The (Non-)Problem of Genres

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When Billboard began publishing music charts in the 1930s, it used three categories: Race, Folk, and Pop. Race was code for African-American, which changed to Rhythm & Blues by the late 1940s. Folk meant Caucasian songs from the south, which changed to Country & Western. Pop was everything else, which is basically how the term is still used. Many more charts have since been added, each intended to highlight a nuanced division within a larger category. Pop, for instance, is now divided into three subcategories: Pop Songs, Adult Contemporary, and Adult Pop Songs. While not as blatantly offensive as the original charts, these current distinctions are still organized by social exclusion—in this case concretizing barriers between younger and older listeners.

It is easy to find fault with such labels. For one thing, they tend to set the artists’ creative goals against the corporate need to target specific consumer groups. They also artificially reduce music to its basic features for the purpose of grouping it with other music sharing those features. They ignore the very common phenomenon of musical hybridity: the mixing of various forms, styles, elements, and influences. They can be split into so many vague subgenres that the listener is left confused (e.g., the sorting of jazz into bebop, hard bop, cool, modal, free, etc.). And, most important, they are not merely descriptive but constructive: the act of placing a song within a genre is largely what makes it so.

Critiques like these have been around for a while. At the extreme are anti-classificationist calls to abolish all labels and to appreciate each piece of music for its own merits, no terminology attached. But would the elimination of genres really be helpful? For better or worse, we are a pattern-seeking species. Our brains are wired to detect similarities and make generalizations. Genres are a manifestation of that impulse. The “for its own merits” approach is certainly safer in terms of avoiding inevitable inconsistencies, but it is also not very human.

The solution to the problem of genres rests not in their termination, but in our treatment of them. We should realize that they do not describe an ontological reality: they fall well short of addressing the varied nature of music. Yet, we should also recognize that they do work on an operational level: we basically understand what they mean. Put another way, genres are an imperfect shorthand for the shared experience of music. I say “Disco,” and you have a basic sense of what I’m talking about.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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