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While the looming dismay of global politics overwhelms countless nations around the world today, one positive constant remains steadfast: music. Music is the one true unifier that can neither be denied nor challenged. Yes, some people have their preferences and others dislike certain styles, artists, or songs. But artists from around the world often spend their entire lives perfecting their art, their window into their inner selves, translated through the magic of harmony and melody, lyrics and instrumentals. Some songs are cathartic while others are simply crafted for the sake of entertainment, but all have their place and purpose.

Due to music’s subjectivity and ambiguity, controversy inherently accompanies such creative work. Artists ranging from Desiigner and Nickelback to The Chainsmokers and Toby Keith are often met with as much opposition and disdain as they are love and adoration, and the belief that everything has its audience seems to ring steadily true. One of the most significant debates in music, however, is not whether a musician is deemed “good” or “bad,” but where their music falls on the spectrum of an organizational concept known as ‘genre.’

In the words that follow, we assess the history of the term ‘genre,’ its purpose and benefit, and its disputed value within the music community. Are they too limiting when categorizing artists and their music? Does any single body of work truly defy categorization? After all, the inherent chaos of our world begs for some semblance of order, and genres serve to provide listeners with an atlas to the vast and often anarchic nature of the music community.

PrintSource: 4chan’s /mu/ (amazing source for other genre infographics)

Music genre, as most commonly defined, is “a conventional category that identifies some pieces of music as belonging to a shared tradition or set of conventions.” In other words, it serves to organize music through a reliable and relatively uniform system. There is much debate over what constitutes a genre, and whether style and form are similar or separate terms. Some experts, like musicologist Peter van der Merwe, believe that “genre should be defined as pieces of music that share a certain style or ‘basic musical language,’” while others like University of Surrey’s Allan F. Moore believe that many secondary characteristics of music like subject matter, technique, context, and theme serve to define a work’s characterization but can vary greatly within and across genres and subgenres. Michaelangelo Matos wrote a great piece for The Guardian discussing how religion, technique, technology, lyrics, rhyme schemes, and record label and artist names have influenced genre naming throughout history.

Regardless of whether you choose to define the term by technicalities or subjectivities, the world generally agrees on the purpose of genre: to offer an easily sortable and searchable library for the grand musical spectrum. Classical music is defined by time period, instrumentation, and style among other things, for example. Electronic music is often defined by its digitally-sourced instruments and the technology with which it is produced, while country music is rooted in tradition, geographical origin, and demographic. Furthermore, all three differentiate based on their distinguishable arsenal of instruments, but elements from each genre can be found in what is colloquially known as pop music. You probably won’t hear a banjo in a Mozart concerto, nor would you find Ableton robot farts in a Dolly Parton song. But, on the other hand, you might find a harpsichord, Roland drum machine, and harmonica in a single song on the pop music charts.

More specifically and arguably most complex, subgenres possess far more ambiguous criteria. In drum ’n’ bass, for example, you have subgenres like liquid, jungle, and breakbeat. Liquid is deeply rooted in melody and ambiance with influence from jazz and soul whereas jungle is frequently defined by its fast tempo, vocal sample selection, and pitch-shifted snare rolls. Breakbeat, on the other hand, is more or less the result of acid house and techno’s influence on dnb. What brings these three together are overarching themes like syncopation, Amen break sampling, tempo, and artist lineage. That is to say, drum ‘n’ bass artists usually follow in the footsteps of their predecessors with strict adherence to tradition rather than pop up unexpectedly with obscure styles like many other genres of electronic music.

82814424961483.5633cf73634ce-1 Source: Joanne Mac

Now, what’s so bad about this type of musical indexing? Well, the categorization of music, particularly in electronic music, is sometimes misguided and results in the pigeonholing of a given artist. A form of typecasting, if you will. This is a relatively new problem, considering artists in the hip-hop, country, and folk communities tend to wade in familiar territory rather than branch out into the worlds of trance, opera, or math rock (e.g., Reel Big Fish don’t tend to venture outside of ska punk, and Smash Mouth has never tried their hand at a reggaeton song). The sudden explosion of electronic and dance music has posed a new set of challenges, and the ever-growing family tree of subgenres within the dance music spectrum is rife with overlap and conflict.

Let’s take a random producer who is most known for her exciting use of heavy basslines, sawtooth wave synths, and distortion all ranging within a tempo of 125-130 BPM. Some might consider her style a form of electro-house. After all, her sound feels remarkably similar to early Porter Robinson and Wolfgang Gartner. Is it safe to categorize specific releases as electro-house? Yes, absolutely. But — and this is where many artists and opponents of the term base their distaste for the word — it is not okay to categorize her as an ‘electro-house artist.’ Why? Well, to do so would ultimately limit her and anything she produces in the future that is sonically different from the common themes of electro-house.

We saw a similar situation with Porter Robinson when he decided to travel down the more cinematic route than his famous Spitfire album established. Chet Faker as well, who recently decided to make a name and style change and is now going by his birth name, Nick Murphy. Skream will forever be known as the co-founding father of UK dubstep, but his love of house music has led him in a completely different direction. It can be tough to take a different sonic route when your credibility as a musician is limited by the style for which you are most notable, but it’s entirely possible.

Some artists go so far as to establish their entire careers as anti-genre. Miami-based duo GTA, with their Death To Genres volumes, are outspokenly in favor of this ideology. “We always wanted to make different types of music,” they wrote in an interview with XXL Mag. “We didn’t want to restrict ourselves from being able to produce anything, our fans expecting to produce one kind of thing.” OWSLA-bred DJ and producer Mija is currently spearheading an entire tour and brand called “Fk a Genre.” However, her methodology speaks more to the DJ side of things rather than production. The concept originated from her exposure to new styles of music after moving to LA. “When I was living in Phoenix I was so deep into the house and techno world and that’s when I discovered really how to DJ,” she reminisced in a Relentless Beats interview. “When I moved to LA I was exposed to so many different types of music, I didn’t even know that I liked hip-hop or trap, it was a whole different world. So I made a mixtape just exploring all the new styles that I was really interested in and intrigued by.” You might have noticed that neither of these ideologies foster resentment toward the concept of genres. Rather, they embrace it by acknowledging the system and using it to their advantage.

This is all good and well, but what do we do with all the budding producers and hopeful artists who try to describe their work using a haphazard string of exciting but loosely related adjectives, or those who feel they are “enigmatic” and “genre-defying”? First, we have to understand why they do it. As with all previous examples, one has to assume it’s to avoid the inevitable pigeonholing that haunts the modern dance music producer. They don’t want to be defined by the limitations of any one genre. Furthermore, with the constant fusion of genres, development of new technology, and globalization of communication, we’re seeing new styles develop in a much more rapid timeframe. Unfortunately, many don’t even last but a few months or years. Remember tropical house? That hype didn’t last very long.

There is a major difference, however, between genre and voice. You might see an artist describing a set of four songs that sound remarkably different as evidence of what makes them “diverse” and “remarkable.” Is the first song really different from the last future bass tune we heard yesterday? How does the wobble on track three differ from the rest of the dubstep songs out there? Furthermore, what is cohesive about those two tracks? Here lies the concept of voice, an artist’s unique signature that can be heard across all their bodies of work. Ever heard of the Pryda and Jack Ü snares? What about the Skrillex growl or Flume sidechain? These are specific aspects of an artist’s music that have been used to identify their voice. Instead of slapping together a few cool sounds and calling it “genre-defying,” they focus on a specific instrument, production technique, or playing style to differentiate themselves from the herd.

history of electronic music 1Source: Joanne Mac

How will genre continue to shape the ever-growing music community? Will we ever truly reach this concept of “genre-defying” or will that, in and of itself, become a genre? Maybe a new system will catch hold. By definition, every body of work can be categorized. Perhaps not immediately upon release, but somewhere down the line. Take Flume for example. He introduced a wild new sound to electronic music. Nobody really knew what to call it, and it didn’t fit any one genre perfectly. Producers latched on and the sound spread. More and more songs began to sound similar, adopting and adapting Flume’s cinematic percussion and hyper-sidechained supersaw synths. This fascination with a new and revolutionary sound developed into the name “future bass.” Voila! A new genre was born.

Whether an artist says they hate genres or feels that their music defies categorization, the fact of the matter is that music always comes from somewhere, and that place is always a style, technique, or theme established by someone prior. To ignore the origin of the sounds in your sample pack or disregard all the artists that have used a Prophet 6 or marimba in their music won’t have the effect you think it will. Just because your sample of running water and ambient noise was made by hand doesn’t mean that you were the first person to entertain those sounds. Indulge and embrace the vast history of music and find your niche. Work hard to set yourself apart from the pack and the benefits will follow. “Genre” isn’t a bad word, and the system can only serve to help you grow as both an artist and fan.