Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is American Popular Music?

I have been asked to write a short paper describing what I think American music is for my graduate class. It is a difficult thing for me to pinpoint as I don't have a tendency to label music on that broad of a scale. I usually think of music as being classical, Renaissance, jazz (or even more specifically hot jazz, fusion, cool jazz, etc.). So I guess I am more of a micro than macro thinker.

I feel that getting a handle on what American music is is difficult because America is a melting pot of cultures that each have their own characteristics that have been blended into whatever music fits the time it is written. For example, according to An Introduction to America's Music traditional African music often has a call and response characteristic to it which is found in later African American music like spirituals and jazz. Spirituals themselves were developed in America to establish an African American tradition and were a mixture of white part songs and slave songs which sung by slaves transported from Africa in the early 1600s. Spirituals are considered American music, however what of the slave songs that came from Africa and were adapted to serve the purpose of the slave masters? Would they be considered American music because they were sung in America? Or perhaps they would be considered American because they were adapted for American specific purposes, as horrible as they were. Going one step further, rock music is American but if it is adapted to suit french music and performed in France, does that make it French Popular music? When is it just stealing?

I find this dilemma very similar to parody copyright issues. How much of a song must be changed for the ownership to be able to be claimed by someone else and granted? The melody may remain the same but the essence of the song must be significantly different usually through a change in lyrics and subsequently interpretation. This differs from a cover song or arrangement which merely derive from the original work. More about parody and derivative works can be found on the U.S. Copyright website.

As I struggle to continue to define what American popular music means to me, I wonder if there can be a way to answer this that isn't subjective?What do YOU think American music is?

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