Lazy Luddite Log

25.2.16

Regenres

It is ten years since I posted this entry on the history of rock-and-roll or blues-derived popular music in its many-faceted form. In this post I will discuss whether I think anything much has changed in the decade since and look at some of the impediments to forming a coherent perspective on this topic.

One difficulty with mapping the family tree of popular blues-derived music is that there are far more names for sub-genres than I feel is warranted by authentic musical differences. There are any number of terms ending with the suffixes 'core' or 'wave' or 'hop' and much of this drive to name things comes from the desire of musicians or commentators or even fans to identify something they love as distict. In some cases the distinction is geographic - a music that is produced in the same manner on two sides of the Atlantic may get different names. In other cases it is generational in that a new term sometimes denotes a revival that lacks awareness of its own heritage.

Sometimes there are musical differences but they are so minute as to make one wonder why they bother. In electronic music there is a tendency to distinguish sub-genres on the basis of ranges of beats-per-minute. But I have to ask - if you take a particular track and change nothing but its speed then is that truly all it takes to shift it into a different sub-genre? If the change was sufficient to alter the response of listeners (from the relaxed groove of reggae to the frantic skank of ska for instance) then that could justify a genre distinction. But just a tiny turn of a dial? I think the issue here is simply the tribal desire to belong to a unique scene or the corporate drive to sell something as fresh.

If you reject this degree of specificity you face your own problems however. If I try and throw the net of definition wider and in a consistent way across all the music I'm considering then I need to find or re-apply terms that in some cases are more narrow in application. One case of my doing this is in using 'techno' to refer to all manner of electronic dance music forms. The fact that I acknowledge that it also refers to a more specific form and that my more general usage is something many other non-electronic fans do bolsters my case somewhat. But only somewhat. I'm still messing with words and in a way that may offend the afficionado.

If I dismiss a whole lot of changes as merely new words for existing things do I then think that anything has changed in the decade since I 'published' my musical essay? It will help if I can summarize the factors I think go into distinguishing genres as suggested in my Musical Genres 1955-2005. They pretty much divide into cultural factors and technological factors (which in turn impact on each other).

The adoption of a genre from one culture by another will inevitably result in the older genres embraced by that culture blending with the newly adopted genre. This is also true of sub-cultures such as youth 'scenes'. Sometimes a cultural practice other than music will also come into play - hippy musos playing blues while on mind-altering drugs resulted in psychedelia. The economic circumstances of particular demographics also contribute - playing on crappy dime-store guitars or re-purposing record players as instruments both spring to mind.

Instruments are a form of artifice so next we move to technological factors. There are many 'elements' of a musical composition and one that tends to be overlooked in defining genres is timbre. I personally find it important and so the kinds of instruments employed in producing particular genres is something I always listen for in a song. But I think it should take more than just substitution of the odd instrument and it should happen rapidly rather than with incremental slowness. Changing genre involves more than just auto-tuning your vocal recording.

All these potential changes need to pass the listening test. Texts can tell you all sorts of things but do you think rock or soul sound sufficiently different from the blues? Hopefully you do because they are! All-in-all I suspect that change across many characteristics is needed to justify a new tag. But I also suspect complete consistency is beyond my grasp. I will inevitably draw some lines more boldly than others as a result of my own preferences and vantage as an aging Gen-Xer. But it is time I made some substantive comments.

A big trend seen online is to take two existing tracks and edit parts of them together into a new song. This 'mashing' rarely if ever produces anything new. Sometimes it will involve the mixing of genres but any newness is incidental rather than the emergence of a new fusion. But just maybe this mass of attention-seeking experimenters in combining anything and everything will accidentally spawn a new sound that takes on a life of its own. I'm more inclined however to put trust in originality and a desire to express oneself personally rather than via the work of others.

The Internet facilitates all sorts of communication and even erodes the distinctions between different roles and functions. Someone with musical talent can now record a multi-track composition and then promote and even sell it online. A new generation of popular singer-songwriters like Lorde have come along and what they produce tends to have an ambient quality to it (which may itself be a result of the sounds they can access on home computers). These artists can be their own producer and promoter which is a radical change in relation to an aging and sometimes stuffy music industry. This may be a more responsive way for humans to develop new things. However for every trend there are counter-trends.

It seems that everything new is old again. There has been a growing interest in older genres as exhibited by projects like Postmodern Jukebox. A hardcore song will be performed by a hillbilly folk band or a hip-hop song will be performed by a swing-era jazz band. However playing a song in a different genre simply shifts it to that other genre. Whether this development will produce new genres is yet to be seen. It is however an interesting trend and may have something to do with a growing desire for authenticity in a technocratic and consumerist world. Possibly this is why we see such self-conscious retro experiments embraced by hipsters.

Another sub-culture I'm familiar with is nerds. Nerds are playing a role in musical developments but this is arguably nothing new. 70s progressive supergroups were the invention of college students but they were never ironically or self-consciously nerdy - they just did what they did and they did it well. For self-aware nerdiness in music we have to look to the somewhat more recent New Wave scene in the 80s and some of those bands (Devo, B52s, Oingo Boingo) fit the bill. Fast-forward to the Twenty First Century and nerd culture has impacted on a number of genres. Chiptune is a kind of techno that actively emulates the sounds of old computer games originating in Japan. However I feel some very old novelty tracks like Space Invaders by Player-1 did that too. The further back-and-forth you listen the more you can find that new things have incidental antecedents.

Something I think is new is dubstep. Distorting natural sounds has been happening for decades. Inventing artificial sounds is almost as old. But the way dubstep sounds to me is like artificial sounds are made and then distorted. The effect is of an electronic monster molesting a dance floor. This is arguably another level of development in electronic music. The name of dubstep is partly derived from dub - a studio-based relative of reggae - but listening to it suggests it is more akin to some of the more severe kinds of techno that have been creeping into other genres since my youth. Pop since the 80s has been partly electronic and that component of it has become increasingly central so that now the only way to distinguish many pop tunes from techno is to ask whether they take the form of a song rather than an instrumental. Is this a new genre? Or is it just an updated form of pop or a chart-oriented form of techno? Listen to the likes of Lady Gaga and decide for yourself.

Sometimes it feels like we have exhausted originality but I suspect that a continuing problem is a lack of global cultural cross-pollination. Even in the Twenty First Century music from beyond the Anglosphere only gets into our charts in the form of novelty dance hits or within underground world music scenes. Things are slowly changing however and once more the Internet comes into play. If an Australian is sick of charting pop they can always access Europop or Cantopop or any other international form. Even so what they may find is they have traveled more in time that in space. I for one find that a lot of foreign pop simply sounds like the charting music of my youth. It is as if the rest of the world is a generation behind the trends of the Anglosphere. But maybe I need to look further and escape global pop to find traditional or alternative forms of music. The biggest resistance to such a habit will come from the desire to understand a song. I would argue that one can 'understand' an instrumental in terms of mood but some insist in singing along.

What I have been seeing in the past decade is different ways of producing and consuming, different roles and relationships, different atmospheres, but rarely much new musically. Most of the music we have now is a revolving mix of what we had in the past. We are looking back over a total of sixty years of musical diversification and I feel as if the first three decades were more productive than the next three. Once you account for the tendency to over-name sub-genres it seems that the development of distinctly new forms of music has slowed. At most I think the trends I have discussed will be the ground in which innovation will eventually arise. Time is needed to say more.

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