Pop Music and the Demise of Genre

Josh Weeks

Is musical genre outdated in today's Network Society? Or might it be harnessed for democratic ends?

Musical genre is an elusive concept. Pop, punk, rock, hip-hop, grime, ska, R&B, garage, dance, new-wave, metal, funk, disco, reggae -- if such a list isn’t exhaustive enough, precede any one of these epithets with ‘post’, ‘alternative’, or ‘neo’ and the very concept of genre begins to resemble something more akin to Borges’s "The Library of Babel" than it does a necessary means of classification. (The idea that you can put ‘post’ or ‘neo’ in front of pretty much any genre was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote speech in 2012, ‘Just add neo– and post– to everything and say them all again.’ The full transcript of the keynote address was published by Rolling Stone, 28 March 2012)

However, if recent developments in the music press were anything to go by, it would appear that the days of consigning one’s music to a particular genre are coming to an end. Whether it be Matt Healy of The 1975 telling The Metro newspaper that ‘Sticking to one genre isn’t really relevant for us’ (7 November 2013), or American newcomer, Halsey, making the bold claim that ‘Genre in 2016 is just absolute bullshit’ (NME, 10 February 2016), a plethora of artists have been lining up to take aim at this (supposedly) most archaic of systems.

In its broadest manifestation, the issue of genre has been escalating ever more rapidly since the turn of the millennium. Can anyone remember a point during the last decade or so when the casual response to the question of musical taste has not been, ‘I like a bit of everything’? If the obsolescence of genre has become an increasing concern for artists and fans in recent months, it's not because musical heterogeneity is a new development. On the contrary, what we are witnessing is but the climax of a discursive paradigm that has been simmering for quite some time -- a sense of cultural disillusion which, according to the most commonly accepted theory, has its roots in the inception and development of the internet.

In line with Healy himself, who observes that ‘we live in a world now where kids are likely to listen to Carole King and A$AP Rocky in the same hour’, accessibility is often cited as the key factor in the gradual demise of genre. The logic of this argument is as follows: with the rise of iTunes, Facebook, the smartphone etc., an individual’s listening habits are no longer limited to a physical record collection, or the desires of a particular radio station format, but instead the listener is liberated by the seemingly limitless volume of digital material at his fingertips.

Whilst this is certainly a sound reflection, and one that would be difficult to oppose wholesale, its heavy-handed emphasis on technological development risks obscuring the socio-economic factors by which the norms of cultural consumption are invariably underpinned. That is; even if the internet provides us with the opportunity to explore new territory, what prevents us from reverting to the styles and artists to which we’ve become accustomed? Isn’t there a tendency to cling to the music that helped to define us? Do we not cling to the music that shaped our perception of the world, that soundtracked our adolescent lives and offered us a sense of identity and belonging?

Conversely, has the information-loaded era countered this impulse, and created a desire for consumption so strong that we are constantly driven to expand our musical horizons? Is there something specific to the contemporary moment, which encourages varied consumption over similitude, and thus encourages us to challenge ourselves musically? It is this latter, under-examined viewpoint that here demands our attention.

At the risk of falling prey to the theoretical rigidity of Marxist analysis, the economic modifications that have occurred over the last half a decade are an important point of departure for this task. In their groundbreaking work, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2006), sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that Fordism has, since the mid-'70s, been replaced by a new economic and managerial dominant: ‘The Network Society’.

Unlike the occupational specialism characteristic of the factory production line, in which products are produced for a mass consumer and each worker is consigned a specific task, ‘The Network Society’ embodies a newfound focus on small batch production, the salability of immaterial goods comprising information and knowledge, and an emphasis on worker adaptability. Whether it be building relationships with clients, generating market strategies, or developing new products, the contemporary worker is no longer a stationary cog playing a specific part in a collective ‘project’. On the contrary, they are entrepreneurs in themselves -- self-motivated strategizers whose primary concern is to seek out others within the network, to establish their own projects, to create business opportunities that might branch off and multiply on an exponential scale.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that pop music culture’s emphasis on variety, discovery, and short-term allegiance emanates from an economic framework in which the vast majority of people -- regardless of their occupational stature -- must seek to open up new channels of capital flow on a daily basis? Maybe so. But the cultural ramifications of The Network Society begin to reveal themselves once we examine how the economic market affects both the social and political domains under this post-Fordist model.

To paraphrase political theorist, Wendy Brown, the Network Society operates by developing ‘rational actors’; normalized subjects whose mode of being is implicitly aligned with the logic of the market. In this regard, educational, judicial, and immigration policy serve to underpin corporate stability, and everyday life becomes a plane of occupational development no less vital than that of the office space or factory floor. The dominant subjectivities of the Network Society can thus no longer be understood in isolation from the market, but rather, must be considered symptomatic of the market itself.

In a culture that frames adaptability, social networking, and an entrepreneurial spirit as the key mores of a “successful” livelihood, the influence that the current mode of production has on our everyday lives is almost impossible to overlook. Much like the archetypal thriving student, whose monotonous school report is rife with attestations of academic and social “roundedness”, or the adolescent "instagrammer", for which every experience marks another opportunity to expand his or her digital web presence, the consumption of music has itself been imbued with a weariness of stasis and categorization; an economically derived impulse that makes the limitless scope of the internet seem every more appealing.

This is not to say that musical taste has become wholly “corporatized” within The Network Society. Rather, what the demise of genre seems to suggest is that the very notion of a fixed musical identity has lost its efficacy under the material conditions of late capitalism, where the distinction between the economic and the social -- labour and leisure -- has been blurred to the point of complete transparency.

There are, of course, those who mourn days gone by when one's musical penchant was worn like a badge of honour. It might even be argued that the continued appeal of certain icons like Springsteen or Dylan -- emblems of the blue collar worker and the Folk bohemian respectively -- derive from a desire to reunite musical consumption with the sense of fixed identity characteristic of the Fordist-era. But is this a case of hopeless nostalgia, or do such artists represent a form of collectivism that can somehow be regained?

To take it further, is such collectivism not a vital component in the inauguration of cultural movements that strive for social and political change? Whilst genre may well be an outdated concept that does not hold within the context of The Network Society, it might also retain a potency that can be harnessed for democratic ends. This possibility, idealistic as it sounds, will remain untested for as long genre’s irrelevancy is taken at face value.

Josh is a writer and bookseller from Caldicot, South Wales. He has recently completed an MA in Contemporary Literature, Culture, and Theory at King’s College London, and regularly contributes to the London based cultural magazine, Zero. In addition to his cultural criticism, Josh is an aspiring fiction writer, and is currently working on his debut novella, Ramblings of a Schizophrenic. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or @LocalBoy5 on twitter.

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