“Popular” vs. “Contemporary”

· Semantics or synonyms? ·

June 11, 2016 0 Comments

As a college freshman, I remember my roommate gleefully registering for a class on “Contemporary Music.” She later complained to me after the first lecture that it had been nothing like what she was expecting. It seems she wasn’t thrilled to encounter the likes of Schoenberg and Cage when she would have preferred to hear Rufus Wainwright or Kelly Clarkson; that is, she was expecting a class in popular music, not contemporary music.

What makes them different?

At first blush, “popular” and “contemporary” may seem interchangeable. Not so!

“Popular” music generally refers to commercial music with mass appeal: Billboard Top-40, high-rotation radio hits, e.g., the songs most often covered by collegiate and professional a cappella groups.

“Contemporary” (or “contemporary classical”) is quite open-ended, possibly (but not necessarily) describing neoromantic, (post-)modern, (post-)minimal, spectral, and experimental music from the mid-1970’s onward. With regard to vocal/choral music, it can refer to works by composers ranging anywhere from Arvo Pärt, Pauline Oliveros, and Caroline Shaw to Eric Whitacre and Oja Gjeilo. These may or may not also fall under the umbrella of “20th century music” if composed before the turn of the millenium. A more recent, vaguely broad term is “new music” (not to be confused with new-age music), but it may not literally catch all of these genres.

The problem lies herein:

Some have adopted the term “contemporary a cappella” describe “voices-only performance of modern genres of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including barbershop, doo-wop, hip-hop, jazz, pop, R&B, and rock and its derivatives.” While this is fine if you are exclusively in the business of describing pop-inspired vocal music, you run into trouble when delineating between other “contemporary” music styles (including, but not limited to “contemporary classical”). As an aside, it is worth noting that this definition centers primarily on recent Western music traditions, but that’s a can of worms for a whole ‘nother blog post.

At the same time, “contemporary” is a necessary modifier for delineating between modern unaccompanied popular music and the music of another era – say, the Italian or English renaissance-era madrigal – that is defined by its all-vocal style (and, confusing but perhaps worth noting, was in many cases the secular pop music of its day). So, to merely say “a cappella” – as many do – and assume it refers only to today’s pop covers isn’t advisable. Academically/professionally, you can’t/shouldn’t.

The solution?

There’s not a good one, and current semantic bandaids will no doubt become obsolete in time. In general, I defer to the original, broad definitions of “contemporary” vs. “popular” as defined by their intended audiences and level of commercialism, guided by the thought that it is for various vocal musics to find their place within the realm of these broader spectrums and not the reverse.

At the same time, we can perhaps start to lean on “new music” as a demarcation of non-popular, non-commercial music (though it lacks the specificity and intellectual cache of “contemporary classical”). In that vein, perhaps “contemporary a cappella” can shift toward, more simply and directly, “pop[ular] a cappella.”