Power pop (also typeset as powerpop) is a form of pop rock based on the early music of bands such as the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds. It originated in the 1960s and developed mainly among American musicians who came of age during the British Invasion as they began to rebel against the emerging pretensions of rock music. The genre typically incorporates melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, an energetic performance, and "happy"-sounding music underpinned by a sense of yearning, longing, or despair.
|Cultural origins||Late 1960s, United States and United Kingdom|
The term "power pop" was coined by the Who's Pete Townshend in 1967 to describe their style of music. However, the term became more widely identified with subsequent artists from the 1970s who sought to revive Beatles-style pop. The sound of the genre became more established thanks to early 1970s hits by Badfinger, the Raspberries, and Todd Rundgren. Subsequent artists occasionally drew from developments such as new wave, punk, glam rock, pub rock, college rock, and neo-psychedelia.
Power pop reached its commercial peak during the rise of punk and new wave in the late 1970s, with Cheap Trick, the Knack, the Romantics, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Dwight Twilley. During this time, music critics who wrote about the phenomenon popularized the term's usage. After a popular and critical backlash to the genre's biggest hit, "My Sharona" (The Knack, 1979), record companies generally stopped signing power pop groups, and most of the 1970s bands broke up in the early 1980s.
Over subsequent decades, power pop continued with modest commercial success while largely remaining an object of critical derision. The 1990s saw a new wave of alternative bands that were drawn to 1960s artists because of the 1980s music they influenced. Although not as successful as their predecessors, Jellyfish, the Posies, Redd Kross, Teenage Fanclub, and Material Issue were critical and cult favorites. In the mid-1990s, an offshoot genre that combined power pop harmonies with uptempo punk, dubbed "punk-pop", reached mainstream popularity.
Definition and etymology
Power pop is a more aggressive form of pop rock that is based on catchy, melodic hooks and energetic moods. AllMusic describes the style as "a cross between the crunching hard rock of the Who and the sweet melodicism of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, with the ringing guitars of the Byrds thrown in for good measure". Virtually every artist of the genre has been a rock band consisting of white male musicians who engaged with the song forms, vocal arrangements, chord progressions, rhythm patterns, instrumentation, or overall sound associated with groups of the mid 1960s British Invasion era.
An essential feature of power pop is that its "happy"-sounding arrangements are supported by a sense of "yearning", "longing", or "despair" similar to formative works such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (The Beach Boys, 1966) and "Pictures of Lily" (The Who, 1967). This might be achieved with an unexpected harmonic change or lyrics that refer to "tonight", "tomorrow night", "Saturday night", and so on. Power pop was also noted for its lack of irony and its reverence to classic pop craft. Its reconfiguration of 1960s tropes, music journalist Paul Lester argued, could make it one of the first postmodern music genres.
Scope and recognition
The Who's Pete Townshend coined "power pop" in a May 1967 interview promoting their latest single "Pictures of Lily". He said: "Power pop is what we play—what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of 'Fun, Fun, Fun' which I preferred." Despite other bands following in the power pop continuum since then, the term was not popularized until the rise of new wave music in the late 1970s. Greg Shaw, editor of Bomp! magazine, was the most prominent in the slew of music critics that wrote about power pop (then written as "powerpop"). This mirrored similar developments with the term "punk rock" from earlier in the decade. In light of this, Theo Cateforis, author of Are We Not New Wave? (2011), wrote that "the recognition and formulation" of power pop as a genre "was by no means organic."
There is significant debate among fans over what should be classed as power pop. Shaw took credit for codifying the genre in 1978, describing it as a hybrid style of pop and punk. He later wrote that "much to my chagrin, the term was snapped up by legions of limp, second-rate bands hoping the majors would see them as a safe alternative to punk." Music journalist John M. Borack also stated in his 2007 book Shake Some Action – The Ultimate Guide to Power Pop that the label is often applied to varied groups and artists with "blissful indifference," noting its use in connection with Britney Spears, Green Day, the Bay City Rollers and Def Leppard.
Power pop has struggled with its critical reception and is sometimes viewed as a shallow style of music associated with teenage audiences. The perception was exacerbated by record labels in the early 1980s who used the term for marketing post-punk styles. Music critic Ken Sharp summarized that power pop is "the Rodney Dangerfield of rock 'n' roll. ... the direct updating of the most revered artists—the Who, the Beach Boys, the Beatles—yet it gets no respect." In 1996, singer-songwriter Tommy Keene commented that any association to the term since the 1980s is to be "compared to a lot of bands that didn't sell records, it's like a disease. If you're labeled that, you're history." Musician Steve Albini said: "I cannot bring myself to use the term 'power pop.' Catchy, mock-descriptive terms are for dilettantes and journalists. I guess you could say I think this music is for pussies and should be stopped." Ken Stringfellow of the Posies concurred that "There’s a kind of aesthetic to power pop to be light on purpose. I wanted something with more gravitas."
1960s: Origins and precursors
Power pop originated in the late 1960s as young music fans began to rebel against the emerging pretensions of rock music. During this period, a schism developed between "serious" artists who rejected pop and "crassly commercial" pop acts who embraced their teenybopper audience. Greg Shaw credited the Who as the starting point for power pop, whereas Carl Caferelli (writing in Borack's book) said that "the story really begins circa 1964, with the commercial ascension of the Beatles in America." Caferelli also recognized the Beatles as the embodiment of the "pop band" ideal. According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, British Invasion bands, particularly the Merseybeat sound first popularised by the Beatles and its "jangly guitars, pleasant melodies, immaculate vocal harmonies, and a general air of teenage innocence", were a key influence on 1970s power-pop bands such as the Raspberries, Big Star, the Knack and XTC.
When Pete Townshend coined the term, he suggested that songs like "I Can't Explain" (1965) and "Substitute" (1966) were more accessible than the changing, more experimental directions other groups such as the Beatles were taking. However, the term did not become widely identified with the Who, and it would take a few years before the genre's stylistic elements coalesced into a more recognizable form. The A.V. Club's Noel Murray said that "once the sound became more viable and widely imitated, it was easier to trace the roots of the genre back to rockabilly, doo-wop, girl groups, and the early records of the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and the Who." Robert Hilburn traced the genre "chiefly from the way the Beatles and the Beach Boys mixed rock character and pure Top 40 instincts in such records as the latter's 'California Girls'." Borack noted, "It's also quite easy to draw a not-so-crooked line from garage rock to power pop."
Townshend himself was heavily influenced by the guitar work of Beach Boy Carl Wilson, while the Who's debut single "I Can't Explain" was indebted to the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" (1964). Roy Shuker identified the leading American power pop acts of the time as the Byrds, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Also significant to power pop in the 1960s was the Dave Clark Five, the Creation, the Easybeats, the Move, and the Nazz.
In the 1970s, the rock scene fragmented into many new styles. Artists drifted away from the influence of early Beatles songs, and anyone who cited the Beatles or the Who as influences were a minority. In Paul Lester's description, "powerpop is really a 70s invention. It's about young musicians missing the 60s but taking its sound in new directions. ... not just an alternative to prog and the hippy troubadours, but a cousin to glam." Novelist Michael Chabon believed that the genre did not truly come into its own until the emergence of "second generation" power pop acts in the early 1970s. Lester added that it was "essentially an American response to the British Invasion, made by Anglophiles a couple of years too young to have been in bands the first time round."
For many fans of power pop, according to Caferelli, the "bloated and sterile" aspect of 1970s rock was indicative of the void left by the Beatles' breakup in 1970. During the early to middle part of the decade, only a few acts continued the tradition of Beatles-style pop. Some were younger glam/glitter bands, while others were "'60s holdovers" that refused to update their sound. One of the most prominent groups in the latter category was Badfinger, the first artists signed to the Beatles' Apple Records. Although they had international top 10 chart success with "Come and Get It" (1969), "No Matter What" (1970), and "Day After Day" (1971), they were criticized in the music press as Beatles imitators. Caferelli describes them as "one of the earliest--and finest purveyors" of power pop. Conversely, AllMusic states that while Badfinger were among the groups that established the genre's sound, the Raspberries were the only power pop band of the era to have hit singles. Noel Murray wrote that Badfinger had "some key songs" that were power pop "before the genre really existed".
1972, according to Magnet's Andrew Earles, was "year zero" for power pop: Big Star and the Raspberries emerged, Todd Rundgren released Something/Anything?, the Flamin' Groovies recorded "Shake Some Action", and many garage bands stopped emulating the Rolling Stones. Chabon additionally credited the Raspberries, Badfinger, Big Star, and Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You" and "I Saw the Light" with "inventing" the genre. On a television performance from that year, Rundgren introduced "Couldn't I Just Tell You" as a part of "the latest musical trend, power pop." Lester called the studio recording of the song a "masterclass in compression" and said that Rundgren "staked his claim to powerpop immortality [and] set the whole ball rolling". The Osmonds, particularly their 1972–74 run spanning from Phase III to Love Me for a Reason, are also associated with the power pop genre.
Earles identified the Raspberries as the only American band that had hit singles. Murray recognized the Raspberries as the most representative power pop band and described their 1972 US top 10 "Go All the Way" as "practically a template for everything the genre could be, from the heavy arena-rock hook to the cooing, teenybopper-friendly verses and chorus." Caferelli described the follow-up "I Wanna Be with You" (1972) as "perhaps the definitive power pop single". However, like Badfinger, the Raspberries were derided as "Beatles clones". Singer Eric Carmen remembered that there "were a lot of people in 1972 who were not ready for any band that even remotely resembled the Beatles." Raspberries dissolved in 1975 as Carmen pursued a solo career.
1970s–1980s: Commercial peak and decline
A recognizable movement of power pop bands following in the tradition of the Raspberries started emerging in the late 1970s, with groups such as Cheap Trick, the Jam, the Romantics, Shoes, and the Flamin' Groovies, who were seen as 1960s revivalist bands. Much of these newer bands were influenced by late 1960s AM radio, which fell in a rapid decline due to the popularity of the AOR and progressive rock FM radio format. By 1977, there was a renewed interest in the music and culture of the 1960s, with examples such as the Beatlemania musical and the growing mod revival. AABA forms and double backbeats also made their return after many years of disuse in popular music.
Spurred on by the emergence of punk rock and new wave, power pop enjoyed a prolific and commercially successful period from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Throughout the two decades, the genre existed parallel to and occasionally drew from developments such as glam rock, pub rock, punk, new wave, college rock, and neo-psychedelia. AllMusic states that these new groups were "swept along with the new wave because their brief, catchy songs fit into the post-punk aesthetic." Most bands rejected the irreverence, cynicism, and irony that characterized new wave, believing that pop music was an art that reached its apex in the mid 1960s, sometimes referred to as the "poptopia". This in turn led many critics to dismiss power pop as derivative work.
Ultimately, the groups with the best-selling records were Cheap Trick, the Knack, the Romantics, and Dwight Twilley, whereas Shoes, the Records, the Nerves, and 20/20 only drew cult followings. Writing for Time in 1978, Jay Cocks cited Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds as "the most accomplished purveyors of power pop", which he described as "the well-groomed stepbrother of punk rock". Edmunds was quoted: "Before the New Wave ... There was no chance for the little guy who buys a guitar and starts a band. What we're doing is kids' music, really, just four-four time and good songs." Cheap Trick became the most successful act in the genre's history thanks to the band's constant touring schedule and stage theatrics. According to Andrew Earles, the group's "astonishing acceptance in Japan (documented on 1979's At Budokan) and hits 'Surrender' and 'I Want You To Want Me,' the Trick took power pop to an arena level and attained a degree of success that the genre had never seen, nor would ever see again."
The biggest chart hit by a power pop band was the Knack's debut single, "My Sharona", which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks in August–September 1979. However, the song's ubiquitous radio presence that summer spawned a popular and critical backlash against the band, which in turn led to a backlash against the power pop genre in general. Once the Knack failed to maintain their commercial momentum, record companies generally stopped signing power pop groups. Most bands of the 1970s milieu broke up in the early 1980s.
1980s–1990s: Alternative rock
In the 1980s and 1990s, power pop continued as a commercially modest genre with artists such as Redd Kross and the Spongetones, The later records of XTC also became a touchstone for bands such as Jellyfish and the Apples in Stereo, while Big Star developed an avid cult following among members of later bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements who expressed esteem for the group's work. Many bands who were primarily influenced by Big Star blended power pop with the ethos and sounds of alternative rock. AllMusic cited Teenage Fanclub, Material Issue, and the Posies as "critical and cult favorites".
In 1991, The Los Angeles Times' Chris Willman identified Jellyfish, the Posies, and Redd Kross as the leaders of a "new wave of rambunctious Power Pop bands that recall the days when moptops were geniuses, songs were around three minutes long and a great hook--a catchy melodic phrase that "hooks" the listener—was godhead." Members of Jellyfish and Posies said that they were drawn to 1960s artists because of the 1980s music they influenced. At the time, it was uncertain whether the movement could have mainstream success. Karen Glauber, editor of Hits magazine, said that "The popular conception is that these bands are 'retro,' or not post-modern enough because they're not grunge and because the Posies are from Seattle and don't sound like Mudhoney."
Velvet Crush's Ric Menck credited Nirvana with ultimately making it "possible for people like Matthew [Sweet] and the Posies and Material Issue and, to some extent, us to get college radio play." As power pop "gained the attention of hip circles", many older bands reformed to record new material that was released on independent labels. Chicago label Numeru Uno issued a series of albums called Yellow Pills that compiled new tracks by these groups as well as contemporary bands. For the rest of decade, AllMusic writes, "this group of independent, grass-roots power-pop bands gained a small but dedicated cult following in the United States."
1990s–2010s: Continued interest
Power pop has had varying levels of success since the 1990s. In 1994, Green Day and Weezer popularized punk-pop, an alternative rock variant genre that fuses power pop harmonies with uptempo punk moods. According to Louder Than War's Sam Lambeth, power pop has "ebbed and flowed" while remaining an object of critical derision. Despite this, he cites Fountains of Wayne with inspiring "yet another new era for the format" during the late 1990s, "one they’d perfect with the magnetic Welcome Interstate Managers (2003)." He writes that as of 2017, "you can still hear some of power pop’s core traits in bands such as Best Coast, Slotface, Diet Cig and Dude York."
In 1998, International Pop Overthrow (IPO)—named after the album of the same name by Material Issue—began holding a yearly festival for power pop bands. Originally taking place in Los Angeles, the festival expanded to several locations over the years, including Canada and Liverpool, England (the latter event included performances at the Cavern Club). Paul Collins of the Beat and the Nerves hosted the Power Pop-A-Licious music festival in 2011 and 2013, featuring a mixture of classic and rising bands with an emphasis on power pop, punk rock, garage and roots rock. The concerts were held at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the Cake Shop in New York City. Paul Collins and his group the Beat headlined the two-day events.
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