts when I was 40, and on a pretty regular basis. My parents, on the other hand were, shall we say, pretty indifferent about the music I was listening to when I was 17. What changed? There are many different ways to answer this question, but the short answer is “society” changed. My parents’ music was playing in the background as World War II was coming to an end, and my music was the background for the Vietnam War, and there has been enough written on why these wars were very different. I know the generations that have come after the “boomers” are sick and tired of hearing about how great the 60s were musically, and to some extent, I don’t blame them. But in this case, context is everything! There were so many fundamental changes to how we conducted ourselves back then, to our mores, to our institutions, and on and on it goes, and in many ways the music of that era was the backdrop to all these changes, and we all know that as one ages, change can often be the enemy.
I, on the other hand, have always embraced change instead of running away from it. And this is especially true for the music I listen to. I listen to a very wide range of genres and styles, but I don’t listen to AM radio anymore, so I keep up with “pop” music by reading a few blogs that discuss the current pop scene and new artists making their mark. I am also “plugged-in” to Spotify, Sound Cloud, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Apple Music. Of course, the entire nature of the music industry has changed dramatically in the last 15-20 years, but that is a story for another time!
Los Angeles 2023