The death of the genre: are musical genres alive in the modern music industry?

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By John Vandevert, Postgraduate Musicology

After searching on Google with the query ‘is genre necessary,’ one could walk away with a sense of incurable dejection, and an acute awareness of POST post-modernist existential nihilism (basically meaning ‘Oh my god, is everything I have ever known really a construct?’). But don’t let Google scare you off from incubating that glimmer of scepticism and latent feeling that something may not be as it seems.

Rather than state any solidified opinion of my own, of which I have many, I want to instead help you craft your own opinion about whether or not genre really is vital in the ‘age of post-everything’? However, one thing should be said. Genre, meaning the categorization of music according to predefined attributes, is not for musician(s), it’s for us, the listeners. Essentially, genre is a tool for us to figure out what’s going on sonically, reducing the sensory input into definable pieces which fit into the shape of X or Y style. That’s not really something many people consider, certainly not on Google.

But it’s important to think about who the concept of genre is for exactly? Not for the creators, but for the consumers!

Credit: Wes Hicks, Unsplash

Anyway, the definition of genre ‘as construct’ is a self-contained paradox. Genre is any category of creation as defined by characterized by ‘style, form, or content,’ but in the far-off land of Academia, it’s not that simple. According to some, it’s the ‘ground-truth’ that determines genre’s true meaning, others call it ‘socially accepted rules,’ and others note that genre is born when humans perceive differences in musical ‘textures’. The paradox is that no one, neither recreational listeners nor Academics, really know what genre is but somehow we all recognize that it exists! Not only that it exists but it literally dictates how music is written, created, consumed, marketed, purchased, and then archived, and preserved for future generations. Without genre and strategies to categorize what we hear, the ‘organized sound waves’ don’t become music per se but strung-together waves of strange noises.

So how do you actually detect a piece of music’s genre if we agree, for the sake of argument, that music does have a genre? One way is to listen for characteristics and features of the music, using pre-conceived genres as your roadmap. Another, more difficult way, is to research the artist’s or group’s influences, cultures, and backgrounds to determine how their work should be categorized.

But don’t let me stop you from trying a radically different approach, as some of the more exotic micro-genres like cringe pop, PBR&B, Skweee, aesthetic rap, and the ‘anti-genre’ no-wave have become staple in the movement to move away from typical schemes of musical identification, instead creating totally new labels in their place!

Credit: Travis Yewell, Unsplash

Next, it’s vital to examine what the ‘texture’ of music actually consists of. In other words, what are you listening for in the music so that its different compositional makeups can be ascertained with some sort of standardized credibility? And further, when we become aware of the ‘aesthetics of music’ and the effects that it causes we, as hungry listeners of music, can feel more confident in knowing where we stand in the ‘genre debate.’ A rather ubiquitous notion of music’s essential elements, yet another ambiguous conclusion, is provided by Pr. Natalie Sarrazin: 1). Sound, 2). Pitch, 3). Melody, 4). Harmony, 5). Rhythm, 6). Texture, 7). Form, and 8). Expression. However, Virgil Thompson instead summarises it as ‘rhythm, melody, and harmony,’ in a sequential order of our awareness to them. Funnily enough, another really useful variation of this can be found by American Scholar Pr. G. C. Bruner II, defining music as ‘time, pitch, and texture.’

The point is when trying to differentiate Song A from Song B, it’s helpful to know what to listen for when trying to decide what genre the music is or is not. It’s relatively upbeat, and uses swung beating? Is it Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’? Or maybe it’s minor, with punctuated rhythms, and emphatic vocal lines? Is it Papa Roach’s ‘Scars’? With every song, there’s always identifiable traits. So, by recognizing what they are, you can begin to make your own genre-like categories. The fun part is that no answer is wrong (for the most part), so your experience won’t be someone else's, and vice versa.

Where does this leave us then? We’ve figured out what defines the construct of genre (at least partly, thanks Academia), and then learned how to logically break-down music into its fundamental parts, using them as the means to figuring out what the music’s genre is and is not. But outside of the practical arguments and self-righteous musicological claptrap, the question on everyone’s mind is ‘Genre….dead or no?’

Credit: David Pupaza, Unsplash

My answer: well, like I said that’s not really important because inevitably there cannot be a single answer. So, instead of that, this article will provide you with what I call “The Thoroughly Unsubstantial Survey of ‘Genre’ According to the People,” or just TTUSGAP for short. If you look up ‘Is genre dead’ on Google, the first result tells you ‘eh, don’t worry about it,’ while the rest of the page seems to point towards the answer ‘yeah..sorry’ (Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X have ‘killed it’ apparently). BUT within the cacophony of tiresome iterations of talking-heads touting their uninteresting opinions over AND over again with little rational theory to show for it, it’s actually a Reddit thread where the most helpful answer comes. The original poster reminds us that ‘the mainstream’ is a continuous cycle of valorized genres, all which are susceptible to change as music adopts new methods of construction as time progresses, tastes change, and techniques expand. You’d be wise to ask yourself: Are you genuinely looking to see what new iteration the genre has to offer or are you simply asking why its older, more popular iteration isn't as popular now?

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I’m not advocating that genre ISN’T dead necessarily, but what I am saying is that if you’re going to go around saying that this concept called genre IS in fact dead, you must be clear what you actually mean. In this article, I’ve tried to show you that genre plays a huge part in how we perceive music, make opinions about it, consume it, and ultimately craft our identities around it. What’s always missing from articles talking about this highly contestable question is the theoretical groundwork, the foot-in-the-door of Academic discussion about what really is being described when you say “genre.” No, not everyone needs to read dense articles and intellectual papers in order to have an opinion on whether or not music categorization is important in the 21st century but try and form your opinion off a solid foundation instead of relying on the tedious clamouring of the peanut gallery. With artists, writers, and internet doctors decrying the hindrance of genre non-stop, it’s imperative you get a more balanced jumping-off point before listening to them. Details do matter, and when it comes to music even more so!

Featured image: Tadas Mikuckis, Unsplash


What do you think? Is genre dead?

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