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Country or Pop: What’s the Difference?

Arts & Culture | April 7, 2010

When left without my iPod on a long drive, scanning the radio stations is always an adventure. There are your typical “variety” stations, usually playing pop songs that just stopped being popular on the trendy stations or alternative 90s rock, your trendy stations playing “all the latest hits!,” and the country stations most people cringe at as they search for a station that will play the Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga. On an hour-long drive over break with nothing but my radio to entertain me, my iPod forgotten on my desk at home, I scanned the radio incessantly, growing frustrated at the lackluster selection of music.

When one station played Taylor Swift’s hit song “Fearless,” I sang along unabashedly, knowing there was no one in the car with me to judge me for my occasionally prepubescent taste in music. When the song was over, the station playing “all of today’s hits!” went to commercial and I began the scanning process once again.

The next station my radio picked up, this time a country one, was playing the same song. I quickly switched to the variety station, which was also playing Taylor Swift’s girly ramblings with the occasional vague reference to Shakespeare better known as “Love Story.” I was left wondering how one singer could be popular enough to be played (quite frequently!) on so many different stations.

The answer lies in the strange fusion of country and pop music that has occurred over the past few years, best exemplified by Taylor Swift’s astounding popularity—enough to win the Grammy for Album of the Year— across many different musical preferences.  The old distinctions between pop and country are simply crumbling away.

The stereotypical pop music, which Princeton’s WordNet defines as “music of general appeal to teenagers; a bland watered-down version of rock’n’roll with more rhythm and harmony and an emphasis on romantic love,” is now starting to include artists such as the already mentioned Taylor Swift or Lady Antebellum. Yet these artists are also included in the genre of country, once very different from pop, which is known for its twangy Southern sound and barnyard feel.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly this transition happened. At some point, country concertgoers changed from middle-aged men with scruffy beards and flannel shirts to girls in bikini tops, denim shorts, and cowboy boots. At some point, the likes of Johnny Cash and George Strait were replaced with overwhelmingly popular singers with more mainstream sound and lyrics about love and how much fun it is to be a girl—not far from the previously cited definition of pop music.

After a bit of research into the music industry, I realize that this strange blend of country-pop is not as new as I thought. It actually started with Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins way back in the 1950s, who produced an alternative sound to Rockabilly, carrying on relatively unnoticed through the next few decades, mostly overshadowed by other genres, though occasionally producing stars such as Olivia Newton-John.

More recently, LeAnn Rimes’ hit single “How Do I Live,” released in 1997, was on the Billboard 100 for 69 weeks and is fourth on Billboard’s All-Time Top 100. This preceded the smash success of artists such as Lady Antebellum, whom USA Today called a “pop-friendly country trio,” whose second album sold almost half a million copies in its first week.

As an admitted fan of both genres, I am unsure of how I feel about this overlap. Sure, I like to sing along to Taylor Swift (though I’m often a bit embarrassed to), but I can’t say that I particularly like the way she is usurping the genres of country and pop. As more artists continue to follow suit, the variety on the radio is diminishing even more. Instead of hearing the same ten pop songs and the same ten country songs, I am hearing the same ten songs, period. I hope that the radio music industry can continue to offer an assortment of overplayed songs, or else a car ride without my iPod might become truly unbearable.