When I teach a college class on the music business, the first thing I do is ask everyone to pull out their mobiles and read me the names of the last ten songs they’ve listened to. Without fail, the students rattled off songs from different eras and genres. Justin Bieber would be followed by AC/DC which led to Drake then The Beatles then Madonna, which continued on to…you get the idea.
As the tastes of Millennials and Gen Zers expand, the notion of genre is changing. And genre isn’t as important as it used to be. That’s because as more time passes, all the once-sharp lines that delineate one type of music from another continue to get erased.
This brings me to a new article in the New Yorker. As this blurring continues, what comes next?
What we mean by “pop” or “jazz” or “country” changes regularly; genre is not a static, immovable idea but a reflection of an audience’s assumptions and wants at a certain point in time. The scholar Carolyn R. Miller defines genre as being marked by some “typified rhetorical action”—a repeating feature that handily satisfies our expectations or desires. That rhetorical action might be musical (a proper twelve-bar blues, for example, is played on a guitar and built around a 1-4-5 chord progression), but it’s just as likely to be rooted in aesthetics (country singers wear cowboy hats and boots) or attitude (punk bands consist of miscreant anarchists). “Genre is always a blending of both formal structure and cultural context,” Ehren Pflugfelder, a professor of writing at Oregon State University, told me recently. “This may be the most frustrating thing about genre for those who want it to be stable over time. What makes something country music is often just as much about what the audience for that genre expects it to be as it is the chord progression, instruments, time signature, or lyrical content.”
As an audience’s assumptions about a genre change, so does the genre itself.