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Genre in Popular Music

Fabian Holt

(University Of Chicago Press)

Fabian Holt’s fine study of genre in popular music will interest specialist readers as well as general audiences. Anyone particularly invested in some of his specific case studies (especially rock ‘n’ roll’s effect on other genres, such as country music and jazz, plus some world music examples) will find this book compelling too. He sets out to prove that “categorical transgression is a fundamental condition of musical life”.


The author wants to show the complexity of what “genre” as a category of differentiation can mean in popular music. As genre theorists in popular music and in other media studies areas (such as Jason Mittel in television studies) have been arguing, genres are not stable textual or marketing categories. Rather, they are complex discourses that involve interactions among texts, audience responses and expectations, production and industry contexts, and all the multiple expectations and meanings that are generated from that nexus.


Holt notes that the issue of genre is becoming increasingly important in popular music studies, but that it has perhaps not received as much attention previously because there has been so much focus on hybridity, instead. As he discusses his understanding of genre, he is particularly adept at thinking about audiences. The music does not just happen in the musician’s performance or in the record company’s marketing. It happens in the communities of listeners who each bring their own experiences and understandings to their consumption practices, even as they attempt to shape a sense of identity or subcultural belonging through the music.


Holt argues that “at a basic level, genre is a type of category that refers to a particular kind of music within a distinctive cultural web of production, circulation, and signification”. Emphasizing the audience, he goes on to point out that “genre is not only ‘in the music,’ but also in the minds and bodies of particular groups of people who share certain conventions”. These conventions are generated from a complex circuit of production, text, and consumption.


As he sets up his methodology, Holt underscores his investment in ethnomusicology, an appropriate angle given his interest in consumption. He also notes that popular music studies has faced the challenge that there is no agreement about methodology in the field. Since so many diverse methodologies (from British cultural studies to American folklore studies) have had an impact on it, many disagreements result. He argues that the field would benefit from stronger integration. Holt’s points are persuasive, and many other critics have similarly noted that disagreements about methodology (such as when critics don’t accept someone else’s methodology coming from a different discipline to this multidisciplinary research area) are not helpful to the field.


In addition to engaging productively with pop music scholarship and genre theory, Holt provides lively and compelling case studies. In the country music section, for example, while the angle is familiar (country music reacted to the threat of rock by turning to the Nashville Sound), the approach and some of the evidence is particularly insightful.


What I like best about the book is how firmly Holt insists on the importance of pop culture. He argues, quite helpfully, that pop culture “is really one of the major domains of social life for which academia has a responsibility to act as a humane and critical voice (as opposed to merely embracing or ignoring popular taste)”. I could not agree more. His wide-ranging study proves the point.

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