The idea of putting different types of music in specific genres is a disservice to the art musicians make
Back in high school, when my friends and I would talk about the kind of music we liked, I always felt ashamed to admit I listened to pop music. Because of that, I always focused on other genres like indie and alternative music. I didn’t fully understand what those labels meant, but they felt better than saying I liked pop. Looking back on it, these judgements that we make surrounding genre are odd and limit our enjoyment of the music we consume.
When you tell someone you listen to a specific genre, it may elicit many different reactions. I noticed that when I mention to older family members that I like pop music, they tend to react more adversely than if I were to mention enjoying rock music. One of my aunts said that only rock music should be considered real music. I asked her why and her response was simply, “Well because rock music is better than the stupid stuff on the radio now.” However, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it, how do we define the differences between rock and the subgenres it spawned, like alternative rock?
There seems to be, in my experience, a lot of disdain for “mainstream” music. In a lot of ways, I feel ashamed that I like a lot of it. It seems as though people take issue with how successful many artists who get radio play are, as opposed to lesser-known artists. However, it comes off as a value-based judgement rather than an appreciation for the music. In my experience, people viewed themselves as better, or more cultured than the average listener, if they had knowledge of lesser-known artists because they needed to work harder to find the music. I have also heard people say they are “real” fans because they knew the artist before they became popular either on the radio or on streaming services — I’ve even been guilty of this myself. I realized that putting down popular artists wasn’t a fair way to assess whether or not I liked a specific song.
When I think about the artists that I like, compared to the genres I don’t like, I find myself wondering if I believe the labels as much as I thought I did. For example, I always talk about how much I dislike rap and hip hop, yet I enjoy many songs by Dax and a few by Cardi B. For a while, I was adamant that I didn’t like the music because I shouldn’t like it. I was focused on my decision that I didn’t like this music genre, so I wrote off the music without giving it a fair chance. While I enjoy both Dax and Cardi B’s music their music doesn’t sound remotely the same despite them both being rap/hip-hop artists.
My interest in this topic was sparked while I was watching a YouTube video about two people discussing Semler, a Christian artist and the creation of their album Preacher’s Kid. While the YouTubers share many views that I disagree with and find harmful to members of the LGBTQ+ community, or those who are not Christians, their discussion here was based on music genres. Christian music cannot contain swear words per Distrokid regulations, a site that is used to upload music to platforms like iTunes and Spotify, and Semler has swear words in their songs, yet still classified their music as Christian.
This got me thinking about the way music genres work, and if their rules could and should be bent. As much as I wanted to be in support of artistic freedom and rule breaking with the music, I find myself being on the side of the genre in this instance. I found myself wondering if there is a rule on what rules can be broken. It brought attention to just how debatable music and the classification method can be. For example, Justin Bieber was not pleased with the Grammy award category that his album Changes was nominated for. He was expecting his album to be nominated in the R&B category, as he felt that he put out an album in that genre. Yet, Changes was nominated for Pop Vocal Album of the Year.
Music genres and classifications are still necessary to a degree. It makes sense to have a system of categorization because it can create a good stepping stone for understanding music and the tropes that come with a respective category. In order to break the rules, you also need to know them, and genres provide just that.
However, there is too much focus on genres. When Taylor Swift released 1989, some fans were disappointed that she had mostly converted from country music to pop music. There was also a lot of talk about how Mumford & Sons sold out because some of their songs didn’t have the same folk feel as they once did. When genres become the source of the issue, the rigidity they cause ends up being the focus and the actual music is cast to the side.
Graphic by Julie Rose Gauthier