Like a Waning Stone: Is Our Generation Killing Music Genres?

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Like a Waning Stone: Is Our Generation Killing Music Genres?

Illustration by Kayla Black

Illustration by Kayla Black

Illustration by Kayla Black

Illustration by Kayla Black

Eli Marshall, Feature Facilitator

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Pop. Hip hop. Country. Rock. All those words symbolize something much more than just a word to all of us familiar with them — they’re genres of music, each with their own distinct sound, feeling and perhaps impact on our lives. There are many more genres that exist, and many more subgenres of those I mentioned that all may play an important role in our lives along with music in general. 

It may be easy to state why music is important in our daily lives. It’s a form of art, and art is a fundamental part of humankind. We have always had the desire to create things, and art is the reflection of that. Music is art in the form of sound, and like all other forms of art, elicits a certain emotional reaction that may make us enjoy or despise a certain piece of it. As such, music has always been a part of society, from prehistoric times, to the era of classical music to today. It’s now a world where music is highly commercialized, and we have all the music that has ever been recorded and preserved at our fingertips. 

That’s a big jump, and we could not have done it without the formation of genres as a means of categorizing music. Genre as a concept has its origins as a classification system for ancient Greek literature, with each genre of poetry, performance and other means of art having their own mannerisms, speech patterns and authors associated with it. It helped the public make sense of the art they saw. Genres evolved to respond to the character of a time period, and as social attitude and the cultural zeitgeist changed, genres had to as well, so as music evolved and eventually became a commercial industry, it too was naturally divided into genres. 

In my previous piece, “The Lil Nas X That Could – Old Town Road and Popular Music In The Internet Era,” I discussed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the biggest smash hit of the year and a song that, among many things, clearly transcends boundaries between two of the arguably most prominent yet often polarizing genres in today’s world, country and hip hop. I personally describe it as “country-trap”, and the song’s status of being on the fence between the two genres has created controversy, most notably Billboard’s decision to remove it from its country charts after it first peaked at #1 there in April. That decision has since been a talking point for numerous discussions about the historical relationship between country and hip hop, and often leading back to similar discussions about race in country music, due to Lil Nas X’s standing as a black artist infiltrating a genre historically dominated by white performers.

While we have come a long way since, the tumultuous relationship between country and hip hop can be said to have begun in the 1920s with the advent of the commercial recording industry. In fact, this era represented perhaps the biggest turning point in the history of music. The origins of any sort of industry surrounding music were in mid-15th century Europe, as the advent of the printing press allowed sheet music to be mass produced. While musical notation had existed for millennia, it could only be written by hand, a costly and time consuming process, so widely commercializing this would be unprofitable. After the development and widespread use of the printing press, however, composers could publish sheet music and have it sold to audiences near and far, but consuming music was a hobby only for the wealthy. Once one purchased sheet music, they had to learn how to play it themselves, and learning an instrument is a massive commitment of both time and money. The alternative was watching a composer live at a concert hall, but this was still a privilege generally afforded by the upper class. Sheet music publishing remained a massive industry in the following centuries; however, the early 20th century brought along innovations that would forever weaken it.  It can’t be overstated how much the radio and sound recording technologies changed the course of music history. Phonograph records of musical performances had been available for purchase since the 1880s, but it was still not nearly as widely accessible as the radio would become. By 1934, 60 percent of American households had radios according to University of West Georgia professor Carole E. Scott, and music was one of the main forms of media that could be found on them. The radio not only gave a much wider range of people access to consuming music, it also allowed bands and artists who may have previously been limited to a specific region to become popular nationwide or worldwide. Commercially, this meant massive changes as the first record labels sprung up to cash in on the boom of music consumption. Their main goal was to sell music to people and radio stations, and to do that, they had to know how to market the kind of music that existed at the time.

Country and blues were the genres that effectively preceded modern country and hip hop. They have a common background in that both originated in the American South. In fact, before the record industry sprang up, these predecessors were a lot more indistinguishable, but they still mostly have separate origins. What would come to be known as country music is based on Appalachian and Western folk music traditions, which in turn are largely derived from Scotch-Irish traditions and folk music as well as English ballads. Traditionally, it consisted of folk based lyrics over string instruments. While this is not what country music to this day is, country music can be said to be a lot closer to its origin than hip hop, which went through many parent genres, but can usually be traced back to blues, which is in turn based on African musical traditions and African American work songs. While country music mainly sprung up in the 1920s, blues as a defined genre had been around since the early 1870s, usually characterized during its early days with lyrics about the black experience in the Deep South, often also incorporating the AAB rhythm and call and response patterns as well as certain unique chord progressions. The early forms of country and blues, coming into fruition in the same region, could easily build off each other, and despite having origins associated with specific racial groups, there wasn’t segregation of the musical types based on race. Music was largely allowed to be music, no matter who made it — for example, so-called black hillbilly artists performed string music at events around the South in the early 20th century. But to adapt to the racial climate of the time where segregation was prevalent, the record industry figured it made sense to strictly separate the two. “White music,” like country, was performed by white artists and marketed towards white people, and “black music,” like blues, gospel and jazz, was performed by black artists and marketed towards black people. A musician performing in the 1920s and subsequent decades knew that if they wanted to make any money, they had to fall into one of these two categories based on their race.

Blues and country were two of what I would personally consider the “big three” genres during the early era of the recording industry, the third being jazz, which in turns still has its origins in blues traditions, but the two are distinct for a variety of reasons. While blues (and country) have more widespread, rural origins, jazz has its origins almost entirely in a specific city, New Orleans, and its city origins made it more of a part of urban culture and nightlife in major American cities in the early 20th century than country and blues ever were. And while the pioneers of jazz were black, the genre came to be much more racially integrated than blues and country ever were, performed by both black and white artists and enjoyed by audiences of both races. 

Radio underwent a golden age of sorts throughout the 1930s and 1940s, as not just a mode of music consumption for the masses but the go-to place for any other entertainment as well. However, the rise of television throughout the 1950s marked a new beginning for the radio industry. As television rose from being in 9 percent of households in 1950 to 91.3 percent in 1963, the regular, organized shows that once dominated radio migrated to this new media format, and with them went the consumers. Radio had to find a way to keep people tuned in, so they leaned on making music their primary output. This meant that even more so, the radio industry had to learn how to market music to diverse audiences, and one of the ways to do this was creating organized radio formats. 

It’s easy to confuse the concept of a radio format with that of genre, but there’s a key difference I’d define. Genres are a product of musical artists choosing their sounds, and can be defined by the interpretation of the people. Radio formats, on the other hand, are exclusively a business model to create rigid boundaries for music classification, the only factor in mind being profit. Any genre can and should be enjoyed by any consumer, but radio formats are marketed to specific people so music and advertisements can be sold to them. While one doesn’t have to pay to listen to the radio assuming they have a radio to begin with, the goal of content on the radio is to get these consumers to eventually go out and purchase the music or other products advertised themselves. The promise of this keeps advertiser money funneling in to radio stations, keeping the stations in business, but also perhaps meaning radio stations have real, economic power over what genres mean.

“Listening to music on the radio, that’s a curated listening experience… I have a feeling that people who listen that way are probably less engaged listeners to begin with. So in that case, whatever the radio station calls genre, those listeners will pretty much accept as genre,” says Chris Mercer, a lecturer of composition and music technology at Northwestern University.

One of the first widespread radio formats was rhythm and blues, or R&B. As a genre, R&B originated in African American communities in the 1940s. Musically, it could be described as a mix of jazz and blues often with a heavier and insistent beat. Commercially, it was little more than, as described by the music historian and producer Robert Palmer, “a catchall term referring to any music that was made by and for black Americans.” While it was a distinct genre and has its role in music history, R&B also has a history as a term created simply for industry convenience to box in music made by a certain demographic, making it perhaps the first genre to have to balance its definition both as a genre and as a radio format.

Rock music traces a lot of its origins to R&B, but it took additional influences from other genres like jazz and country and largely developed separately. Soul and doo wop were other, eventual derivative forms of R&B. Eventually, soul was further popularized as part of the Detroit (Motown) sound, which would go on to play an important role in the racial integration of popular music (since Motown was an African American-owned record label). The racial roots of genres such as soul prevailed to such an extent that in the mid 1960s when white artists began performing soul music, it was generally classified into a separate genre known as “blue-eyed soul,” which some urban soul stations would still play, but even just the naming of genres went on to show the explicit racial binding to genres the music industry had created, and radio formats perpetuated. Funk eventually emerged from these same communities in the mid-1960s, being derived from soul and R&B. Funk de-emphasized the melody and chord progressions of its parent genres and focused more on a bassline groove and drum parts. Funk went on to inspire one of the defining genres of the 1970s, disco, which became a whole subculture emerging from the urban nightlife scene. Disco eventually became a genre widely enjoyed by many diverse groups, and was often seen as part of the counterculture against the rock music prevalent at the time. 

Perhaps the last major genre that we see today to evolve was hip hop, which once again found its origins among inner city African Americans, particularly in New York. Drawing from funk, disco, and R&B, hip hop, similar to that of early rock and roll, became its own youth subculture, primarily defined by rapping, a vocal delivery style characterized by the artist speaking in rhyme and verse over an instrumental beat. While musically they are all very diverse, R&B, soul, funk, and hip hop all have the common background of being largely performed by black artists, marketed to a black audience, and all being boxed into radio formats such as urban contemporary, which still exist on the airwaves today. 

Compared to blues and its derivatives, country has arguably evolved much less from its origins — perhaps it’s most telling in that we have used the same term for the genre for almost a century. As Mercer describes, “Country music is a fairly simple genre in the sense that there is considerable consistency across artists and even eras in terms of instrumentation, harmonic structure, rhythmic features.” If anything, the main evolution country has taken is that it simply took influences from other genres more gradually over time; both rock and pop influences in country have been seen since the 1960s. But what about country and hip hop? It’s often been harder to attach the two together because there may be no two genres that have been more associated with a singular race — and thus, are often polarizing genres to people outside the race they are associated with. 

“I don’t listen to country too much, and I know that’s a thing for a lot of people. You either like country or you dislike country,” says junior Kevin Venturina, who creates hip hop instrumental beats, but describes having a wide range of genres he uses for inspiration.

Of course, these racial associations are that country has long been performed by white artists, and hip hop and its derivative genres like soul and funk were for black artists, so country has been polarizing to some black audiences and hip hop to some white audiences. In modern times, country is portrayed as the music of the working class white community, specifically in more rural areas, and hip hop is portrayed as the music of the working class black community, specifically in inner cities. The socioeconomic contexts both are associated with are strongly stereotyped perhaps more than other genres.

As Mercer adds, “If there’s a guy, like back in my hometown in North Carolina, who’s got a gun rack and a Trump bumper sticker, and he’s listening to country music, and he hates hip hop, it’s probably not that he’s done a thorough investigation of hip hop, thought about it objectively, and asked himself if it speaks to him musically. There are social reasons that he likes country music and not hip hop; there’s always a social aspect to it.”

 However, at the end of the day, a lot of this has to do with  how the genres are marketed, through lyrics riddled with brand names and lifestyle signifiers, branding of songs and artists, and plenty of other factors. No matter what they may talk about in their songs, the successful artists of both genres probably don’t live exactly the lifestyle they may market, and are probably well off. Well, that was surely the case when the record industry ruled over music with an iron first, but that is not the reality of the music scene anymore. If anything is the catalyst for the decline of genre based music and its multitude of other implications, it’s the innovations the Internet has provided.

The reality of the music world now is that one doesn’t need any support from the recording industry to be successful and grow an audience. From a creator perspective, platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify allow anyone to upload their music to a wide audience, which is all Lil Nas X needed to score his big hit with “Old Town Road”. From a consumer perspective, the same platforms give anyone a wide range of music to choose from — pretty much all recorded music in human history can be found somewhere on the Internet. We have all this at our fingertips, which means creators and consumers alike can pick and choose what they want to hear, and aren’t restricted by what record label marketing tells them they should buy, because the cost of music now is just the cost of an Internet connection.

“Two main things happened: One was that people could get music for free, first illegally. Now they do it legally, through Spotify or YouTube. You can’t sell product anymore, and that happened very gradually. The other thing is that laptop computers became space age recording studios, so if you had a laptop, you can do quite a bit. You may have to buy some additional gear, but the amount that I can do with my laptop, and an interface, and some mics, would’ve taken a roomful of [recording technology] to do fifty years ago. And this happened over the course of 25 years, basically from about 1995 to the present. It was gradual, although there were milestones, like Napster in ‘97, that was a big deal. And the record company panicked, they saw what was going on.” Mercer adds.

It’s a lot easier to become familiar with more genres in today’s world of music. In the past, people may have been a lot more inclined to stay within the genres they’re familiar with because one had to buy music to listen to it on means outside of the radio, but now the only thing restricting one from exploring a new genre is their own willingness to do so. A 2018 report from digital media company Sweety High reported that “nearly 97% of Gen Z females say they listen to at least five musical genres on a regular basis.” Perhaps this is a trend that has only been escalating in recent years; a similar 2015 survey by youth insight agency Ypulse found that 79% of 13 to 32 year olds said their tastes didn’t fall into one specific genre. The fact that such a significant percentage of people are likely familiar with many genres trickles up to influencing creators, and this is where we get the songs that bend genre boundaries. With all this, it begs the question of what genre actually means in today’s music world. 

“There’s a lot less genre in my music… there’s no label I can go under. I know people are rappers, and country singers, and EDM, but I don’t know where I would fall in that,” says senior Jack Rutstein, who makes music that he describes as being “within the parameters of pop and rap.” 

While hip hop is still considered a clear, distinct genre, perhaps one reason it may be easier to blend it with other genres is its tendency to sample, or reuse portions of other songs, a lot more than other genres. As Mercer adds, “Hip hop has always done sampling with its inherent technology. Even before they were doing sampling when they were just doing turntablism, their whole thing was to just find records from different genres, find things that they could loop, and scratch over it, and it was kind of a competition to see who could have the most diverse and interesting collection of things to sample from. So hip hop has always had this tendency to suck other genres into it.”

Lil Nas X did this with “Old Town Road”, as its beat features a banjo sample of a 2008 song by industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, “34 Ghosts IV”, in addition to usual staples of trap beats like machine-produced drums and bass. Sampling isn’t anything new in hip hop, as many early hip hop songs sampled funk and soul records to form the basis of their beats. But it’s such a prominent feature of the genre, and as hip hop only gets more popular, now being the most widely consumed genre in the United States, its defining feature of blending genres will too. This also means that while the music industry may try to enforce past boundaries of clearly defined genres, if genres are of any importance in today’s world, it’s as more loosely defined subgenres.

As Rutstein describes it, “I think we need to start referring to subgenres a little more, because I’d say rap is where I know most of my music and there’s so many different… you can play two rap songs that sound nothing alike. I don’t think often [musical artists] nowadays have the genre in mind. They’ve made the beat, they like how it sounds, now they’ve got their song. In that sense, music streaming companies put on their homepage, they sort everything by genre, and it’s kind of weird to do.”

Subgenres are not at all a new phenomenon in music, and the idea of subgenres goes back to that of radio shaping the larger genres that prevail in music today. As opposed to the large but perhaps rigid boxes the radio industry has long tried to place music in, subgenres are a lot more naturally fluid and are often defined by drawing from influences of more unique parent genres.

“My genre of music could be, like, hip hop, but I could put it into a subgenre like emo hip hop. You can make a genre, but you can also have a subgenre through the song,” says Venturina. Emo hip hop, one prominent genre today and part of a growing trend of more downtempo, “sad” sounding music I discussed last year in my article “Chart Sobbers: The Melancholy State of Popular Music”, is a fusion of hip hop and emo music (the latter of which in turn traces its origins from punk rock). Generally being musically closer to hip hop but thematically closer to emo, it’s just one of many subgenres that draw from diverse origins. Another facet of subgenres is that individual artists are free to experiment with them as they please in their music, especially in today’s world of music democratization digitally. While one artist can’t completely redefine one of the existing umbrella genres, they can experiment with subgenres to create a unique sound. As Venturina adds, “I think there’s nothing that’s really a problem with clashing genres because music I think is infinite, you can create anything and if it’s good, and you like it, and a lot of people like it, it works.”

In addition to Lil Nas X, another prominent young artist who has been noted to blend genres in their music is Billie Eilish. The California-based 17 year old’s musical repertoire has been described as everything from alternative pop and electro-pop to trap, incorporating elements of both in her Billboard Hot 100-topping hit “Bad Guy”. In an interview with Billboard, Eilish stated, “I hate the idea of genres. I don’t think a song should be put in a category.” The blending of genres in her music is reflective of this, as there’s an extent to which so many different genres can be thrown around that perhaps none of those labels mean anything anymore. Eilish’s music is, more than anything else, her music, further seen in the fact that her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was entirely written and produced by herself and her brother Finneas O’Connell. The album was a massive commercial success, topping album charts in numerous countries including the Billboard 200, showing that people clearly enjoyed the music no matter what genre label one may like to give it. Eilish is far from the only example of this new age of genre-blending artists, however is perhaps the most notable due to her commercial success.

As we move forward, I believe it’s reasonable to expect the importance of rigid genres to decline even further. Music is only getting more digital; for example, Spotify’s monthly user total has sharply risen from 96 million in 2016 to 217 million in 2019. It’s reasonable to expect the consequences of this on genre to only increase. However, I don’t think radio is going anywhere. In fact, according to Jacobs Media’s Techsurvey 2019 report, 16% of radio listeners reported listening to terrestrial radio more over the past year. Despite all the digital options for consuming music now, radio remains convenient (most cars both new and old come equipped with a traditional radio) and free, and for as long as people listen to it, the boxes the radio industry tries to restrict music to will continue to exist. And perhaps even if the radio industry — or the music industry as we know it — ceases to exist, genres will still, to an extent, exist. After all, the idea of genre has its origins as a classification system, and humans naturally like to classify things. Classification makes unfamiliar concepts easier to understand, and this idea has always been able to be said about music; the definitions of these concepts have simply deteriorated over time. But like any form of art, music is evolving, and we will never know what’s in its future. Only time will tell if the concept of genre in music will eventually be like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

Further reading into the decline of genre in today’s music world

Further reading into the complexities of genre as a marketing tool