NEW YORK — WHERE is pop music going, and why is it going there? The answer involves a number of musical strands. The '80s saw the rise of the low-key mixture of classics, jazz, and pop styles known as ``new age'' music and the explosion of rap, that hard-edged, street-wise poetry of the young black community.
Along with it came a renaissance of the music of the '60s, with ``last chance'' tours by the Rolling Stones, the Who, and others. Heavy metal - the bad boy of rock 'n' roll - became a Top-40 phenomenon. And, for the first time since the advent of the talking film, what music fans saw became as important as what they heard - with the rise of the music video.
While all this was going on, a seed quietly planted by singer-songwriter Paul Simon turned out to be a catalyst for the most significant musical movement of the decade. In 1986, Simon released an album called ``Graceland'' - a catchy collaboration with South African musicians - which opened the ears of rock-weary Americans and set off a chain-reaction whose end is not in sight.
Not long after, African albums started to trickle in to the States. Israeli singer Ofra Haza started to make waves here, followed by the Bulgarian State Choir. Algerian rebel music, or ``rai,'' popped up in the international sections of record stores. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour recorded with British pop star Peter Gabriel. And soon a number of US groups were incorporating African, Brazilian, Middle Eastern, and Latin rhythms into their music.
Could one album have started all this?
I spoke with Simon in 1986, shortly after the release of ``Graceland,'' and he made these prophetic remarks: ``I would imagine that you'll hear more and more of [these musical hybrids]; especially I think you'll hear more and more African influence. It's the accessibility of it. ... It's just a natural thing for a certain type of musical thinker to be attracted to other cultures.''
Ken Terry, senior news editor at Billboard, a trade magazine, thinks Simon is being proven right. ```World beat' could be one of the most fruitful areas for expansion in the music business in the next several years,'' Mr. Terry, reached by phone, told me. ``It's really catching on pretty big in Europe. ... So what you're going to see happening, I think - which Paul Simon brilliantly realized on `Graceland' - is the possibility of a fusion of Western and non-Western music.''
Some of the other forces driving changes in pop music have to do with the rock 'n' roll burnout of the '80s. Compared with the infectious polyrhythms of much African, Caribbean, Latin, and Brazilian music, rock 'n' roll can seem rhythmically foursquare and dull after four decades.
``Rock is a ... rigid form,'' says Terry. ``Once you got through art rock, there wasn't too much more you could do.'' People like to dance, adds Terry, and most African pop music is tailor-made for it. Terry has some reservations, however, about the staying-power of world-beat music in the US: ``If more of us knew [other languages], there would probably be more of a following for some of this world-beat music.'' Nevertheless, he feels the shrinking of the globe has made it inevitable that American pop will continue to become less provincial, more international.
``It's a matter of technology reducing the size of the world, bringing everybody together,'' he says. ``It's been happening since the dawn of recording.''
At the threshold of the '90s, one can't help but be struck by the fact that ``music as an international language'' has become less a clich'e and more a reality.