Pop vs Rock
August 15, 2004 7:05 AM   Subscribe

What's the difference between Pop and Rock? [More Inside.]

I have incredibly backward musical tastes for someone relatively young. I listen to classical and jazz mostly, and my tastes in Jazz lean more towards stuff from the 20s, 30s and 40s than more modern stuff. But there ARE a few more contemporary sounds that have slipped under my radar. My wife thinks it's funny that, on my iPod, I label all music written from about 1950 onwards "Pop," but I don't know what else to call it.

I know there have been all sorts of styles: doo-wap, punk, folk rock, disco, rap, etc., but -- to my totally untrained ears -- they seem to all have something in common. There's a common root sound, which I think of as "rock and roll" All these genres seem like sub-species of rock to me. I realize that many will be scandalized by that claim. But as different as they are, rap and disco seem to be more alike to me than, say, punk and Beethoven.

Now, iTunes likes to classify some music as “pop” and some music as “rock.” (and, confusingly, some music as “pop/rock.”) I don't get the difference. Is pop just rock music that happens to be popular right now?

My wife explained to me that the Beatles are rock, whereas Brittany Spears is pop. Okay, I can hear that the Beatles are artists and BS is lacking in talent. But what is her actual STYLE/GENRE called? My wife said, "dance music," but that seems overly general -- it could describe a lot of different styles. Disco was dance music, but BS's stuff doesn't sound like disco to me. In ten years -- assuming people still remember her -- will BS's music still be considered pop? Or is pop music pop only while it's trendy? If so, where does it get sorted after that?

By the way, I know (or I assume) "pop" has a slightly different meaning in the UK than in the US. I'm on the American side of the pond.
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (37 answers total)

Pop music goes "do-de-de-do-be-bop!"

That's the best I can do.
posted by bradth27 at 7:30 AM on August 15, 2004

According to allmusic.com, here are all of the subcategories of rock:

Aboriginal, Rock, Acid Rock, Adult, Alternative, Pop/Rock, Adult Contemporary, Album Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Country-Rock, Alternative Metal, Alternative Dance, AM Pop, Ambient Pop, American Punk, American Trad Rock, American Underground, Anarchist Punk, Arena Rock, Aussie Rock, Avant-Prog, Bar Band, Baroque Pop, Beach, Blue-Eyed Soul, Blues-Rock, Boogie Rock, Brill Building Pop, British Folk-Rock, British Invasion, British Metal, British Psychedelia, British Punk, British Trad Rock, Britpop, Brown-Eyed Soul, Bubblegum, C-86, Canterbury Scene, Chamber Pop, Chicago Soul, Club/Dance, Cocktail, College Rock, Comedy Rock, Contemporary R&B, Country-Rock, Country-Soul, Cowpunk, Dance-Pop, Death Metal/ Black Metal, Deep Funk, Deep Funk Revival, Deep Soul, Detroit Rock, Disco, Doo Wop, Doom Metal, Dream Pop, Early British Pop/ Rock, Electro-Industrial, Emo, Euro- Dance, Euro- Pop, Euro- Rock, Experimental Rock, Folk-Pop, Folk-Rock, Foreign Language Rock, Frat Rock, Freakbeat, Freestyle, French Pop, French Rock, Funk, Funk Metal, Garage Punk, Garage Rock, Garage Rock Revival, Girl Group, Glam Rock, Glitter, Go-Go, Goth Metal, Goth Rock, Grindcore, Grunge, Guitar Virtuoso, Hair Metal, Hard Rock, Hardcore Punk, Heartland Rock, Heavy Metal, Hong Kong Pop, Hot Rod, Hot Rod Revival, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, Industrial, Industrial Metal, Instrumental Rock, International Pop, Jam Bands, Jangle Pop, Japanese Pop Japanese Rock, Jazz-Rock, Kraut Rock, L.A. Punk, Latin Rock, Lo-Fi, Madchester, Math Rock, Memphis Soul, Merseybeat, Mod, Mod Revival, Motown, Neo-Classical Metal, Neo-Glam, Neo-Prog, Neo-Psychedelia, Neo-Soul, New Jack Swing, New Orleans R&B, New Romantic, New Wave, New Wave of British Heavy Metal, New York Punk, New Zealand Rock, No Wave, Noise Pop, Noise-Rock, Northern Soul, Obscuro, Oi!, Paisley Underground, Philly Soul, Pop, Pop Underground, Pop-Metal, Pop-Soul, Pop/Rock, Post-Grunge, Post-Hardcore, Post-Punk, Post-Rock/ Experimental, Power Metal, Power Pop, Prog-Rock/ Art Rock, Progressive Metal, Proto-Punk, Psychedelic, Psychedelic Pop, Psychedelic Soul, Psychobilly, Pub Rock, Punk, Punk Metal, Punk Revival, Punk-Pop, Queercore, Quiet Storm,, R&B Rap-Metal, Rap-Rock, Retro Swing, Retro-Rock, Retro-Soul, Riot Grrrl, Rock & Roll, Rockabilly, Rockabilly Revival, Roots Rock, Sadcore, Scandinavian Metal, Shibuya- Kei, Shoegazing, Singer/ Songwriter, Ska Revival, Ska-Punk, Skatepunk, Skiffle, Slowcore, Sludge Metal, Smooth Soul, Soft Rock, Sophisti-Pop, Soul, Southern Rock, Southern Soul, Space Rock, Speed Metal, Sports Anthems, Stoner Metal, Straight- Edge, Sunshine Pop, Surf, Surf Revival, Swamp Pop, Swedish Pop/ Rock, Symphonic Black Metal, Synth Pop, Teen Idol, Teen Pop, Tex- Mex, Third Wave Ska Revival, Thrash, Tribute Albums, Twee Pop, Uptown Soul, Urban, Urban Folk.

Britney would fit in several of these categories, and so would The Beatles. To me, pop has always been the unserious side of rock - no aspirations to great songwriting or notable or great instrument playing. It's the bubble-gummy stuff that's oft-times manufactured expressly to be a radio hit or something good to dance to. Not that there's anything wrong with that ;)
posted by iconomy at 7:44 AM on August 15, 2004

i'm not sure there is much formal difference and i don't think people will be scandalised. there's a common root in blues - both the rhythms (4 time) and the structure.

pop is lighter than rock - more emphasis on balads. some of the beatles is better classified as pop, imho (in fact, they cover a wide range), but the stones are pretty much all rock, for example.

i think the difference between britney spears and the (poppy stuff from the) beatles isn't so much style as quality. unfortunately people also (often unconsciously) associate rock with better quality music than pop, but that doesn't have to be the case (the thrills, or the beach boys, for example, are very good quality pop).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:47 AM on August 15, 2004

...more emphasis on balads and (perhaps more importantly) harmony, rather than (a driving) rhythm...
posted by andrew cooke at 7:49 AM on August 15, 2004

ballads. damn.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:49 AM on August 15, 2004

I think there are basically two ways that the term "pop" is used...

The first is really a genre of rock, where it means kind of a lighter, more tuneful approach--Squeeze and Crowded House are perfect examples of this, as well as early Beatles, Elvis Costello's lighter stuff, etc.

The second meaning describes the most popular music of a given era...today, it would mean stuff like Britney or N Sync (however they used to spell it), but if you talk to any generation, they've got a type of music they called "pop", and they're all different. For someone growing up in the 40s, "pop" very clearly means big band/big singer music..."The Great American Songbook", Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney. (If you live in the NY area and listen to WNYC on weekend afternoons, you know exactly what I mean.) People a little bit younger think "pop" really means "doo-wop", and there's a lot of people who were young in the early 60s who think it basically just means the folk-influenced tunes that they parodied so brilliantly in "A Mighty Wind".

So, it basically comes down to the fact that it's highly subjective, but that's how I've managed to parse out the term for myself.
posted by LairBob at 8:21 AM on August 15, 2004

I've always viewed "pop" as being the larger, overarching category of all "non-serious" music. In other words, there's classical, jazz, gospel and pop. Everything fits into that, though perhaps there should be another category for "indigenous" music, like traditional blues, folk or bluegrass or <insert your favorite non-American indigenous music here>. And I guess allowances have to be made for broadway/show tunes.

Anyways, that makes Tool and ELP and Soul Coughing and Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dolly Parton all pop musicians. But in my opinion, they all are pop musicians. Rock, according to this view, is a category within pop.

So maybe my view is unorthodox or incorrect, I don't know. I know other people who seem to hold to similar categories. (In fact, the guys at the record shop near my house.) What would be the canonnical source for such distinctions?
posted by mragreeable at 8:24 AM on August 15, 2004

Rock Music = Iggy & the Stooges - "T.V. Eye"
Pop Music = Iggy Pop - "Candy"
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:25 AM on August 15, 2004

Sorry, to be more precise (and less tied to a specific culture) replace "gospel" with "sacred" in my above post.
posted by mragreeable at 8:26 AM on August 15, 2004

Pop stands for "Popular" as in any group or band that is or was "Popular". "Pop" as a term came about to describe the Beatles music and the sixties art scene. It was about saying: Here's a new age in cultural expression, based on what most people find good.

Since then, what's popular and what's good are often two different things, so a lot of people want to differentiate their good pop music from the rest of pop music.

The Beatles are both Pop and Rock, that is, Pop and Good. Great, if you ask me. :-)
posted by xammerboy at 8:27 AM on August 15, 2004

"Brittany Spears"?

Anyway, in my definition, Pop is far more likely to be one person or a group of people (a boyband/girlband) who only sing, to a backing track. Rock bands will have a singer, but then also a guitarist, drummer, etc.

That's the simplest definition I can come up with. If they play instruments live on stage, they're Rock. If they dance about and sing to a backing track, they're Pop.
posted by reklaw at 8:44 AM on August 15, 2004

If guitars - especially electric guitars - are involved, then it's probably some form of rock or other, especially if the music sounds edgier than, say, britney. Pop on the other hand I think less of as a genre than the commercial, radio friendly end of the spectrum of various genres: rock, hip hop, dance...

Everyone has different ideas on genres, though, so I wouldn't worry too much. People that like to be too specific are generally twats.
posted by nthdegx at 8:48 AM on August 15, 2004

In the main the Beatles are pop, not rock.
posted by kenko at 8:49 AM on August 15, 2004

To me, rock means a style of music which features a singer, a couple of electric guitars, drums and maybe one or two other instruments. Pop isn't really a genre, but just a word to describe the music you hear on the radio, which of course shifts over the years.
posted by reynaert at 9:11 AM on August 15, 2004

Musical genres are a pain in the arse. For example, I say Motorhead are Metal, my wife says they're Hard Rock, and Motorhead themselves say they're Rock n Roll. Maybe we're all correct.

As pointed out earlier, Pop was originally short for popular music. When I use pop to describe music I'm usually talking about music with hooks - you know, music that burrows into your brain and won't leave. For example I'd say XTC, Teenage Fanclub and Matthew Sweet do pop music even though they're not popular. The modern definition of pop music seems to me to be a sort of watered down RnB for kids, and rarely has a decent hook - it is however very popular.

I also think Pop is used to differentiate that sort of music from Rock which these days seems to be any music made using electric guitars. The distinction really is that thin. If you want proof then just look at how few pop acts play instruments - they're all singers.

Of course these distinctions don't really matter. Go to your local music store and it's all lumped together under Rock & Pop
posted by dodgygeezer at 9:24 AM on August 15, 2004

In ten years -- assuming people still remember her -- will BS's music still be considered pop? Or is pop music pop only while it's trendy? If so, where does it get sorted after that?

It will be "90s/turn-of-century pop," the same way that Madonna's "Lucky Star" is now "80s pop."

Really, grumblebee, maybe all the post-1950 music on your ipod *is* pop. But if so, you must not have any Elliot Smith, Postal Service, or Jon Brion, just to name some at random that I like. Similarly, punk is, almost by definition, not pop. The fact that something is popular now doesn't mean that it's "pop," just as Beethoven's relative popularity considering how long ago he worked does not make his music "pop." (Although he didn't record any records, either, and he's a single, albeit influential, person, not a genre, so comparing him to Punk really doesn't make sense to begin with.)

Pop is written and produced to be popular. It's not about the childhood trauma of the backup guitarist.

It's also worth mentioning that circa the early 90s, a whole slew of music was labeled as "alternative" *because* it didn't make sense to call it rock.

If you're really starting as early as 1950 with the "pop" distinction, then you're lumping together Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, Prince, They Might Be Giants, and Brittney Spears. Sure, they all have more in common with each other than they do with Beethoven, mainly in that their music is written with lyrics, and not intended to be performed by an orchestra (in most cases). But really, if they all sound so similar to you that you're willing to put them in the same category, then...well, I dunno. Maybe you shouldn't listen to post-1950 music.
posted by bingo at 9:32 AM on August 15, 2004

You're basically right, bingo, but there's a pretty thin line before you start getting into "Pops", like the Boston Pops. I agree that it's not "Pop" music, but on the cheesy end of the spectrum, you're not too far from overorchestrated renditions of the 1812 Overture, oompah/Sousa band music, and the lite opera stuff (like Sarah whatshername, Josh Groban and Charlotte Church) that they always play on PBS during the pledge drives.

posted by LairBob at 9:42 AM on August 15, 2004

"Pop" and "rock" aren't really stylistic labels anymore, if they ever were. They are used by most as designations of taste, "rock" being what they like and "pop" being what the unwashed masses like. This is a slight oversimplification, of course, as any true poseur will have many "rock" bands that they disparage as well, but it's a good guideline.

I recommend you apply whatever labels to your music that is meaningful to you and don't worry about what anyone else thinks, because THERE IS NO AGREEMENT OUT THERE anymore anyway.
posted by rushmc at 9:49 AM on August 15, 2004

eppy at clap clap has done a semantic breakdown of the different ways we use the word "pop" to describe music. highly recommended.
posted by Marquis at 10:02 AM on August 15, 2004


Smoke on the water?
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2004

When Richard Wayne Penniman sung "Tutti Fruiti, aw-rootie" it was rock, and when Charles Eugene Patrick Boone homogenized the same song for the masses, it was pop.
posted by bragadocchio at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2004

Pop just means popular music. Louis Armstrong's 1929-version of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" is pop because it was aimed and sold to the broad market. "West-End Blues" from the year before was marketed as "race" music, i.e., primarily for the black market. Both these records are jazz-based, of course, because their Armstrong and he virtually defines jazz, but the "pop" and "race" designations describe markets, not genres. The "pop" designation survives, though the "race" (or "sepia") designation has been renamed many times.

Since the '5os, much pop music has been based or at least influenced by rock, but it needn't be, and in fact it seems to be getting less so.
posted by timeistight at 10:10 AM on August 15, 2004

pop is simply short for popular. timeistight wins.
posted by quonsar at 10:16 AM on August 15, 2004

It's all bullshit to make people think they need to pursue a certain label and buy crap under that umbrella.
posted by angry modem at 10:21 AM on August 15, 2004

pop is simply short for popular. timeistight wins.

Though I agree it started that way, I don't think it's any longer the case. Pop is (or can be) a sound; it doesn't have to be a demographic. There is plenty of music in the pop genre that is far from popular.

I qualify the Beatles as pop, for sure, because of the light sound (sure, they have some "rockier" stuff but overall I consider them pop). However, I qualify Britney and Phil Collins and stuff of that ilk as Pop, with a capital P, short for Popular.

Pretty much all contemporary Pop sucks. But there is a lot of great pop music out there.

Rock is just "louder" or "grittier" pop music (or in some cases Pop music); pop is just "softer" or "happier" (sounding) rock music. Some artists really blur the line. I'm thinking of Guided By Voices in particular.

Some folks above have linked to some lyrics. To me, lyrics are irrelevant when talking about genre. For instance, listen to these two versions of the "same song" (Pixies' Mr. Grieves). [on preview, bragadocchio nailed it with his Tutti Frutti reference]

Some great contemporary pop music == Herschel Savage and the American Flag's first album [mp3], Fountains of Waynes' first album [mp3], Bikeride's Morning Macumba [mp3], Sean Na-Na's My Majesty [mp3], just about anything by Clem Snide [mp3], and anything the Barenaked Ladies did before they released any albums. A classic of the genre would be the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
posted by dobbs at 10:24 AM on August 15, 2004

AOL is pop. rotten.com is rock.
posted by quonsar at 10:28 AM on August 15, 2004

timeistight is right. Pop is not a genre, it's a market. Rock if you're gonna be purist, is a form of music derived from Rythm and Blues, with mostly major chord forms (and, owing to its blues origins, usually three chords: root, 4th and 5th), a 4/4 beat, played mainly with guitars, drums and maybe some horns thrown in.
Pop is whatever those damn kids listen to these days.
posted by signal at 12:37 PM on August 15, 2004

Here's another way of looking at pop and rock:

Pop is like a shiny balloon. It's about disposable glamour. It's about youth, the here and now. Generally it's only concerned with surface appearances and with very universal themes. Pop tends to be happy and upbeat.

Rock is immutable, like a rock. It can be dirty and heavy. It tends to be leaden and grandiose. It deals with less obvious themes. It has ambitions towards lasting forever. It can be dour and angry.
posted by skylar at 1:05 PM on August 15, 2004

Response by poster: But really, if they all sound so similar to you that you're willing to put them in the same category, then...well, I dunno. Maybe you shouldn't listen to post-1950 music.

I DID say that I CAN hear the differences -- but I also hear a similar root sound in those different kinds of music.

But I am PROFOUNDLY ignorant about the last 50 years of music. Perhaps that seems nuts because it's the LAST 50 YEARS. But if you don't give contemporary music special status, than I'd say most people I know (myself definitely included) are profoundly ignorant about music over much larger spans of time. For instance, I bet there are many here who lump hundreds of years of music under the category of "classical." Whatever. Life isn't long enough for one to gain nuanced knowledge of EVERYTHING. One picks and chooses.

I think most people my age got into contemporary music because (a) they didn't have access to much else, and (b) trappings external to the music lured them in (i.e. fantasies about being a rock star, linking rock music with rebellion, physical attractiveness of rockstars, etc.)

Growing up, my Dad had a collection of thousands of jazz and classical records, which he played all the time. I never really rebelled, so I didn't feel the need to separate myself from him via my own music. I was kind of a loner as a kid, so I didn't get into the music that the other kids were listening to. And I've never cared about anything outside of the music. I couldn't care less whether or not the musician is good looking. I don't WATCH him; I LISTEN to him.

But I recognize that there's good modern stuff out there. I'm TRYING to educate myself about it.
posted by grumblebee at 3:03 PM on August 15, 2004

In my circle of friends, what most people here are defining as pop (Britney Spears, Madonna, Usher) is called "Top 40", possibly since the radio stations in my area (Southern Ontario) used to classify themselves as either "alternative", “rock”, or "top 40".
Pop music is a style of music, similar to dodgygeezer's defn' above, music with a defined melody, that you can generally sing along with. This style of music isn't necessarily popular (as the Indie Pop scene would indicate), but it is generally easy to enjoy
posted by nprigoda at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2004

Response by poster: If a piece of classical music became REALLY popular, as it sometimes does when it's used in a popular music title, would you guys consider it pop music? What about something like the Jaws or Star Wars theme? Is "Happy Birthday to You" pop music?

The sense I get is that most people consider pop music to be popular music with roots in Rock.
posted by grumblebee at 3:28 PM on August 15, 2004

Popular classical mussic, showtunes, and pieces from jazz, country and other genres are referred to as standards.

Before the advent of recorded music, the publishing and distrubution of sheet music was a gradually lucritavive industry. The various promotions and subsequent legal battles were very much similar to our present controversy involving DRM. Like Napster, a number of small outfits offered sheet music to the masses outside of the more accepted channels, causing a spate of legal threats. The music which was favored by the general public for piano pplaying or band use was indeed "pop" in its day, though it may not have been conssidered as such. But the wheels of industry were still groaning just the same.
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:50 PM on August 15, 2004

I think there's more than one sense in which people mean pop:

One sense hast to do with how "pop" comes up at the songwriter's groups I attend. Some people, I find, don't seem to be able to draw the distinction, but most of the writers I respect can draw some distinction, and it is that light, fluffy, almost prosaic but still catchy essence that's been referred to here. I doubt there's a solid line here.

In the context of my music composition classes, we talked about "popular forms" and that pretty much covers jazz, folk/traditional/indigenous, show tunes, bluegrass, and most stuff played on commercial radio in the 20th century.

My own personal vague description has to do with whether the label of entertainment/entertainer fits more appropriately with the music/performer than "artist".
posted by weston at 5:21 PM on August 15, 2004

posted by skyscraper at 5:55 PM on August 15, 2004

"Anarchy in the UK" is rock [it made it to c. #38]

"God save the Queen" is pop [#1, Jubilee week, 1977]

It's all there in the Sex Pistols, as I've said before.
Anyway: where's jonmc for a little sport on his fave subject? Has he ever been to AskMe?
posted by dash_slot- at 6:44 PM on August 15, 2004

Pop is almost always about romantic love.
Rock can take any subject, lyrically.

REM's 'Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight': wtf is that about?
posted by dash_slot- at 6:53 PM on August 15, 2004

To me, pop has always been the unserious side of rock - no aspirations to great songwriting or notable or great instrument playing.

The music of Burt Bacharach, perhaps one of our finest pop composers, could hardly be called unserious or not 'great songwriting'.

I have a problem with the use of the word 'pop', as there is much talent/non-talent in pop music as any other genre, but most people who think they know something about music seem to think that 'pop' = 'pointless crap', when infact a whole ton of amazing music (even serious stuff) falls into the genre.
posted by wackybrit at 12:48 AM on August 16, 2004

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