How 'genres', once considered reductive in music, are undergoing tectonic shifts today

In the playlist-driven world of today, where songs are tagged and heard by mood, genres seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant, particularly during the compositional process.

Amit Gurbaxani November 29, 2021 11:26:27 IST
How 'genres', once considered reductive in music, are undergoing tectonic shifts today

Last week, musical force of nature Adele added to her ever-increasing list of grand achievements with the release of her new album 30. Apart from the impressive sales figures and her getting Spotify to unshuffle its plays, there was one milestone that slipped somewhat under the radar: lead single 'Easy On Me' became the first song to scale a combination of Billboard’s pop, rock, hip-hop, and country charts, as a result of which Adele tied Mariah Carey by appearing on as many as 17 of the publications’ different airplay surveys. (There are 25 in total.)

The list, in alphabetical order, comprises Adult Alternative, Adult Contemporary, Adult Pop, Adult R&B, Alternative, Country, Dance/Mix Show, Latin, Latin Pop, Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop, Pop, R&B/Hip-Hop, Rhythmic, Rock & Alternative, Smooth Jazz, Tropical, and the all-genre Radio Songs. The charts she has not graced yet are Christian, Christian AC, Gospel, Holiday (aka Christmas songs), Latin Rhythm, Mainstream Rock, Rap, and Regional Mexican. It is only a matter of time, I say.

It is likely that you might not have been aware that many of these genres and subgenres exist. The more surprising thing is that they are just a minute fraction of the number of genres on Spotify. Raise your hand if you are a fan of 'hard dance' or 'mallsoft.' It turns out that there are almost 5,700 styles under which the streaming service classifies sounds. It is no wonder then that some artists, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion or frustration, pick the most generic names from the list, for example 'world,' when categorising their music.

Adele is often described as a singer-songwriter, a term that has become synonymous with pop. However, as the range of charts she has climbed shows, her songs traverse multiple formats. 'Singer-songwriter,' I’ve observed, is commonly used by Indian independent artists to describe themselves. To me, it indicates the involvement of guitar or keys to accompany self-written, introspective lyrics. But like the words 'electronic musician' that hardly say much about the breadth of styles a DJ/producer might play, it does not quite do justice to the scope of an act’s sound.

Today’s most exciting music comes from artists who draw from and incorporate a spectrum of musical influences. This year, Indian indie singer-songwriters, including Dhruv Visvanath, Mali, and Tejas, have put out albums that pointed to a large and diverse set of inspirations. Recently, the music I have been most enthused by is of newer acts such as the duo of singer Ranj and producer-guitarist Clifr, who seamlessly thread through R&B, pop, and hip-hop, and the ensemble of T.ill Apes, who bring together rap, jazz, funk, and rock.

I was enticed enough by their releases to finally venture out and attend my first proper gig since March 2020, despite knowing fully well that the number of people wearing masks at the venue would be in single digits. (The advantage, if you can call it that, of them being upcoming acts is that there were spots where one was available to maintain a reasonable distance from the other attendees.)

I admit that, as a journalist, I find genres helpful because they help me describe the music. At the same time, I can totally understand why musicians find them restrictive, even if it is unfair to say that they serve only commercial purposes, to help slot music in record stores and radio stations.

Yet, in the playlist-driven world of today, where songs are tagged and heard by mood, genres seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant, particularly during the compositional process.

Other areas where the genre-lisation of music remains important are festivals and awards. Then again, more and more festivals are programming line-ups by matching the popularity of the artists with the size of the stages, indicating that audiences are caring less about genres. As for awards, in the past few years, acts have expressed their annoyance at being mis-categorised. Last year, Justin Bieber was upset that songs from his 2020 R&B album Changes got nominated in pop fields for the 2021 Grammys. This time around (2022), his nods have been spread across both categories.

The naming of genres has come under fire as well. When Tyler, the Creator won Best Rap Album for his 2019 record Igor in 2020, he criticised the organisers for always putting “guys that look like” him in the “rap or urban” categories every time they make "anything that’s genre-bending," adding that the term ‘urban’ was just a politically correct substitute for "the n-word."

The Grammys responded by dropping the “urban” awards but this year, have again nominated Tyler, The Creator in Best Rap Album. In the same vein, they renamed 'Best World Music' to 'Best Global Music,' a move that suggested the Recording Academy found themselves in such a quandary with this particular issue that they decided the only way to fix the problem was to invest in a thesaurus.

The 2022 nominations further reflect how artists are transcending genres. With 11 nods, the most for any act, Jon Batiste is primed to have a big night at the ceremony in January 2022. Songs from his LP We Are, which is in the running for Best Album, were nominated across the R&B, jazz, and American roots fields. The versatile American musician is also up for a Best Contemporary Classical Composition trophy.

How genres once considered reductive in music are undergoing tectonic shifts today

Closer home, there is Bollywood music, which is frequently and erroneously referred to as a genre. Hindi film composers are infamous for co-opting new musical styles soon after they catch on, and while Bollywood music is not a genre per se, both it and its sibling “non-film” include unofficial genres. A joke I make at music conferences that never fails to amuse international delegates is how in India, instead of traditional genres, mainstream music is categorised into 'sad love,' 'happy love,' and 'party,' with 'sad love' being the most popular by far.

But it is no joke. At this year’s instalment of All About Music, the submissions made for the ‘Pitch Your Songs To Filmmakers’ session were classified into three themes: 'Love,' ‘'Pain,' and 'Party.' Love or loathe them, genres are what you make of them.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox.

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