The Mule has returned safely from the beaches of the South coast of New South Wales. Neither sharks nor vending machines were to be seen down there. We did, however, have a guest drop in. none other than regular blog contributor, James Glover. The seaside conversation turned to music and James has distilled his thoughts for a blog post.
It seems timely to have a post with titular reference to the classic ’60s folk protest song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” written by Pete Seeger, who died this week at 92. But I have been thinking about this question for a while. Not really as a music question but a classification question. (If you are reading this in a pub you might like to take a beer coaster and have a competition with a friend to write down as many musical genres in 10 minutes as you can think. I assure you an argument will follow).
Humans have an enormous tendency to classify things but often on closer inspection these turn out to be imprecise or just wrong. History shows many examples. The classification of the Living Kingdom has gone from two (Plants and Animals) to five. Eukaryotes:Animals, Plants, Funghi and Protistas (e.g. algae); and, separately, Prokaryotes (no separate nucleus). The latter has been since split by some biologists into Bacteria and Archae (e.g. extremophiles). In addition, for example, we can’t agree on the number of continents versus large islands.
The point here is that what at first seemed like a very obvious and useful distinction becomes, as time passes, less distinct and may actually hinder further understanding or be proved wrong and discarded. For example in physics the early 20th century Atomic Model of electrons, protons and neutrons has been replaced by the Standard Model of which only the electron (of which there are now three types) has survived, and protons and neutrons consist of quarks and gluons, as well as neutrinos and Higg’s particles. The racial classification of the 19th century, highly problematic now (so much so we don’t use two of the original terms) but seemingly obvious at the time: Caucasians (Whites), Negroids (Blacks), Mongoloids (Asians), has similarly been shown by scientists to have no significant genetic basis. The term “intersex” (now an official gender classification in some countries in Europe, and Australia) denies the classic (and so apparently “obvious” it really didn’t need explaining or justifying until recently) binary gender classification of male/female.
There are, naturally, two types of “genreism”. The first is based on evolution and radiation from one or a small number of original sources . In biology the classification was originally based on form and function, called “cladism”, whereas now it is based on genetic lineage. This for example, is why birds are now classed as “avian dinosaurs” whereas when I was a child in school we learnt the vertebrates (animals with a backbone) were split into mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The second type of genreism is based on differentiation within coincidentally existing groups eg, fundamental particles, they all arose spontaneously (in the Big Bang in this case) rather than evolved from a single particle (or did they?). Ok, I guess there is also a third type of genre as well, which combines both, such as music or continents where the genres can arise spontaneously and then also evolve and split, or even combine. Oh dear.
Back to the music though. In another era circa 1987 I idly wondered if there was room for any more music genres. Trying to imagine a major new musical genre is pretty impossible with my level of musicality but towards the end of a decade that had given us New Romantic and HiNRG I thought maybe it had all been done. Turns out I was a little wrong, as we were soon to see the explosion of Techno/House/Rave music, HipHop and then in the 90s Grunge and Drum’n’Bass. Of course these are arguably not major new genres in the way that Punk and Disco were in the 70s. House music is Electronica (as is Drum’n’Bass) while Grunge is just Garage which itself is Rock music. HipHop is an extension of Rap. A quick search of “Electronica” on Wikipedia reveals several dozen sub genres which would be virtually indistinguishable to non aficionados or experts.
The point I’d really like to make (and I have asked this question online for several years to no avail) is why haven’t there been any new genres since before 2000?
So before considering that question what exactly is a “musical genre”? Given they are quite different, by definition, finding something they have in common doesn’t help. I guess they have different expressions of the following four components:
- Instruments, including vocals
I am no musicologist so this list may not be exhaustive or even the right way to look at it. I added “image” because a lot of allegedly different musical styles at different times really sound quite similar if your remove the clothing and image. Like taste in food, taste in music can be largely down to looks. This is particularly true for Pop. But when it comes to genres it is very much “I don’t know what it is but I’ll know it when I hear it”. Which also means that unless you are “into” say electronica or metal or jazz it may all sound pretty much the same.
So what are the musical genres? You can find various lists on the internet including this graphically useful presentation of genres through time, but here is my list. I have included genres which are derived from the first in the list in brackets but often they are significant (more significant in the case of Disco) that their progenitor. I have also not listed what I consider to be “sub-genres” like Nu Metal, Trip Hop, New Electronica etc. These, arguably, come under derivations, deviations and revivals.
Gospel (Jazz, R&B, Soul)
Blues (R&B, Soul, Rock)
Rock (Folk, Psychedelia, Heavy Metal, Prog Rock Glam, Reggae, Punk, Indie, Garage, Grunge)
Electronica (Techno, House, Rave, Drum’n’Bass, Chillout)
Rap (Scratch, Hip Hop)
Pop (Folk/Protest, Country & Western, Easy Listening, Indie, New Romantic, World Music, Lounge)
Funk (Disco, HiNRG, Techno, House)
It is not entirely linear of course, Disco (Bee Gees) clearly has more or less elements of Glam (early Bowie) and Funk (Sly Stone) depending if you are in Europe or America. I always thought Blondie was a Pop band, not a Punk (Sex Pistols, Ramones) band as they are often described in the U.S. Pop also contains a myriad of related styles with an emphasis on simple melodies and arrangements, though there are notable exceptions but even when (as in ABBA or Crowded House) the arrangements are actually quite complex they still sound quite simple to most listeners. Indie used to be based on relentlessly non-commercial music (Nick Cave but pick your own favourite who never had a top 40 hit, at least until they sold out) until R.E.M. crossed over and maintained both critical and commercial success. Before R.E.M. it was considered a truism that you could only have one or the other and Indie bands which later achieved major commercial success (Smashing Pumpkins) had invariably “sold out” and “lost cred” in the eyes of their early fans.
So maybe the answer is that there is no longer a need for musical genres. There is certainly plenty of “new” music. And as DIY production becomes possible due to advances in technology and the internet means people no longer need listen to a single local FM radio station which promotes particular bands and genres then the very notion of genre becomes less useful. This is not unprecedented, modern movements in the visual arts (Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism) also have disappeared since the 60s when Pop Art (Warhol), Conceptual Art (Yoko Ono) and Street Art (Basquiat) finished them off. These days many artists work in multiple genres (Australia’s Patricia Piccinini is one) and the concept of “Art Movement” itself, which so majorly defined much of Art History (and coffee table Art Books) is now redundant.
So saluting folk/rock pioneer Pete Seeger maybe it’s time to put classification systems, for music at least, behind us and just recognise genres were “a long time passing” but now they’re a “long time gone”. (I should also point out that there are two types of people in the world, those who like classifying things, and those who don’t.)