Genres in Pop Music, or Lack Thereof

Posted by DannyFratina, 12.06.2013 There have been 0 comments

If you aren't reading Grantland a few times a week, you should be! Grantland is one of the best places to read great writing on sports. And sometimes it's great for not-sports things. Steven Hyden wrote a piece on One Direction that is quite interesting, as far as raising my awareness of One Direction goes. I'm totally open to super mainstream commercial pop. I don't usually like a lot of it because it's usually not very good. But I don't preemptively write pop music off, and some of it is actually pretty great! So when Grantland tells me that, for pop music, the new One Direction album is pretty good, that's something I'm absolutely willing to take in.

This article about pop music is bookended by thoughts on the eventual (or possibly current) evaporation of musical genres in pop, which is actually what I'm more interested in.

Whenever something that seems new and cool comes along (for the sake of discussion, let's say dubstep), it's eventually absorbed by the establishment, and all of a sudden what seemed like sovereign territory is just another annexed patch of dirt on pop's bastardized landscape. (There's a dubstep-ish song on Midnight Memories, for instance.) I suppose a lot of people see this as a negative — it's taken as a sign that nothing is "original" anymore. But I don't view it that way. I'd argue that the greatest byproduct of the new media age in regard to our collective understanding of music is how it has made everything seem more connected. Yes, the Internet has countless rabbit holes catering to narrow interests. But for those seeking a higher perch, the all-access era provides a fresh perspective on a much broader and grander narrative. Listening to songs from various genres, eras, and geographic locations reveals how different kinds of artists usually arrive at the same destination — ultimately, we're all looking for a good beat, a catchy melody, a vocal that stirs the soul, and maybe an insightful lyric or two that illuminates the human experience. And that can't help but make fussy categorical distinctions seem less relevant, if not downright silly. The more you hear, the less genres matter.

Hyden is correct that we are all just looking for whatever sounds good and that genre is ultimately meaningless, though many people aren't conscious of this.

For more than a century, genre has been nothing but a business tactic, equally used by independent artists and major labels. When someone evolves a sound and makes something new, he inspires others artists to recreate some of those sounds, and convinces big business to market that sound. Since you can't explain a sound (try it without using a single genre name) we use genre labels to basically say "it's this guy, but a little different," as a way to give someone an understanding of what they are about to hear. All music is relative with genres. It's how you sell music to someone before they hear it. It's a double edged sword that gives the little guy a direct path to the appropriate listener and gives the industry at large a system to produce music by formula.

And as genre-less or cross-genre music becomes the popular genre, the general music-listening public DOES become more aware of what else can exist out there and DOES find themselves drifting away from the formula of pop they have long been nourished by. This is better for our culture and for each individual affected by it, and it's better for every musician out there who finds themselves in a trough between multiple towering crests of umbrella genres like "rock," "pop," and jazz."

But Hyden is missing a critical point. He says at the end of his article:

As genres break down and artists feel freer to break out of their predetermined roles and pursue the only style of music that matters — the "whatever sounds awesome" style — it's going to be harder to know where to look for what you want.

This is still an article about pop and genres, but it's very important to note that "artists" so rarely make it into the mainstream of pop, and when they do, it's when they leave the chilly peripherals of the pop galaxy, the outskirts of experimentation and innovation, and head to warmer climates towards the center, where the Billboard Top 100 is the star. The "artists" on pop radio did not write their songs. They did not produce their record. Certainly they contributed in some way, but most pop you hear comes from a factory. Scanning the Billboard Top 100 - Wrecking Ball has FIVE writers, and two other producers. Roar, performed by Katy Perry, has five writers and three producers. And some of the writers and producers are the same people. That's in the Top 5 alone. And this is normal. The writers of pop music all live in the same couple of places, mostly L.A. and Nashville. They all work together. They all produce the same stuff. And when the market seems to demand it, they will happily include rap in a country song if it sells. The "artist" is only the instrument, Big Music its player.

True genre-bending music exists. But you'll never hear Tron Song by Thundercat on the radio because the business of creating mainstream pop does not have time for chances and risk. This isn't a conspiracy theory (Ralph Murphy is a Nashville heavy). Most radio pop follows whatever conventions are necessary to make the most amount of money possible. There is nothing nefarious about this, it's just business.

So this post-genre world of pop music is a mixed bag for me. I don't feel that the genre-mixing has come organically; it's a non-artistic business conclusion that is built on top of smaller successes that have been happening in much more experimental and riskier forms. And while it's important for more people to open up and be exposed to other styles of music, the gene pool is too small because there are only token amounts of influence. A country song with an electronic beat is not a song that has broken into a new genre. A rock song with a rap bridge does not make it both rock and rap. And the best bands that combine both gave up a long time ago on what to call it. Even Miles Davis, who once famously said "I'll play it first and tell you what it is later," didn't know what to call fusion jazz, an absolutely ridiculous genre label that seems to ignore that jazz up to that point was already a fusion of marching music, Western classical music, and church and African music. I cringe every time I say "fusion" yet if I want to communicate with anyone but myself about In a Silent Way, it's the common bridge.

The universe of pop may seem to be shrinking, but at its center a black hole is drawing in distant planets, crushing them into dust. The dirt may sparkle, but it's probably more interesting to just visit new a planet instead.

This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Commentary, Genres, Grantland, Miles Davis, Music Industry, Pop, Thundercat