Essay: Whatever happened to genre?

When did we get so embarrassed by names for music? And is it time to start using them again? Adam Harper on why dynamic, imaginative music needs us to take today's emerging genres seriously.


Words by: Charlie Jones

Over the past decade, slowly but surely, it has become deeply unfashionable to talk of new genres in underground pop music. Although their names are often grudgingly accepted, it’s become practically obligatory for commentators to receive news of an emerging genre with cynicism towards either the coinage of its name or the music and musicians involved, or frequently both. Critics, musicians and people posting on the internet alike will then roll their eyes over the inane pretensions of hipsters, music ‘journos’, hype, blogs and Tumblr, and will look very discerning, aloof and unfettered in the process. It’s almost become embarrassing to mention such genres in public to anyone but the already converted, since doing so can make you look overly particular, parochial and partisan, nerdy, and even naive. Imagine the difference between telling a friend of a friend that you like the rappers and producers A$AP Rocky, Lil B, Clams Casino, Beautiful Lou and Main Attraktionz, and telling them that you like ‘cloud rap’.

Lately the underground has been increasingly reluctant to identify and get behind its new genres as genres. Contrast this with the 90s heyday of genre identification (sometimes called ‘genrefication’), when new genres – or, at least, names for new genres – were pouring out of dance, hip hop, metal and indie at an astonishing rate. But since then, with a few notable exceptions, new genres and their coinages have been received with ever-greater levels of cynicism. We’ve had ‘new rave’ with its dancepunk-and-synth wackiness, whose spearhead band Klaxons scrambled to declare the term ‘a joke that had got out of hand’. We’ve had ‘wonky’ with its twisted grooves, a term which was almost entirely revoked by the dance music discourse after it was angrily rejected by many of the musicians involved. We’ve had ‘hypnagogic pop’ with its lo-fi 70s and 80s trash music transcendence, which provoked ire like this. We’ve had ‘chillwave’ with its chugging euphoric indie synths – coined on a satirical blog to refer to a specific sound but, like hypnagogic pop, often lazily taken to refer vaguely to anything at all that’s lo-fi, it had many writers shaking their heads. We’ve had ‘witch house’, a doomy gothic screwing of rap and rave, where even the Wikipedia page) is at pains to undermine the sincerity and validity of the coinage despite the large and growing number of acts working with the sound. We’ve had, hold on to your sun hats, ‘seapunk’, a loose collection of hi-tech rave sounds looking back to the 90s with an ocean theme, which was also considered a joke and which some argue is more of a look than a genre. By this point a lot of this is being blamed on the internet and social networking, Tumblr especially, though earlier on in the mid-00s people were talking about ‘blog rock’ and ‘blog house’ – unenthusiastically and short-sightedly coined terms ultimately about as specific as saying ‘magazine funk’ or ‘CD jazz’. And most recently, we’ve had ‘slimepunk’ (oozy, dystopian synth hip hop, if anything), which you probably haven’t heard of since by now few people are wanting to play the game anymore. The jury is still out on ‘vaporwave’, a term I was merely reporting on (please don’t hurt me).

If you’re like many internet users, this roll call of reluctant genres might have you banging your fists on the keyboard as you roar ‘hipsters!’, but to me, each of these coinages makes sonic and cultural sense enough to be used without much irony – even, within reason, the last few. Only a handful of genre names were taken more or less seriously in the 00s. Ask anyone what’s been suitably new in underground music in the past few years and they’d be likely to name a genre: ‘footwork’, bringing hi-tempo syncopated drum machines and tightly chopped, repetitious samples from Chicago. This genrefication was taken seriously because it came from a tight-knit, practicing community and thus shared an authenticity with the music. The simple association between the name and the way it was danced to probably helped as well. Plus it had existed in relative isolation from pop music discourse for a length of time, much like other genres that rose to modishness in the last decade, such as kwaito, Shangaan electro, funk carioca, bubbling, tribal guarachero and, most recently, trap.

The terms ‘grime’ and ‘UK funky’ also came into use in the mid-00s without much hand-wringing, probably because their sounds and their scenes followed more or less the same template of social and aesthetic coherence that had shaped UK dance undergrounds in the 90s. Similarly, the word ‘dubstep’ appeared early on and, with the consent of its producers, was permitted to stick. Yet something notable happened to that term subsequently in that it went on to have an unusually long life and an oddly broad range of applications. The idea of the very same genre name applying to the dark minimalism of Shackleton and Appleblim in 2005 and the thrashing mid-range beasts of Skrillex seven years later in 2012 would probably have seemed ludicrous to an aficionado of dance in the 90s. Granted, people occasionally talk of ‘filthstep’ or ‘brostep’ in relation to the latter, but this is hardly a universally appreciated differentiation. The growing reluctance to differentiate the musical landscape of the 00s by describing new genres meant that few people challenged the ones that already existed, and as a result the term ‘dubstep’ came to represent a bizarrely swollen category. Many people decry contemporary genres for being absurdly small, too small to really take seriously (note the proliferation of the term ‘microgenres’), but dubstep, by being ‘too big’, shows that in other places the reverse scenario can be perceived.

The growing reluctance to differentiate the musical landscape of the 00s by describing new genres meant that few people challenged the ones that already existed

Something changed in the 00s that made the traditional modes of genrefication, and maybe the notion genrefication itself, untenable. There are many possible reasons for this. One of them might be that there are fewer and fewer genres actually out there to be named, that there is a direct correspondence between a ‘really existing’ genre (something that can be ‘signified’) and its name (its ‘signifier’): no genrefication, no genre, and vice versa. This position could be called ‘stylistic realism’. It might typically go on to argue that there are few or no real genres (by which they mean genre names) out there any more because innovation and imagination has slowed down, and/or because the internet has turned music-making into a rapid slurry of decadent and superficial microtrends that don’t seem to have the depth or staying power to become genres and, y’know, musical culture has basically gone to the dogs.

I reject this position and these reasons. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that there are plenty genres ‘out there’ that simply haven’t been named, and might never be, because of this new reluctance to identify them with a term. Here are a few possible contenders. The complex grime instrumentals of Terror Danjah and some artists on the Butterz label. The sad, haunted, lo-fi R&B of How to Dress Well, Guerre, Inc and others. The swooping synth-funky of Scratcha DVA and certain artists on the Night Slugs label. The dark, oily industrial beats of Raime, Demdike Stare, Ekoplekz and others. The brooding, glitchy lo-fi collages of Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland (aka Hype Williams), Ssaliva and Oneohtrix Point Never on Replica, possibly Actress too, and others. The form of dubstep (or maybe that’s ‘post-dubstep’) peculiar to the labels Hessle Audio and Hemlock. The particular, more recent form of dream pop coming from Purity Ring, Puro Instinct, Charlie XCX, Nite Jewel, Glass Candy, maybe Twin Shadow, partly Grimes, and others. The drum machine instrumentals of Ramadanman, Addison Groove, Evian Christ and others. Evian Christ could also be grouped with several artists working on downtempo beats, often with lo-fi and vocal manipulation more or less in the wake of Burial, such as Holy Other, Balam Acab, Mount Kimbie, Darkstar and Clams Casino and others (something close to this potential genre was called ‘night bus’). The luxurious part-hip hop, part-R&B, part-something else, part-something else again psychedelia of Hudson Mohawke, Rusty and Jam City on the Magic Drops EP. I could go on. If all these sounds had genre names that were used regularly enough, would we be so quick to conclude that nothing much of any significance is going on in underground pop, that nothing was unifying it and giving it substance? Perhaps not.

You might say that these groupings are too small to really be genres, or have the wrong sort of internal coherence for it, or that they just don’t ‘feel’ like genres. But this would only be to understand ‘genre-ness’ according to the already-familiar structures bequeathed to us from yesterday (the 90s, perhaps), and not according to the structures they might have in the world of today or tomorrow. Though I tend to prefer using the roughly synonymous word ‘style’ (it has a longer history and sounds less strict) I would define a genre simply as a particular set of several features perceived to be common to separate musical performances, especially performances by two or more different musicians. ‘Performances’ could mean live gigs or the creation and playback of tracks, and note that this definition doesn’t specify exactly how many and what sort of musical features these performances should have in common, or how this should be. This keeps the definition flexible and open to the inevitable changes that will occur over time in how genres are formed and how they cohere.

So if modern genres are still genres but are simply smaller or looser than 90s genres, might this not even be considered an improvement? They are freer, nimbler, more intimate, and have more internal variety than 90s genres usually had. Personally, this is just to my liking, but then I didn’t come of age in the 90s. I often find that 90s genres like jungle have a great template, but as I hear more and more they seem to me repetitious and clichéd in the extreme. But you can’t say that either of the models, 90s or modern, is objectively ‘better’ than the other, they’re just adapted to different worlds.

You can’t say that either of the models, 90s or modern, is objectively ‘better’ than the other, they’re just adapted to different worlds.

Ultimately, however, it would be wrong to say that these unnamed modern genres are ‘really out there’ and thus in need of a name, as stylistic realists might put it. A genre is never anything more than the particular perception of a common pattern, one among many alternative possible perceptions, assembled in the mind and loosely shared with other minds, however well researched. There is never a ‘real’ genre, just distinctions, continuities and discontinuities that we perceive relative to our experience. There is never a ‘real’ signified that a given signifier can be right or wrong about, just patterns and coherences that make relative amounts of sense to people but that will inevitably be subject to change.

This is not a problem or a failure of genrefication, but its liberation. It means that no one is really tied down or truly defined by the genres they make or listened to, nor do they need to be. This latter has perhaps been the other main reason for the decline of genrefication in the past decade. The speed and richness of modern pop music discourse has brought the negative, more constraining aspects of genrefication to the fore without any of the benefits it used to have. Before the internet, genre had the practical purpose of orienting you in a musical landscape that was teeming with variety but that was not yet at your fingertips. Genre provided a way for music shops to file records and CDs for the discriminating listener, and similarly allowed journalists and editors to divide up their writing and make quick sonic references, while on the flyer, it told you what to expect from a night out. In this context, stylistic realism seemed like common sense. But these functions quickly dissolved when broadband meant that listeners could stream the music itself to see if they liked it, without the mediation of these genre names.

In this more fluid and subtle environment the apparent rigidity of genre could be shrugged off as incompatible with the freedom and omnivorousness of the new world, and musicians and listeners began to distance themselves from new genrefications, mock them, reject them and ignore them, and thus before long they were seldom turning up in the first place. Today’s artists rarely stay put long enough to allow the time-laggy pre-broadband structures of genrefication to coalesce. Jam City, Zomby, Ikonika, Daniel Lopatin, Julia Holter and James Ferraro are key examples of this new paradigm, overhauling their sounds roughly every year in ways that could have risked them their audiences in a slower, simpler age. Even if it does get named, genre is no longer deterministic – it no longer imprisons an artist behind a label, and no longer equates to a professional career.

Now of course there are downsides to genrefication, and to slapping labels on things as if we’ve got the measure of them. Besides the sense of rigidity and imprisonment it can have, coming up with a genre name often risks lighting a beacon that attracts unwanted attention from go-away-dad music journalists and the participation of tasteless teenagers. But in the more democratic modern world, where ‘dubstep’ can and does mean practically anything and Daniel Lopatin can pass from synth to glitch without a crisis of identity, aren’t these fears unfounded and even a little precious? Surely we’re smart, flexible and open-minded enough to appreciate that a genrefication is no be-all-and-end-all for anyone or anything?

Genre is a democratic music-making project that many hands (musicians and listeners) build dynamically. It is also an important part of the way the language of music evolves.

I think that, as long as it is deployed in smart, flexible and open-minded ways, genrefication can still be a good thing. The notion that genrefication sets things in stone and sweeps aside any internal difference or external continuities is increasingly unfounded and could even become condescending. It holds back the cohering and nurturing effects that genre can have, aesthetically, socially and culturally. Genre is a democratic music-making project that many hands (musicians and listeners) build and change dynamically. Genrefication is also an important part of the way the language of music discourse evolves and better represents its specific elements. Even though genrefication is scorned, pop music discourse is still full of genre terms being used descriptively. Terms like ‘house’, ‘techno’, ‘hip hop’ and ‘noise’ are still ubiquitous even though they’re decades old and often have a questionable fit to what they’re describing. Much like the continuation of the term ‘dubstep’, these categories are becoming enormous and unwieldy, and because there are few alternative categories, it often seems as if hardly any music can really exist outside of them.

This inability to represent new music through new and fitting language could be having a detrimental and constraining effect on the musical imagination. Can you imagine how feeble musical discourse and perhaps music itself would be if in twenty years’ time the only genre terms in use were one that had been developed when genrefication was last acceptable, before 2012? The reluctance to differentiate, name and identify new concepts such as genres in music could be impoverishing our vocabulary, and thus to a significant degree our perception of music and its potential novelties. We know that words have a flexible and fluid relationship to meaning, but that doesn’t stop us relying on them to talk to each other and get by in the world, with whatever degree of success.

We can’t be afraid of putting our fingers on genres and saying ‘you know what, this is an interesting pattern’ if we can appreciate how fluid and impermanent that act of understanding really is, and if we know that the ground will have shifted tomorrow, thus progressively loosening the genrefication until a new one is ready to take its place. We should enjoy the genres of today and talk about them, but we need never feel ultimately beholden to them as absolute, ‘real’ categories. If we did, we wouldn’t be genuinely ready for the genres of tomorrow, or the next day.

Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making is available through Zero. Joshua Armitage is a London-based illustrator, whose work can be found on his website.

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