What defines a music genre? What makes rock music rock? What makes pop music pop? What makes country music country? Does it even matter anymore? You get the idea. With artists constantly blurring the lines between styles, and pulling influences from all sorts of places, is placing music in a specific category even relevant anymore? Was it ever relevant? A recent article in The New Yorker explores this idea. I have some thoughts of my own.
In the 1950s, when Rock N Roll first started, it was a completely and uniquely American art form. Pulling influences from blues, jazz, country, and folk. Pulling influences from different places is nothing new. In fact, it’s the foundation of modern pop music. Kids in England saw what was happening in America, and started to form their own bands, along with pulling influence from a genre called Skiffle, which borrowed heavily from traditional American music. By the mid-1960s Rock N Roll had evolved into its own thing, and had even several offshoots. Psychedelic rock, heavy metal, progressive rock, glam rock, punk rock, hair metal, grunge, nu-metal etc. All these music genres, as different as they may sound all owe their roots to the Rock N Roll of the 1950s.
The generational evolution of a music genre is only part of the puzzle. To say you were a fan of a certain genre meant you planting your flag in the ground, and declaring to the world “This is who I am. This is my identity. I am a punk rocker. I do punk rocker things.” It was more than listening to a style of music. It was a look, it was a lifestyle. It was a rejection of everything that wasn’t part of that genre. Think back to when you were in high school. For me, that was in the early 2000s. The emo kids were different from the hip-hop kids who were different from the metal kids. Everyone had their own clique with varying degrees of crossover.
Humans are inherently tribal, and putting things into categories is part of that behaviour. If you can put a band or artist in a certain category, it helps to make sense of them. Pink Floyd is a progressive rock band. I know that progressive rock consists of longer songs, concept albums, different time signatures, and mystical lyrics. Therefore, I can make assumptions about what to expect if I listen to Pink Floyd.
These days though, the lines between musical genres are being blurred. Gone are the days of declaring yourself a rock kid or a hip-hop kid. If you ask the average music listener under the age of twenty to give you a list of their favourite songs, it runs the gamut of genres. It’ll be everything from Tyler The Creator, to Madonna, to Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana. Kids don’t align themselves with music genres anymore. They don’t view it as part of their identity.
When we look to awards ceremonies like The Grammys for example, we expect to see awards based on these genres, or categories. Best rock album, best pop performance, best country song etc. But what happens when an artist known for one genre all of a sudden puts out an album of another genre? Do they stay in the same category or do they get considered for the category they’re in now?
Taylor Swift started out as a country singer. But her last few albums have had almost nothing to do with country music. And yet up until recently, she was still seen as a country artist when she had long shed that image and is now pure pop. In the late 1990s when Garth Brooks wanted to put out a pop record, he had to create a whole new character in order to do so. People were confused as to why Garth Brooks was all of a sudden wearing leather pants and calling himself Chris Gaines. But if he had kept his moniker as Garth Brooks, would people accept the fac that he’s now making pop music?
In the last ten years or so, music has evolved to the point where it’s really genre-less. Whether you like them or not, Imagine Dragons is considered a rock band. To me, they don’t sound rock. Where are the guitars? But is that my rigid definition of what rock music should be? Why can’t they be rock? What does it even mean to be rock? I wrote an article last week about why rock music sucks. But do I need to reassess why I feel this way?
One of the most interesting artists to come out of the last ten years is Billie Eilish. Her music isn’t so much concerned with the music itself, or even her singing, but rather the lyrics themselves. If she were to come out in the 1960s, she’d likely be up there by herself with an acoustic guitar. But given the climate we’re in today, she has to be considered pop. To me, pop music is music that is designed to sell a product. I don’t get that feeling when I listen to her music. I truly believe she is putting out an artistic statement. And yet, because her music sounds a certain way when you go to the Wikipedia page of her debut album, it still lists the genre as pop, electropop, avant-pop, and art-pop.
Because it takes four different subgenres to describe her music, all it really means is she doesn’t fit into a specific category. Yes, she has elements from all those styles, but she transcends them. That’s the point of her music. She didn’t set out to make music in a specific genre. She just made the kind of music that felt natural to her, and you can’t sit there and say she sounds like anybody else.
To answer the question on whether music genres are relevant anymore, I can’t say for certain whether they ever were. We have this view of the past that everything fit into a certain category and that now all of a sudden artists are transcending those categories. But what about bands like R.E.M., or U2, or Rage Against The Machine who took elements from all sorts of music they loved and combined it into something unique. As I said before, that’s the foundation that pop music is based on.