When I was a child, I had a friend who took every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen that Cat Stevens was the greatest country singer of all time. Although I disagreed with this assertion (my vote went to Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire at the time), I never thought much about it until I met another friend a couple years ago who asserted both that he did not like country music and that Cat Stevens was the greatest artist of all time. For my childhood friend, Stevens was country music, but for my current friend Stevens is a folk singer (for me, Stevens is kind of boring).
This observation got me thinking about musical genres or types, and the ways we construct and maintain them in relation to our expectations and understandings about music and our experiences with it. I found myself wondering what constituted a genre, how people decided what did and did not belong in a given genre, and how these things might change from person to person or at different times.
While usually focusing on scenes and communities, interactionists and other sociologists have often analyzed various ways people understand and make sense of different types of music including but not limited to punk rock, bluegrass, hip hop, heavy metal, angry rock, grunge, and Latin music. In such cases, scholars have found that people invest these labels with significant meaning capable of signifying individual and collective identities, group memberships, and tastes and consumption patterns. In fact, such studies suggest genres represent symbolic boundaries that speak to emotional, ideological, and identity based conceptions of who we are and how we do things.
Like all symbolic boundaries, however, genres may be contested whenever people with differing opinions, experiences, and expectations come into contact with one another. Alongside the case of Cat Stevens noted above, I’m reminded of arguments (that sometimes became outright fights) I witnessed years ago over whether Metallica was a rock or heavy metal band, and whether Bone Thugs-N-Harmony constituted soul, rap, and / or hip hop. I also remember similar debates about what “counted” as “hard” rock; the difference between the blues, Americana, and alternative country; distinctions between R&B and Soul, and how anyone could even imagine a category that fit innovators like Prince or Tori Amos who created sounds, images, and ideas that none of us ever imagined in the first place. In fact, I doubt I could count the number of cups of coffee and alcoholic beverages that have been consumed as I witnessed or participated in these types of discussions.
I have also noticed similar meaning making efforts whenever someone seeks to explain an unknown artist to a potential new listener. I remember, for example, telling my life partner that a new band I heard sounded (to me) like Sisters of Mercy and Sonic Youth (two of their favorite bands) had a baby – the band is called Royal Thunder, go listen for yourself and see if you agree. I further remember many occasions where I told someone or someone told me some variation of, “Oh you gotta check them out if you like x, y, or z,” or “Well, its kind of like x during y period when they were into z technique.” At other times, people explicitly invoke (assumed) understandings of genres themselves like when a friend introduced me to the Roots years ago by saying, “Take the best stuff you can think of out of Hip Hop, Soul, Blues, Rock n Roll, and Americana and you got it” – I honestly still think this was a fairly accurate description.
All these observations lead me to think that genres represent an interactional process wherein people take aspects of shared meaning systems to define musical selections as a certain type or form. This makes me wonder what genres do people listen to or associate themselves with most frequently, and further, what do these forms represent or mean to them. If, for example, someone primarily enjoys one genre, what about that genre speaks to them and how well does their definition of the genre line up with others? If, on the other hand, a person (like me) listens to a wide variety of genres, are there specific elements or meanings within different genres that speak to them in different ways? What might interactional analyses focused specifically on genre creation, maintenance and / or change reveal? I can’t pretend to have answers to these questions, but I think they might provide some fertile ground for interesting studies of music.