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Is Genre Obsolete?

by Levi Dayan

[originally published fall 2020]


It’s hard to tell when music was first categorized, but it would be fair to assume that as long as it has been categorized, artists have rejected those categorizations. Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and many others rejected the term Jazz music, preferring, as many still do, to call their music Black Classical Music. At a particularly weird press conference in the 60s, a reporter asked Bob Dylan “I know you dislike labels and probably rightly so, but for those of us who are well over 30, could you perhaps “label” yourself and tell us what your role is?” Dylan responded “I’d sort of label myself as well under 30, and my role is to just stay here as long as I can.” The creation of the term “world music” in the 80s as a means of marketing has spurned a tremendous backlash over the years, including from musicians frequently labeled as “world music” such as Angelique Kidjo and Yossou N’Dour. Q-Tip once famously said “rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.”

These dynamics have continued into the new millennium. A notable example would be Tyler, The Creator winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album for IGOR, which is a pop album more than anything. In an interview following the ceremony that went viral, he made clear the racial underpinnings of genre categories: “It sucks that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything genre-bending or that's anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. And I don’t like that ‘urban’ word, it's just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”

This led to the Grammys swapping their Urban Contemporary category—a genre that does not and has never existed—for “Progressive R&B,” a term I’ve never heard anyone use either but could still be considered an improvement, I suppose. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, you have an age-old dynamic that’s become more visible as the pop charts are more and more dominated by rap: musicians like Billie Eilish, Post Malone, and Miley Cyrus making music heavily influenced by Black music and then rejecting rap music when they explode in popularity. However, while artists rejecting categorization is nothing new, the change this decade is that listeners are now rejecting it along with them.

This is in large part thanks to the seismic shift in music consumption that has occurred as a result of Spotify’s success. There are many, many problems with Spotify—much of which I touched on in my previous article for The Grape—and many, myself included, have argued its algorithmic model, which is to meant keep listeners listening and on the app as long as possible, has encouraged passive listening amongst its users. It’s difficult to draw any direct equivalencies between people’s music listening habits today and in the analog era, as different ways of listening to music forge different relationships with the music itself. But, in the most basic, outward sense, there are more people who listen to “all kinds of music” than ever before, and the streaming era’s removal of certain barriers to access is partially to credit for this dynamic. The idea of there being people who love both Simon & Garfunkel and Public Enemy, or love Anita Baker and Bad Brains, doesn’t feel fundamentally shocking to me.

People are far too complicated to only listen to one thing, and no matter how rigid the form may seem, if you decide to exclusively listen to one genre you’ll inevitably find something from the outside sneaking into the canon. If music doesn’t take influences from different forms, it simply cannot evolve.

As I mentioned, the idea that Spotify has led to a more universalist approach to music listening is greatly oversimplifying their effect. But believe it or not, there was a time not too long ago where most music listeners stuck to one style of music entirely. Ray Charles and Sœur Sourire “The Singing Nun” were both big in the early 60s, but I doubt that’s because the music listening public was playing both of them side by side. Rather, if you were into folk music, jazz, soul, rock, or classical, you probably stayed in that sphere, with rock music fans in the 70s especially building up a rigid poser-suspicious base. Being a musician back then whose music appealed to listeners that didn’t regularly interact with said genre—like, say, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Run DMC—could sometimes break down those boundaries, but could also just be thought of as a “crossover success,” a unique case that spoke to individual talent or marketing rather than the frivolousness of these boundaries. To say that everyone listened to music this way would be painting with far too large of a brush. Musicians certainly have never thought along those lines, with notable examples being Ray Charles, who scored the biggest selling album of his career with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and Willie Nelson, who scored his best seller by doing the inverse and recording the standards album Stardust. But by and large, these boundaries existed, and musicians have long been forced to work within them. The question of why these boundaries exist gets to more complicated questions of whether or not music categorization in and of itself exists.

As someone who wasn’t alive then, it’s hard to say exactly why this was, but I’d assume a lot of it had to do with radio stations, which adhered more strictly to specific genres of music back then, being a major source of music. This also explains the major role radio played in music prior to the digital era. While rock music was obviously created by Black musicians, the idea of rock somehow being a separate entity from Rhythm and Blues music (which is questionable, but how it happened) can be attributed to radio DJs such as Allen Freed wanting to appeal to the music that white teenagers were listening to in the 50s. Similarly, the disco backlash was largely fueled by racism and homophobia, but adding fuel to the fire was the fact that disco was really the only thing played on any radio station in the late 70s, to the point at which it infiltrated rock radio and infuriated a lot of, well, racist people. Smooth jazz as a term of categorizing jazz music exists pretty much entirely because of radio stations that marketed themselves towards people going to work.

An additional factor is the barriers to exposure that existed in the pre-internet world. Before the new millennium, success as a recording artist wasn’t even considered a question if you couldn’t get music on the shelves. Getting played on the radio was the number one source of exposure, but it’s never paid well and is a historically corrupt process whose corruption continues to this day. Record stores were once upon a time the main place to buy music, and considering the gatekeeping that went on in the radio business, was often the main place to discover music as well. But unlike the radio, records, as cheap as they were before the vinyl resurgence, still cost money. People couldn’t just click on something, hear it, and then walk away with nothing but wasted time if they disliked it; they had to actually sacrifice something to get music, even if it was as simple as a couple bucks. So if you were mostly into country music, you’d be less inclined to spend money on jazz records when there was a whole country section that you’d be more likely to walk away satisfied with.

Additionally, pre-internet there was much less information about music, so unless you heard something on the radio or had a recommendation from a friend, people were usually coming in from the cold. So, in addition to album art and liner notes, genre could be a guiding influence. Even as record stores become less sustainable (though I hope they survive the pandemic) one can still see these dynamics in the fact that there are still many record stores that specialize entirely within one genre, whether it be jazz, hip hop, classical, etc. And, much like how radio influenced the “creation” of certain genres and terms of categorization, record stores did as well. One could argue the very foundation of rap music is rooted in record stores and crate-digging culture. And “world music,” one of the more blatantly questionable terms of categorization in music, came into existence because a group of music journalists and record labels who were interested in promoting the music needed an umbrella term that could cover specific genres of music from countries outside of America and the UK, music that otherwise would be hard to find at record stores. From that angle it makes sense, though today it’s horribly outdated and at the time still had colonialist implications.

So it’s clear that categorizing music was important for radio and record stores, and thus, though it may seem dated now, it did definitely have a purpose at one point. But a deeper question remains: why is music categorized the way it is categorized? After all, most bluegrass records probably have way more in common with Charlie Parker than, say, Shania Twain. Similarly, a lot of country music, especially in the 70s from the likes of George Jones or Charlie Rich, has way more in common with southern soul than anything out of Appalachia. This question goes deeper than the post-depression era of music, back to the origins of recorded sound itself. The musician Rhiannon Giddens, an Oberlin alum, spoke to these dynamics—particularly in relation to country, bluegrass, and blues—in a talk given as part of Oberlin’s recent Junior Practicum program. She talked about how the banjo originated in West Africa, was brought into America during slavery, and how string band music was performed by slaves as entertainment both for white plantation owners and for themselves on their own time. Following emancipation, the instrument was manufactured and became popular all across the south, particularly in Appalachia.

However, what drives a wedge in the music is the development of recorded music, and subsequently record labels. Prior to this, music essentially existed as it was heard on your front porch or in your community, with the closest connection to pop music being sheet music. But the ability to listen to music made anywhere in the country at any point in the country sets the stage for record labels to market the music. As Giddens said, “This is capitalism coming in and being destructive of communal music making. This is unity, this is where we come together, and this is capitalism once again and coming in and saying “ah, but it’s not as easy to sell if we don’t know what it is.” And so what they do is they go “well, Black people are really loving that new thing “the Blues, and we got this hillbilly music (how Appalachian folk music was generally referred to as) and they decide well, we’re gonna sell Blues to Black people and hillbilly music to hillbillies, which is obviously just white people.”

The result of this marketing is a world in which the general (though not universal) perception amongst music listeners is that country music is white music and the Blues is Black music. This is troubling first and foremost because it's racist, but also because it’s such a simplistic idea of music that it diminishes both forms. The fundamental truth is that the exchange of ideas and sounds isn’t just imperative to music, it practically defines music itself. It doesn’t matter how white country music has gotten or may continue to get, or the images of Toby Keith putting the boot in your ass that come with it; no music is owned by white people, certainly not country music. And it’s these kinds of rigid, racist genre boundaries that lead to many people saying “I like everything except country,” or “I like everything except jazz,” and so on and so forth. People like what they like, but that line of thinking simply isn’t good for music.

This brings us to today, a time in which one of the biggest smash hits in American history is a country-rap song by a Black gay rapper. In many ways, “Old Town Road” symbolizes the ways in which people approach and listen to music have changed in the streaming era. Its ascension to the top of the charts was predicated by a much-decried move by Billboard to remove the song from its Hot Country songs list (relatedly, Billboard is another musical entity looking more and more outdated as streaming takes over and its charts become filled with one-week viral hits and songs that have been already out for years). The argument that the song “isn’t country” is easily debunked by one argument: nearly every country hit of the past decade has cribbed from rap music as much as Lil Nas X does.

In fact, the boatloads of country rap songs preceding “Old Town Road” are a prime example of how the deconstruction of genre boundaries can be a negative thing. There’s nothing wrong with mixing country and rap on principle, as plenty of people have pulled it off before (although the successful country rap hybrid leans much more towards rappers with country influence than vice versa, in my opinion). But the Sam Hunts and Florida Georgia Lines that Nashville 3D-prints every year or so are artists aping trap beats and the occasional rap slang that could get you confused looks in the 90s, all done with zero understanding of the context of hip hop and why it matters, or, for that matter, the context of country music. What these musicians do understand is the context within which hip hop and country are marketed, and the result is songs that fit in perfectly on a Spotify playlist and get airplay on radio stations that are too scared to play the Snoop Dogg verse on “California Gurls,” but as pieces of music are the equivalent of cold soup. It’s a dynamic identical to the ones pushing Imagine Dragons and Maroon 5 to the top of the charts some 10-20 years past their expiration date.

While one could attribute the success of Lil Nas X to the streaming era’s bias towards viral hits, to me it’s these groups that the streaming service markets act as life support for. Streaming services have knocked over the barriers and gatekeepers of the brick and mortar record store era (albeit by very questionable means) but anything as truly radical as breaking down all the barriers between the listener and the music simply wouldn’t be profitable. Thus, Spotify erects different barriers, most notably an algorithm that doesn’t recognize genre, but simultaneously feeds the listener music based on what will keep them on their phone the longest rather than encouraging any exploration beyond it.

In short, this is the complication: all music is a buildup of influences, and enforcing strict genre boundaries (i.e. “real rap,” “real jazz,” etc.) is subsequently bad for music. But genres still exist, and they still have a context. No music is entirely one thing, but no music is entirely everything either, nor should it be. And because of that, there is a purpose to categorizing music in some way. It’s just that the ways in which music has been categorized—or de-categorized, in the case of Spotify—have been in the interest of marketability and not musicians or listeners.

So, in short, I don’t have all the answers. I’d definitely be glad to see “world music” and “urban contemporary” die, but in the grand scheme of things, to not put music in any box is to put all of it in one tightly compressed box. Music that’s strictly one thing is nonexistent, but music that tries to be everything for everyone more often than not ends up being nothing for no one. Since that’s a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, I’ll end it with an anecdote the musician William Tyler shared with me while talking about this very subject in an interview for my previous Grape article. He mentioned that Jerry Garcia referred to the Grateful Dead’s seminal 1969 album Workingman’s Dead as “wooden music” rather than country or folk, and wondered why we can’t categorize all music in that naturalistic sense: i.e., water music, air music, fire music, forest music, etc. And if the current capitalist music terminology has to die, that’s a fine way to rebuild.

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