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The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Genre busting 

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The thing is, the more you try to put music - or any creative endeavour - into boxes, the more it resists. What I did below was just sketch out how things fall apart when you try to do this (and thanks to Mwanji [who has more on genre-type stuff here which is worth a peek] and Eppy for the comments). Any such definition will always be unsatisfactory because, in part, you're trying to impose your categories without consideration for the musical material itself. It's one thing to say that something that sounds 'poppy' is (probably) Pop - this is relatively quantifiable, and is at least definable (to an extent) in terms of the music [ie Pop is heavily reliant on verse-chorus structures, lyrics are written with a strong rhyme and rhythm scheme and tend to be about a small collection of themes (love, loss, etc.), verses are usually sung by one singer at a time, the music is rarely discordant - and if so, for local effect only ('A Day in the Life', say), the same can be said for the rhythms - which are almost exclusively in 4/4 or triple time (5/4 is not a Pop time signature), the harmonic vocabulary is limited to three or four principle chords, there is a strong emphasis on riffs, ostinati and groove structures, rather than conterpoint or declamatory homophony, etc. etc.], but it's quite another to say talk about 'Classical', or 'Jazz' in the same terms, since it is almost impossible to draw up a comparable list of qualities (musicologists have been trying to define Jazz for decades, then Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Evan Parker and Sun Ra all came along. Then came Jamie Cullum which confused everyone. No definition fits in all cases.) Trying to define Jazz in terms of musical aspects turns you into Wynton Marsalis - you end up with a pretty narrow definition of what it is about, and you reach the limits of creativity and innovation very quickly indeed.

And, I should add, there is this danger with any definition of Pop, too, even though it is - perhaps - easier to draw up some kind of list of necessary elements. Once you've defined your checklist, what do you do if Britney suddenly releases a record in 7/8 time, setting verses from e.e. cummings? Her usual producers gave worked on it, and she still sounds like Britney, so it's familiar, and it charts well. But suddenly my definition starts to break up again.

The alternatives, as I see them, are:

(1) We could all stop worrying about such things. But we're human, and we can't.

(2) We could come up with some different ways of categorising things; categories that are sensitive to the actual musical content, rather imposed from without (as it happens, I think this is, to some extent, what has happened with the micro-genres of dance: each different category is defined in purely musical terms, depending on beats, types of samples, vocals or not, etc.). [I've actually touched on this before, apropos of the Pop vs Classical worldview.]

(3) We could follow Wittgenstein's lead and talk about family resemblances rather than nessary conditions, as he does when trying to define what a 'game' is.

I think (3) is the one I'm happiest with, as a theory, since it has something to do with how people create anyway. On the whole, you don't sit down and say 'I'm going to write a Pop record that conforms to a certain genre template'. Most conscientious artists write what they feel inside, and this is usually part reaction against, part borrowing, part development of things that are already there. In this way you don't get stagnant genres, because check boxes are being ticked, unticked, ignored, invented, turned into circles all the time.

There's a lot of fun to be had making and filling containers - and it makes our lives easier in a lot of ways - but be careful not to screw the lids on too tight.


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