Pop music has dominated the music industry since its inception in the 1950s. Despite many criticisms of the genre’s lack of depth, pop artists like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber find major success in their pop releases and continue to break records as their songs spread like wildfire. The genre truly lives up to its namesake as popular, but what makes pop so… popular? What keeps everyone listening to this music? In asking this, my aim is to examine the rhetorical, or persuasive, forces that continue to engage audiences with pop music, allowing it to prevail as one of the most successful genres in the music industry.
Scholar George A. Kennedy explains that rhetoric should be considered as a form of energy rather than just simply a means of persuasion. As we explore the rhetorical ecology of the pop genre, we will look at the variety of forces at play that exhibits this sort of rhetorical energy. If we consider rhetoric as a sort of energy, then it opens up the faucet of where we see rhetoric as possible. We aren’t examining the intent of the songwriter to persuade their audience, but the different ways we can find rhetorical energy pulsing through the audience, the music, and the genre itself.
One of the most common explanations behind the popularity of pop is that humans are inherently drawn to it. By this, I do not mean there is some innate necessity that humans need to listen to Lady Gaga (although there are some who would beg to differ), but that the pop genre utilizes simple patterns and rhythms that humans are naturally pleased by due to its repetition or predictability. Now if we approach this under the assumption that rhetoric is energy; we can begin to see the rhetorical ecology forming at the foundation of pop music, its composition. In order to amass a large audience, the music needs to sound good to its listeners. pop music’s use of simple patterns still manages to create a sound that is catchy and engaging. Here, the rhetorical energy drawing in listeners is within the listeners themselves which is then utilized by producers to increase the likeability of any said song.
Not only does the pop genre utilize desirable rhythms, but it is affectable. pop music is not necessarily known for being ‘deep’, yet much of the genre is made up of songs to make you feel good or even sad. The music is generic enough for the largest possible audience to relate to and the feelings invoked are desirable. Expanding the rhetorical ecology, we are introducing the force of feelings. People know what to expect from pop music and the feelings it invokes; it’s just part of the appeal. The energy here is fluid flowing from the songwriter, into the song, and through the audience. Alongside the simple patterns, the affectability factor caters to a large audience and fulfills a desire to feel good or bad whether it be dance music or another cliche breakup song. However, basically all music has the ability to make its audience feel, what sets pop music apart is its success in this despite being such a generic genre.
Coming into the third force at play in the rhetorical ecology of pop is the inescapability of the genre. Anywhere you go pop music is playing. It’s on the radio, TV shows, music streaming, grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants. Even if you don’t initially choose to listen to pop songs, it is inevitable that you will end up hearing one. All the producers need is to get people to hear the song once and the rest will follow. By having the songs play in places where practically everyone goes, the audience just continues to expand. The rhetorical energy is more explicitly everywhere in this sense. Each time one comes into contact with any song, more of the energy flows into the person. Once someone hears the song, they are likely going to choose to listen to it again. If not, they still are likely going to hear it again no matter what. Thus, continuing the cycle of energy and increasing the likelihood they will choose to listen to it.
All three of these forces play into the everlasting popularity of pop music. Not only is the genre sold to be inescapable, but the affectability and catchy tunes purposely make it impossible to get out of your head. Although pop’s rhetorical ecology surrounding its popularity is made up of so much more than just these three factors, we are beginning to understand how such a simple genre dominates the music industry. The energy at play comes from more than just the intent of the writer. Understanding this expands our knowledge of not just the popularity of the pop genre, but our rhetorical relationship with music in general.
HYBE. “BTS Butter Event” https://variety.com/2021/music/news/bts-butter-youtube-record-24-hour-views-1234979060/. Accessed June 6 2021.
Kennedy, George A. “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 25, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40238276. Accessed June 6 2021.