#genre: Part I

I’ve been busy with application materials and revisions of a largely unrelated article, so my dissertation work has lagged a bit this past month. Since it’s high time for me to write a post on my work, I figured this would be a good opportunity to oil up the gears again. This will end up being a multi-part entry spread over a few weeks, but I’d like to at least begin to share what I’ve been dealing with for the past semester or so. The current post is meant to set the scene of the project, so don’t expect many conclusions just yet.

Essentially, this series will run through the highlights from one of my chapters about how genre is used and experienced in popular music, broadly construed, during our current era of streaming and easy-access. One of my points in a larger project is to explore how ideas of pop categorization and genre signification have perhaps mutated throughout time; how do current understandings and experiences of genre differ from those during other tumultuous, rapidly shifting times in popular music? This particular chapter takes a synchronic slice of the pop pie, comparing some academic, amateur, and critical discourses from the past couple of years with a set of Spotify’s metadata from the spring of 2017.

Genre is both dead and ubiquitous

As the twenty-first century continues to throw wrenches into the popular music machine, genre-thinking—defined basically, I suggest, as a generic summation of ways that genre is understood and negotiated—has entered a sort of Schrödinger’s box in which two contradictory states apparently exist simultaneously. On the one hand, lots and lots of musicians, bloggers, and critics have reveled in the apparent demise of traditional means of pop music categorization. This “death-of-genre” perspective is driven by a sort of Moore’s law of technological progress in the mediation of music consumption. According to this mindset, popular music categories used to be well-ordered in a time of record shops, acting as tidy containers that neatly sorted the music by how it sounded. Continuing along this teleological narrative we find a rise of portable media like cassettes and CDs, followed by file-sharing and a culmination in the unprecedented level of access granted by streaming services. As access to a wide variety of music has increased, the boundaries between styles become more easily traversed, and genre as a construct has begun to atrophy.

This narrative has a bunch of problems that I won’t get into here, but it raises a number of particularly thorny issue in genre studies concerning links between social formations, musical formations, identity, industry, and technology. As Georgina Born (2011) summarizes, focusing on any single one of these ideas will “fail to bring into the calculus an awareness of the several distinctive planes of sociality mobilized and mediated by musical assemblages” (p. 385). The “death-of-genre” narrative frequently, if implicitly, places technology and musical practices into a pseudo-homology. (E.g., “do genres matter, particularly in these days when music is so accessible and sampling is so easy?”) There’s a conflation here with access and the dissolution of borders, of a homogenization of popular music that comes along with streaming.

(There’s also a lot to be said on the problematic role of “omnivorous” tastes and the persistence of hierarchical and classist groupings of genres and communities. Since the 1990s, sociologists have argued over whether people‘s tastes have gotten more eclectic. The idea essentially follows the “death-by-genre” narrative above; as access increases and people listen to new kinds of music they end up liking more kinds of music with generic distinctions mattering less. But an egalitarian utopia of equally dispersed cultural (and financial) capital seems unlikely. Michèle Ollivier (2008) suggests that omnivorousness “builds upon, rather than displaces, the older categories of high and mass culture in which it remains thoroughly embedded. Far from being dismantled, social and artistic hierarchies are being reconfigured in more individualized ways.” Omnivorousness will be the topic of another blog post since this curt summary glosses a bit too liberally over decades of scholarship.)

On the other hand, there is a sort of “death-by-genre” that pervades most reviews and writings about popular musical works and artists. Read, for instance, this preview of an upcoming show in Eastern Washington. If genre is dead, then what is gained by employing a string of five hyphenated genre-labels to describe a band? What kind of work do each of the labels (gospel, r’n’b, classic soul, experimental electronica, among others) in Carrie Battan’s review of Sampha’s Process (2016) actually accomplish? Almost any Wikipedia article on a band or artist contains at least three of four genre labels, and artists’ own pages usually situate themselves in a similar fashion. Bandcamp descriptions, Facebook “abouts“, SoundCloud tags, and website bios all assemble a proliferation of tags. It would seem, then, that genre is not so dead after all; it still retains enough descriptive value to power critical commentary and to guide musicians’ creative acts. An abundance of tagging contradicts the narrative of genre decay.

So how do these two perspectives relate, interact, contradict, or complement each other? As I’ll try to show in another post, they latch onto some important ideas about current music-industrial classificatory machinations and an increasing reliance on psychographics (as wonderfully detailed and elaborated by Robin James here). But, these conceptions also obscure the continual underlying relevance and structuring power of traditional modes of popular music categorization and demographics. James explains that “the concept of genre in pop music is in no way reducible to demographics—it functions in lots of ways—but demographically based social identities have significantly permeated our understanding of genre.” And though streaming services have pivoted towards big data, algorithms, contextual cues (based on listener activity), and (ostensibly) individualized means of concocting categories, demographic associations continue to play a rather oversized role in how a streaming service like Spotify groups artists. I’ll show how in a later post.

So, genre is both dead and proliferating, demographics still structure discourses while having given way to psychographics, and technology both invents new ways to categorize while simultaneously sustaining conventional classificatory modes. It’s a rather confusing time in popular music categorization made all the more complex by trying to overcome the homologies present in the narratives above. Even identifying the variety of players in the categorizational machine takes a huge amount of effort. Born argues for a “social analytics that encompasses four planes of social mediation,” which basically boil down to 1) “intimate socialites of musical performance and practice” (i.e., the musician level), 2) “imagined communities … based on musical and other identifications,” 3) “music’s refraction of hierarchical and stratified relations” of demographics, 4) the music-industry broadly construed (p. 378). David Brackett (2016) similarly argues for an interleaving of musician, critic-fan, and industry forces when discussing genre. Any attempt to wrangle genre needs to account for these diverse entities and institutional processes.

In my next post on #genre, I’ll lay out my methodology that directly interrogates some of the effects of Spotify’s means of categorization and recommendation. By investigating a small corpus of artists and bringing my results into dialogue with a broad range of humanistic discourses, I ply the fluid lines of classifications while quantitatively assessing how “genre and mood are treated as mathematical relationships among metadata,” in James’s terms, while qualitatively theorizing the resultant milieu which manifests “death-of-genre” perspectives and activities of overabundant tagging. Doing so provides one entry into the intensely networked rhizomatic entanglements of popular music genres in the twenty-first century.


Here’s a teaser:


2 thoughts on “#genre: Part I

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