When Did Pop Music Start?
The pop music genre is widespread, covering several subcategories. It includes everything from big band to R&B to indie rock. So, then... when did pop music start? Because of its broad definition, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date it was established.
Pop music is everywhere, you hear a pop song at every party, every store, or sometimes every radio station. Pop genre contains pop rock, country pop, indie pop, and more so you're sure to have heard a pop song even mixed with other genres. Not to mention, pop songs also make the best new year's eve songs and other party songs to get the guest moving on the dance floor. Some of the most influential albums of all time also contain pop music and are written by pop artists.
By taking a trip through pop music history, we can uncover the roots of the pop music genre, how it’s evolved, and some of the greatest artists and records to come out of it. Here’s a brief history of pop. We promise you’ll be running, not walking, to the Victrola record store after reading to listen to these genre-defining pop stars.
What Is Pop Music?
Before answering the question of when did pop music start, let’s start with a definition. Pop(ular) music is defined by any “commercially oriented music principally intended to be received and appreciated by a wide audience.” This definition covers a lot of ground, but essentially pop music is music that’s important to a culture, reflective of the times, and well-received by a large fanbase.
Historically, during medieval times, pop music included any non-folk type of music. Although, nowadays, folk is also a popular style of music that's been welcomed by both critical and commercial audiences alike. However, if sticking true to the definition of being reflective of the era it’s produced, pop culture has certainly changed its sound over the decades.
Where Pop Music Started: 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s
Pop music history started in the early 20th century when vaudeville acts and dance hall shows were the most popular form of music. It continued into the era of waltzes and operas before evolving into the upbeat tempos and sounds of big band, ragtime, and swing, which were all popular throughout the 1920s.
Heading into the 1930s and 1940s when the phonograph emerged, the full brass band sounds were replaced by vinyl records, as well as jazz, blues, and early variations of country music, referred to as rockabilly. During this era, the beginning of what we now know as rock and roll began to emerge. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it really took off.
The Era of Rock and Roll and Motown in Pop History: 1950s and 1960s
Continuing into the 1950s, the Great Migration of Black Americans into the northern states resulted in a wide dispersal of blues, jazz, and rock and roll, pop music previously reserved for the South. It was the time of Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was also the introduction of popular crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin. Not to mention the emergence of one of the most prolific pop artists of all time, Elvis Presley.
Then, the pop music of the 1960s welcomed the British rock invasion of the Beatles, as well as the birth of Motown music out of Detroit, Michigan. The Beach Boys are also prevalent to pop music history and culture during this decade. They introduced an upbeat surf sound based on their Southern California roots.
Overall, the 1960s represents a time when sounds began to diverge and fall into their own iterations of what pop music meant and sounded like. The popular music-performance TV show American Bandstand also catapulted pop music by hosting various music artists to sing their new songs. The more people a song could reach, the better chance it had to become popular.
Pop Music History Through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and Today
Pop music history continues its evolution into the disco era of the ‘70s, New Wave music of the ‘80s, and hip hop and boy band groups that represented the ‘90s. Though each genre of music is wildly different, all can be categorized under pop music.
It’s interesting to think big band songs could be in the same genre as soulful rhythm and blues and also be in the same category as punk rock and grunge. Yet, there’s room for it all. Every decade of pop music is influenced by the decades that have come before to create a mashup of sounds and techniques that lead to what pop music is today.
Popular Music Artists Throughout the Decades
With so many artists settled under the pop music umbrella to choose from, it’s difficult to narrow down the list to a few favorites. However, we’ve collected a round up of artists and albums that have impacted nearly everyone on their music journey.
1950 - Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley has been dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll” and is one of the most popular music artists of all time. Though he recorded gospel songs during his career and had his fair share of slow songs, it’s his pop favorites like “Heartbreak Hotel”, released in 1956, and “All Shook Up” in 1957 that really cemented his status as a star. Fans can listen to all his song hits on his Golden Records Vol. 1 album that also includes classics, “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
1960 - The Beatles
To say The Beatles took the music world by storm is possibly an understatement, as the British Invasion was a prolific moment in pop music history. The quartet from Liverpool was everywhere and beloved by everyone, and their music has been lovingly passed down through the generations.
One of their most well-known album covers is the one for Abbey Road, released in 1969, and features hits including “Here Comes the Sun” and “Come Together.” And their second studio album, Meet the Beatles!, is on the list of greatest albums of all time for producing hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “All My Loving.”
1970 - Elton John
Disco, psychedelic, and the return to folk all were part of the mainstays of popular music in the 1970s. Elton John is one of the most iconic artists to emerge during this time period.
His 1973 album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has been named one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone and is still much beloved by fans today. Known for his sing-along choruses and eccentric stage performances, this album brought us number one singles, including “Bennie and the Jets” and the album’s title track.
1980 - Culture Club
There were several music subgenres to break off in the ‘80s, one of which was New Wave music. It infused the sounds from the 1970s with heavy synthesizers and psychedelic instrumentation. New Wave differentiated itself from the heavy metal rock also entering the mainstream during the decade, as well as the upbeat Top 40 radio hits we recognize today.
Culture Club’s Kissing to be Clever, led by enigmatic lead singer Boy George, was one of the most iconic records of the decade. The single “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” hit number one in several countries and is still played on light pop radio stations today.
1990 - Nirvana
The energy of the 1980s continued into the 1990s with the emergence of boy bands, hip-hop, and one-hit wonders. All of it had a place in the pop music stratosphere. However, the early ‘90s also introduced the birth of grunge music.
Nirvana is a band closely linked to this decade of music with an alternative “garage band” sound that dominated the airwaves. The band’s second album release, Nevermind, is still an iconic vinyl gem people love today and features drummer Dave Grohl, who went on to become the lead singer for the Foo Fighters. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” will take you right back in time to the days of flannel shirts, Doc Martens, and Kurt Cobain.
2000 - Destiny’s Child
Grunge still infiltrated the early 2000s leaving plenty of alternative bands in its wake. However, Destiny’s Child dominated the early 2000s, spinning pop music history into a whole new direction. Though typically defined as a R&B group, the Beyonce-led girl group definitely made a name for themselves among audiences worldwide.
In the early 2000s, they switched members of their group to become the trio we recognize today. During that time, they released hit after hit off their Survivor and Destiny Fulfilled albums before eventually breaking off to enjoy successful individual music careers.
2010 - Taylor Swift
By the mid-2000s, pop music began spreading out in multiple directions with crossover genres and individual sounds. Taylor Swift hit the scene during this decade with a start in country music. After a few albums, she made her crossover to pop and hasn’t looked back. Since becoming a pop artist, she has continued blending other elements of rock, folk music, and even electronic into her music.
Pop Music of the Future
Pop music is defined by what’s well-received and most played more than defined by style or sound. Artists from all musical backgrounds have shared time in the pop music spotlight and will continue to do so as new artists emerge today. The blending of almost every musical genre, whether it's soul music, folk, jazz, pop, will continue to show that music doesn't only have one genre.
The thing they all have in common is how much their music delights large audiences and makes people excited about their music. We’ve seen music trends be revisited and reimagined, which means the pop music of the future most likely will have whispers of songs and albums from the past.
And judging from how pop music started to how it’s evolved to today, it’s anyone guess what the popular music of tomorrow will bring. All we know is that we’re looking forward to hearing it.