Where Have All The Genres Gone?

by zebra on 1 February 2014 · 21 comments

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 For example in physics the early 20th century Atomic Model of electrons, protons and neutrons has been replaced by the Standard Model of which only the electron (of which there are now three types) has survived, and protons and neutrons consist of quarks and gluons, as well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:

  1. Instruments, including vocals
  2. Beats
  3. Production/Arrangements
  4. Image

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.)

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Plunko February 1, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Err …sorry Mr Glover, but methinks you are mistaken with Country and Western! To place it with Pop genres is an insult to all of the other listed subsets of Pop. It either should be left alone, which I recommend, or given a new category ”Junk” (which I also recommend) as it isn’t really music – just manufactured junk! If I hear one more song which includes ”lerve, dawgs, trerks, or brokun hearts”, sung with the inevitable Yank twang, I’m gunna chuck a wobbly!

2 John Carmody February 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Mr Glover:
I would make two comments.
The first is a scientific one. Eukaryotes (your spelling is incorrect) are the animals whose cells contain a nucleus; the prokaryotes, on the other hand, are those animals (mostly unicellular organisms) whose cells lack a membrane-bound nucleus.
The second point is a musical one. Your purview seems astonishingly limited; perhaps it’s reflective of your tastes and preferences. Those, like me, whose tastes are different would consider other “genres”: such as opera, oratorios, orchestral music, chamber music, various liturgical forms (that opens the possibility of a discussion of the appropriate use of the terms “musical genre” and “musical form”), art song…….and so on.

3 Stubborn Mule February 2, 2014 at 6:39 pm

While I imagine Mr Glover’s focus exclusion simply reflects a focus on the evolution of musical genres from around 1960 to today, the expansion to classical genres opens up some interesting avenues for further thought. While genres such as opera, chamber music, etc, are very old, there are still composers using those forms today. During the period from, say, 1960-1990, the genres described in this post were new and so we associate them with their time. Yet, arguably, in recent times many artists are performing in the style of older genres, in much the way that contemporary “classical” composers may work in older styles. As just one example, consider Tame Impala. You could say they are inspired by 1960s psychedelia. Alternatively, you could say that their genre is psychedelia, and they are simply contemporary exponents of the genre.

4 James February 2, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Thanks John for the correction – that section is very confused. My only excuse is that I can’t find my copy of “The Five Kingdoms” and was flipping from Wikipedia rather than writing it down. It should read:

“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).”

On the second point the discussion was deliberately restricted to modern popular music as it was getting a bit wordy. I like most “classical music”, including opera, from Tchaikovsky to Takemitsu via Janacek but there is so little crossover with modern popular music they may as well be different art forms. I was initially going to exclude Jazz because I think it stands on its own as a musical form. But there is probably a direct lineage through Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Soul and Hip Hop and so it has, in my opinion, indirectly had as big an influence on modern music as Blues.

5 Stubborn Mule February 2, 2014 at 7:45 pm

@James: I have updated the post with your revised wording.

6 Emmjay February 3, 2014 at 4:07 am

Attacks on me raises questions of whether the classification system operates on the observed object or the reverse – each new observation tests and may redefine the system.
As far as physical objects like plants are concerned, classification since Linnaes has had a binary foundation. A specimen either possesses or lacks a certain quality; the seed germinates with one leaf – it’s a monocotyledon (grass) or it has two leaves and it’s a dicot (everything else) etc etc.
The more granular the classification, the more difficult becomes the decision. Whereas membership of a species can be decided according to whether mating pairs produce viable or fertile offspring, genetic tinkering can confound such a classification and resolving questions like what cultivar or variety a specimen falls into can be difficult to answer – or impossible based on visual inspection alone.
But classifying music, it appears, suffers badly from a lack of a widely-accepted taxonomy and as it may be in classifying a plant cultivar, classifying a musical piece or an exponent relies more on evolutionary evidence. For example, a gentleman can be described as a man who knows how to play the banjo, but chooses not to do so. From this we can infer that neither Steve Martin, nor the late great Earl Scruggs can be considered gentlemen.

7 James February 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Emmjay – I like the way you’re thinking. But banjos are, of course, stringed instruments like guitars, violins and cellos (which are only played by ladies). When I learned music as a child (guitar, bassoon, trombone, all badly) I was taught that musical instruments were divided into strings, brass, woodwind, percussion and keyboard. But then the saxophone, made of “brass” is classed as a woodwind instrument and not brass because it uses a reed. So maybe gentlemen play saxophones (John Coltrane was definitely a gentleman)because they eschew universal notions of classification – U and non U.

8 Simon Rumble February 19, 2014 at 10:35 am

why haven’t there been any new genres since before 2000?

I think you might just not be paying attention to the genres that have sprung up since then. From the top of my head, slanted towards my electronic and hip hop interests:
* UK Garage
* Grime
* Dubstep (and its plethora of other *steps)
* Electroclash
* Reggaeton
* Algorave
* Wonky
* Chillwave
* New Rave
* Folktronica

Genres are created as rapidly as NME journos can come up with them. Some of the labels even stick. (Fortunately New Rave died the death it deserved.)

9 Zebra February 19, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Simon – thanks for your comment. I think I made it clear that I was talking about the big genres like Punk and Disco. I would class your list as sub-genres of the genres electronica and hip hop. Though you have every right to differ. As I also said: to afficianados they might be strikingly different but to most people they would be pretty much the same.

I also had an argument with The Mule at the beach about this who claims DubStep is a new genre. But even if it is, it started before 2000, as did UK Garage, even if they weren’t so widespread as now.

10 Simon Rumble February 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm

Certainly agree most of these are sub-genres, but where does one “big” genre end and another start? You could argue that techno began in the 60s, what was Delia Derbyshire making if not techno? But is The Orb a continuation of that tradition, or something new? Where’s Brian Eno in all this?

I think it’s disingenous to consider “Punk” anything more than a continuation of “Rock”. And before you choke on your Advanced Hair treatments Gen Xers, consider that every generation thinks the genre created when they were spotty yoof is the most important, ground breaking genre of all time. Look how much airtime is devoted to Beatles, Beach Boys and Seekers documentaries, interviews etc. (And yes, I think Rave music was the most important genre of all time :P )

11 Zebra February 19, 2014 at 5:43 pm

From Urban Dictionary: Rockism

Rockism is essentially a prejudiced attitude to any form of popular music that doesn’t conform to the values of rock music (in the most narrow and conventional sense of the term.) The most obvious example of this is the tendency of middle-aged fans of ‘classic rock’ to describe any music that involves the overt use of electronic instruments as not ‘real music’.
Example: Do you really think Jethro Tull are better than Kraftwerk, or is it just rockism?

12 Stubborn Mule February 19, 2014 at 6:39 pm

So is “classicism” a prejudiced attitude towards any non-classical music?

13 Simon Rumble February 19, 2014 at 6:46 pm

And how can you have new Classical?

14 Stubborn Mule February 19, 2014 at 8:31 pm

@Simon: therein lies an interesting question. Is a genre based on a period trend then restricted to that time period? Is Tame Impala psychedelia or just inspired by psychedelia? Is it possible to produce a new disco track today? Some genres are more or less strongly tied to the time period of there emergence. While some may argue that it is possible to compose a “classical” piece today, I suspect fewer would say the same about Baroque.

15 Simon Rumble February 19, 2014 at 10:00 pm

@Mule: “Is it possible to produce a new disco track today?”

Answer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7_edU9T2Ho&feature=kp

16 Zebra February 19, 2014 at 10:25 pm

I don’t see why people can’t compose modern classical music just because the word “classical” seems misplaced. Are you going to say to them: I’m sorry but you have to stop composing until you’re prepared to give it a different name. Thomas Ades is a perfect example of someone who composes operas, orchestral works, chamber pieces and for piano in the classical tradition, is very popular and widely played, but which is very much “music for our time”.

17 Stubborn Mule February 19, 2014 at 10:37 pm

@James: agreed.

@Simon: but is anyone producing anything like this today?

18 Zebra February 21, 2014 at 7:59 pm

@simon – funnily enough that reminded me of the classic Donna Summer disco song “I feel love”.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8TBmeK9Abg&feature=kp

19 Zebra February 21, 2014 at 8:15 pm

In case you were wondering my favourite piece of music is Somei Satoh’s sublime “Birds in Warped Time II”, I have three versions of this but this one is the best:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_Fs0ecgsOE&feature=kp

20 Simon Rumble February 21, 2014 at 9:45 pm

@Zebra Wow that is stunning. I know nothing about this composer or this performer. Where do I learn more?

21 Zebra February 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Maybe listen to Mie Miki: “Sonorities: Japanese Accordian Music”. She does a great version of Takahashi’s famous poem: “Like a Water Buffalo”.

Or for sublime you can’t go past Janacek’s song cycle: “The Diary of One Who Disappeared”.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlDutI613FU

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