Blurred Lines: On the evolution of genres

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When 2014 came to an end, Rob Mitchum of Deadspin compiled a master list of a number of publications’ best albums of the year, and found that — far and away — FKA Twigs’ atmospheric, ethereal pop record LP1 was the consensus favorite among critics last year. What critics can’t seem to find consensus on, however, is how to categorize the style of music that Twigs makes. A number of critics have referred to her music as “alternative R&B” — a label that the artist, herself, actually hates. Spin said that “LP1 sounds like nothing else in the world right now.” And Drowned in Sound brought up a recurring comparison to Bristol trip-hop. Nobody’s quite right in this case, but they’re not wrong either.

Flash back one year earlier, when Deafheaven’s beautifully intense black metal/shoegaze hybrid Sunbather ended 2013 as the highest rated album on Metacritic that year — and Treble’s Album of the Year. That’s pretty rare for a metal record, even if it’s a pretty unconventional one. Of course, that it sat comfortably in a kind of Bermuda Triangle between black metal, shoegaze and post-rock (even screamo, if you want to make it a rectangle), didn’t sit right with every metalhead. A Metal Archives user named RageW called Deafheaven “A Midwestern screamo band masquerading as a black metal band,” and Vice’s Jonah Bayer told an entertaining, if head-scratching anecdote about some bartenders in Brooklyn who said the band “did not fall under the black metal category in any way.” That being said, the guardians of genre couldn’t stop Deafheaven’s star from rising, and the band members themselves didn’t seem all that fazed; guitarist Kerry McCoy deflected the trollery with nonchalance in an interview at the Golden Gods Awards: “We’re just dudes that are playing tunes — if you like it you like it; if you don’t you don’t.”

This pattern tends to repeat itself year after year, and in 2015, the albums that rise to the top of year-end lists, and the artists who garner the most exposure, will likely be the ones who present a challenge to the way we hear familiar sounds, or pick apart genre by adopting only certain characteristics rather than simply adhering to tradition. Historically speaking, the artists that have made the greatest contributions to popular music (and unpopular music) are those who have rewritten the rules, and risked upsetting the traditionalists. Not everyone was pleased with what Elvis Presley did with R&B. Ditto The Beatles. And you can bet that by the time punk rock arrived in the late ’70s, plenty of audiences were uncomfortable with where rock music was going.

Here’s the funny thing about genres, though: Once you create something that doesn’t yet fit in under an existing genre, a new one has to be invented. And so as more artists continue to play with the tropes of a certain style, break them apart, put them back together again and scramble them like audible omelets, more genres are birthed with each passing year. In just the past decade or so, we’ve been treated to such wide-ranging and often eye-rolling categorizations as chillwave, witch house (or “hauntology”), wonky, trap, vaporwave, shitgaze, trancecore, blackgaze, crunkcore, and moombahton, which — even after half a decade — is still barely a genre.

What you’ll find when dissecting any such new genre is that it likely contains many characteristics of an existing genre, albeit with a twist. Shitgaze is mainly lo-fi, over-distorted garage rock. Blackgaze is mostly shoegaze with blast beats, and sometimes screaming. Vaporwave is new age music concocted from samples of corporate videos and commercials. And so on. Anything that’s old can be made new — just look at how techno and Big Beat (or, more simply, “dance music”) became rebranded in the ’00s as EDM. But once something new is born, it’s going to need a name.

It’s easy to be cynical about the sometimes silly nature of genre, and how it can sometimes be based on little more than minutiae, but the concept of genre does serve a purpose. It’s an organizational tool, and one that can reap practical rewards for those who take it at face value. If you’re a fan of post-punk records like Joy Division’s Closer, then naturally you’re going to seek out other post-punk records. And if you discover dubstep or grime and like what you hear, you’re going to find more dubstep or grime records to continue to feed that craving. The flipside of that is genre’s use in labels’ and retailers’ methods of selling you music; as Das Racist’s Kool A.D. said in a must-read Flavorwire response to a Sasha Frere-Jones article about hip-hop, “The study of genre is largely the study of marketing.”

There’s nothing wrong with this; whether for profit or for personal discovery, having a method of organization can be a helpful thing. It’s when we imbue genres with greater meaning than simply making sense out of chaos. That’s how we end up with metal fans online who deem Sunbather unfit for being considered “true metal,” or why the phrase “real hip-hop” is a loaded phrase that’s been known to start more flame wars than to clarify anything. Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey, who coined the term “PBR&B” as a Twitter joke and later weighed the consequences of being clever when he saw it take off, noted in an op-ed piece that “genres make music easier to fight about.” And that’s when genre becomes a tricky subject; when taste becomes an issue of identity and tribe, it’s no longer about what music sounds like but rather what it says about you.

Since the rise of file-sharing, and then social media and then streaming services, however, this has been a lesser concern. Exposure to a broader range of sounds is easier than ever, and greater exposure leads to more eclectic listeners. Yet the more that artists continue to color outside the lines and muddy the waters, the more complicated it becomes to find like-minded artists. For instance, one of the most interesting albums this year was Arca’s shape-shifting electronic set Xen, but there’s very little it sounds like. There are artists that Arca has worked with, like Kanye West and — to come full circle — FKA Twigs. But beyond that, it’s more complicated finding a musical peer.

I don’t know about you, but I find that exciting. After so many years of evolution in pop music, it still says that there are new frontiers and new places to go. It won’t all be amazing — some of it will be the next “crunkcore.” But whenever someone complains about the disappointing state of indie rock or metal or hip-hop, it’s worth asking whether they’ve allowed their definitions to expand and take new shape. Push it far enough and it all begins to turn into a beautiful blur, where genre is no longer as clear-cut, and everything is just music.

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