What’s in a genre?

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.

J. Sumerau

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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13 Responses to What’s in a genre?

  1. Jason, great post. Thanks. Do you know where the notion of ‘gene’ in music or film comes from? I’d really be keen to know!

    Also, I wonder of ‘gene’ is an invention by the industry to segment the market? It seems to me that listeners’ attempts to slot a song, band, etc. into a genre today is done in alignment with a classification system created or used by music marketers. Yet, if you drill deeper – just look at your previous posts! – users’ classification of music is much more nuanced and context-bound, contingent, etc.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Hey Dirk,

      Thanks for the moment, its a great question. I’m not expert, but best I recall from humanities courses and the things I’ve read the term seems to have been in English use for a few hundred years in relation to the arts and theatre (later to films, television, music, etc). I’ve read some essays that talk about as far back as Plato and others that focus on the Renaissance or early Islamic caliphates, but I honestly don’t know if these are more than arguments or modern classifications / terms used to describe the past. What fascinates me, as you note, as the aspect of drilling deeper to see how classification is actually done by people in relation to musical type (and honestly film, television, art, etc too). j.

  2. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    Check out this news piece – http://wapo.st/1J5CmdY – related to our previous discussion of gender disparities noted on country radio (in the ritual on the radio post), which also has relevance for the ways genres are constructed and defined in varied contexts. What role do social categories like race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and age play in the construction of genres. In fact, in relation to age and generation, Dr. Kotarba has written about this in relation to rock n roll tastes among baby boomers (see his book on the subject http://www.amazon.com/Baby-Boomer-Rock-Roll-Fans/dp/0810888319).

  3. Lain says:

    J, great addition to the post! I wonder how the dynamic works in relation to women artists who might sometimes also blur the lines of genres. So, for example, I think of one of my all time favorite artists, Neko Case. Neko could definitely be considered a country music artist in some of her songs, or in the context of some of her albums, but I have also seen her listed (in conversation or on the web) under the genres of rock, folk, Americana, and “alternative” (which is a funny genre that always leave’s me questioning “alternative to what, exactly?”). Neko’s lyrics also put forth a sometimes biting critique of patriarchy, sexism, and heteronormativity (just look at her songs “Man,” “I’m from Nowhere,” and “Star Witness” for examples).

    I’ve also rarely ever heard Neko Case on the radio (although, interestingly, I have frequently heard her songs in restaurants and malls, often accompanied by surrounding strangers questioning who the artist is and commenting on her amazing voice– I add this detail because I think there could be something to the anonymizing that happens with “in store plays” versus “radio plays” where the artist and song are usually announced by a DJ). Despite her lack of radio play, Neko has a pretty massive following (myself included!), which suggests that numerous people *do* enjoy her music. I wonder if the fact that I’ve not heard much Neko on the radio is connected to some of the dynamics that come up in the article Dr. Kotarba suggested– not only is Neko a female artist, but she blurs the lines of genre, sexuality, and gender in her lyrics, and criticizes systems of male dominance pretty overtly. Yet when people hear her music in an anonymized fashion, they seem to enjoy it, and despite her lack of radio presence her concerts are usually packed with fans. Could part of this have to do with keeping women artists who blur established genre boundaries *especially* out of the spotlight? And if so, what might this say about power and the innovative ways that artists and their fans might subvert the power of the radio?

    Thanks for this post! It is definitely insightful and gets me thinking =)

  4. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    Thanks for the comment Lain! And in line with the above link, which was suggested by Joe Kotarba, here is another one looking at the issue across different genres and times http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/808-amy-winehouse-kurt-cobain-and-the-gendering-of-martyrdom/

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