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Why Genre? Why Now?

Pourquoi le genre ? Pourquoi maintenant ?
David Brackett
Cet article est une traduction de :
Pourquoi le genre ? Pourquoi maintenant ? [fr]

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Vanessa Blais-Tremblay and David Brackett wish to thank Bruno Coulombe and Nicolas Calvé for their translations. David Brackett wishes to thank Vanessa Blais-Tremblay again for translating the introduction from Categorizing Sound, for translating this introduction and for revising the translations of Haddon’s, Risk’s and Smialek’s articles. He is deeply honoured that she had the idea for this special issue in the first place. Thank you also to Will Straw and Line Grenier for helping facilitate the early stages of the project. Funding for the translations for articles by Haddon, Risk and Smialek was made possible by the Canada Research Chair Program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

1Serving as a prelude to a special issue of Volume! The French journal for popular music studies, this text emerged out of conversations between Vanessa Blais-Tremblay and myself about how to open up a dialogue with francophone popular music scholars around the study of musical genre. It draws on our preoccupation regarding journalist discourses announcing “the end of music genres” (Battan, 2019; Evershed, 2019; Petrusich, 2021). Common sense tends to perceive music genres as imposed categories, restricting artists and audiences freedom. However, from a scientific point of view, we believe that studying popular music through the lens of genre provides a particularly powerful way to understand the interconnectedness – and even the indivisibility – between musical sound and music’s social meanings.

2The rise in scholarship on musical genre results from the many advantages of studying music through the frame of genre. Greater awareness of genre can help explain, in the study and teaching of music history, how different genres bring with them (among many other qualities) varying aesthetics, audiences, dress codes/fashion senses, as well as musical processes (the usual assumed starting point for discussions of generic difference); and how genres circulate through different media, have differing connections to institutional power, and connote different demographic categories and political positions. Awareness of these social, cultural, and musical differences provides a rich way for students to understand controversies that arise in musical history. Within the history of popular music, such controversies have been particularly prominent during the period of emergence of new genres, including (in the US) jazz, swing, rock and roll, rock, disco, rap/hip-hop, and heavy metal, to name a few. Because studies at the level of genre clarify music’s connotative properties particularly well, an analytical framework incorporating genre is particularly useful for the study of semiology (or meaning) on a socio-cultural level.

3These advantages of using genre to analyze popular music are what led me to study genre in the first place. My own path began with the rather traditional academic training that I received in music. Thus, when I published a book in 1995, Interpreting Popular Music, I used individual songs – a conventional starting point for music analysis – to examine the socio-cultural factors that played a role in a song’s meaning. In a chapter comparing two versions of the 1940s pop song, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” one by Billie Holiday and one by Bing Crosby, I began to consider the impact of the larger popular music “field” in which these recordings were participating. This field was divided by musical genres that often correlated to different, albeit overlapping and intersecting, audiences. It seemed to me that the genres with which individual songs/recordings were associated had as much or more impact on who listened to a song, in what context they listened to it, and what it might mean to them than did the fine-grained stylistic details of the individual song. My formal musical training had led me to focus on the individual work/text/piece/song/recording, but I began to believe after completing this chapter (one of the last to be finished for the book) that it was more productive to think in terms of relationships between large groups of texts rather than on individual works. In this I was influenced by theories derived from several scholars representing multiple disciplines; these included (among others), Ferdinand de Saussure’s approach to linguistics (1916/1966), Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “field” (Bourdieu, 1984, 1993) and Hans Robert Jauss’s notion of the “horizon of expectations” (Jauss, 1982). These theories emphasized the importance of understanding language, genre, and social categories as relational: as acquiring meaning in relation to other phenomena, rather than asserting that meaning was immanent in an object, text, or group of texts (like a genre). Also important for me was a source more obscure than those listed above: an article by composer-scholar William Brooks published in the journal Popular Music in 1982, titled “On Being Tasteless.” Brooks, influenced by some of the theories of John Cage, advocated for a study of music that was not guided by one’s “taste.” Rather, any music must be understood in relationship to other pieces or types of music. Brooks argued that the paucity of attention given to popular music in musical academia was due to the calcified nature of taste, not to an inherent lack of quality.

4At any rate, self-reflection on my earlier work and what felt like a serendipitous discovery of a range of different theories spurred me to try to emphasize the centrality of genre in my work and to develop an approach that was more explicitly theoretical than what I had employed previously. In addition to the idea that genres are relational, I discovered the importance of understanding how genres form in the first place. The importance of this “period of emergence” became apparent due to what I perceived to be one of the weaknesses of much previous work on genre: work on genre (and not only in music — in other art forms as well) tended to begin with a corpus of works that was already formed, and then derived generic conventions from those works. In these accounts, studies of genre conventions were tautological in that conventions were extracted from a corpus that was associated with a genre that was assumed to be already known; at the same time, the conventions of the genre constituted part of the knowledge used to create a generic canon in the first place.

5Taking my cue from the work of Michel Foucault (1966, 1969, 1971), what is sometimes called “The New Historicism” (Greenblatt, 1988; Veeser, 1989; Gallagher & Greenblatt 2000), Mikhail Bakhtin’s reflections on historical writing (Bakhtin, 1986; Morson and Emerson, 1990), and Rick Altman’s emphasis on the history of artistic creators rather than critics (Altman, 1999: 30-48), I developed an alternate approach to analyzing genre, one which could be dubbed “historicist.” A historicist approach, which could be opposed to a “presentist” or retroactive approach to history, focuses on the period of a genre’s emergence, in which confusion often reigns over what to call a grouping of music, and over which texts/artists should be included in that grouping. Such studies, which tend to focus on a fairly limited period of time, reveal the interests of the agents and forces active in participating in the early stages of the genre; these agents and forces may include creative artists, a variety of intermediaries (critics, music industry agents), and audiences, as well as institutions, and legal and political structures. The interests of agents, in turn, reference the field of power and reveal the struggles over meaning and categories that dominate accounts of a genre’s emergence (Foucault, 1971). This moment of emergence is also the site of struggles over how a group of texts should be named and whom it is for.

6Another important element in the concept of musical genre with which I am working is the relationship between genres and audiences. I have already mentioned audiences and listeners in passing, but the topic deserves further explanation. The topics of who makes music, who listens to it, and the group identities connoted by a musical genre often in appear in writing about music, but the connections between these topics is frequently assumed rather than analyzed. The most common approaches to dealing with genre-audience relationships are to assume a direct, one-to-one correspondence between a group of people and a type of music, or – when contradictions between a direct correspondence appear – to assume that no correspondence exists. Here I was influenced by sociological and anthropological work by scholars such as Georgina Born (2000, 2011) and Simon Frith (1996:75-95) that developed models of genre-audience relationships that rely on a spectrum of possibilities rather than on total correspondence or total disconnection.

7An updated version of the introduction for my book, Categorizing Sound (2016), that begins this issue of Volume! presents a framework for understanding issues in genre of relationality; of emergence, transformation and dissipation (and hence, of history and time); of the relationship to demographic categories; to notions of authorship; and of the significance of institutional and discursive contexts, which can sometimes contribute to differences of level or scale. The idea here is that this work employs empirical research to refine and advance the theory, and that genre theory helps guide empirical work.

8Despite the manifold benefits of using genre as a frame for the study of music, the concept has often been maligned for several reasons. One of these is that the idea of genre conjures up the idea of a set of rules; an emphasis on rules can easily lead to the idea that referring to the concept of genre somehow emphasizes constraints on the creativity of artists, or only refers to types of art that are formulaic. Creative artists can then be seen as surmounting the constraints of genre, as being sui generis. From this point of view, genre is then believed to only apply to conservative artists, or to those who suppress their creative instincts in order to achieve mass success. Contrary to this point of view, the recent turn in genre scholarship emphasizes following the functions that genres perform socially, via either close historical study of the linguistic use of genre labels, or through ethnographic study that is attentive to how people use genres and discuss them in their daily lives. The focus here is not on which texts do or do not belong to a genre, or the rules by which such a membership can be determined, nor on the “greatness” of the texts that can gain admittance to, or avoid being associated with, a generic corpus, nor on whether it is possible for an artist or a text to transcend the limitations of genre. Genre is accepted as a social fact rather than as a value judgment. The idea is to understand the role of genres in the world: how people use genre labels to make sense of music, how music can form a central part of a person’s identity, how a text’s participation in a genre can affect how it circulates in the world, how artists and the music they make can gain institutional support or be denied it.

9There are varying approaches to genre scholarship in research that is both theoretical and empirical. For example, Mimi Haddon, in her article “June 1982, When Disco Became Dance: Generic Instability, Empty Sophistication, and Girls’ Games,” exemplifies many of the features of the new approaches to the study and analysis of genre. She situates her study within a narrow frame of time, which heightens the sense of the relationality of genres, or, how genres depend on one another for their definition. Haddon shows how songs can participate in multiple genres at one time, the permeability of genre borders, and their instability during the period of their emergence. Her study of the transition in the music industry from the label “Disco,” to “Dance” illustrates the struggle over labels and the social connotations attached to them, as well as the impact of different contexts on what a type of music is called, or even on how musical texts are grouped together. Along the way, Haddon reveals previously unnoticed connections between disco in its declining phase and rap during its ascent as well as between early 80s dance music and 1960s girl groups.

10Laura Risk, in turn, asks how the idea of tradition was created in Veillées via citationality (i.e., the way in which traces of previous genres act as references in an emerging genre) in early 20th century Québec. These Veillées drew on a variety of “staged traditions,” which were soon rebranded as “folklore.” Risk argues that the concept of citationality helps us understand tradition as a process even as it acknowledges the importance of the idea of origins in invocations of tradition. Origin stories are not viewed in this framework as literally constituting the origin of a tradition, but rather enable us to understand how the idea of an origin is created and transmitted through time. The assertion of an origin for Québec traditional music thus tells us more about the people who are making this assertion than it helps establish a definitive point of origin for the music. Her goal is not to parse the origins of the repertoire itself, but rather the imaginary around which this genre was constructed.

11Like Risk, Eric Smialek highlights the role of origin stories in communicating a narrative history of the genre. Smialek focuses on how graphic charts displaying a genre taxonomy purport to show a genealogy of heavy metal. He then argues that these taxonomic charts produce origin stories that rely on a view of heavy metal as stable with clear boundaries between itself and other genres based on stylistic features. These graphic charts nevertheless cannot avoid creating a narrative of the history of heavy metal that encodes musical and social values. Against the reification of history and genre performed by the graphic charts of heavy metal, Smialek shows that these charts must repress knowledge of the recursive, multidimensional processes that inform ever-changing understandings of what heavy metal is, and of the labour necessary to maintain separation between heavy metal and its neighbours. Part of Smialek’s argument is that the use of graphic charts is also a way of displaying knowledge that is entwined with attempts to increase the cultural prestige of the creator of the chart.

12On the other hand, Iulia Dima and Baptiste Pilo take a somewhat different approach in their study of the dungeon synth genre. They argue that dungeon synth – because it is produced mainly by independent artists and circulates primarily on online platforms – engages its fans in ways that are not amenable to previous approaches to studying genre. Using a YouTube channel, “The Dungeon Synth Archive,” as their principal source, Dima and Pilo study the emergence of dungeon synth and analyze the thematic, visual and musical elements that constitute the “fictional imaginary” of the genre. By incorporating analysis of the data “tags” affixed to files in online listening platforms, they add detail to the notion of “critic-fan” genres in Categorizing Sound based on a context not analyzed there in any detail (although music information retrieval and “tagging” are addressed in the book’s conclusion, pp. 324-33). They use a cartographic method for analyzing dungeon synth; this method puts them in dialogue with Smialek’s article although Dima and Pilo use their tree diagram differently than Smialek, for whom these diagrams provide texts for analysis. Rather than reifying the history of the genre, Dima and Pilo’s map reveals the many different modalities that can be used to understand the definition of dungeon synth. Their analysis discloses citational relationships with the genre’s antecedents as well as how it is defined in synchronic relation to neighboring genres.

13Bringing together some of the theorical framework developed in Categorizing Sound with recent French scholarship by Karim Hammou, Claire Lesacher analyzes the genre of “urban music” that circulated in France in the late 2010s. She focuses on the discursive uses of the label “urban music” and how the label has different levels of meaning and significance for different groups of users. Lesacher’s study draws its material from statements (and responses to questionnaires) of different groups of agents, and she draws striking conclusions about the different meanings and levels of significance of the label “urban music” to these agents depending on how they are classified (fans, music industry workers, etc.). While the label does not seem particularly pertinent to either artists or audiences, it remains relevant to what Lesacher calls “cultural intermediaries.” An excellent illustration of the impact of different contexts (and the related issue of scale) on the usage of genre labels, her study of urban music demonstrates that “urban music” retains its racial and class connotations even as many of Lesacher’s respondents deny its utility as a musical genre.

14The relationship between the wave of indie bands that appeared in Montreal in the 2000s and the (British-influenced) progressive rock that was popular there in the late 1960s and 1970s lies at the heart of Bruno Coulombe’s study of the early 2000s “Montreal Sound.” Coulombe proposes to study the connections between these genres widely separated in history and affect via genealogy – the conditions that make it possible for a genre to emerge — and citationality – the traces of other genres that are assembled to form new genres. To this he adds the idea of memoryscape developed by Andy Bennett and Ian Rogers in their work on cultural memory, which refers to the way in which “not only the present but also the past can be used by individuals to express their sense of belonging as understood through emotional engagement with music.” The importance of the concept of “memoryscape” becomes particularly apparent in the emergence and temporary stabilization of the “Montreal Sound,” which, at first glance, appears to be dominated by stylistic heterogeneity. Coulombe finds that the “sound” may, somewhat paradoxically, cohere via similar attitudes towards ideas and concepts associated with the counterculture and high-cultural artistic practices.

15Taken together, these essays demonstrate the diverse forms that the application of genre theory can take in popular music research. Far from reifying the history of music genres, the diversity of approaches and the occasional disagreements about the most valuable way to employ the concept of genre attest to the vitality of this branch of music research. As such, this special issue may be seen as a first step toward developing further an international and multi-lingual dialogue on musical genre.

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David Brackett, « Why Genre? Why Now? »Volume ! [En ligne], 20 : 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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David Brackett

David Brackett est professeur d’histoire de la musique et de musicologie à l’école de musique Schulich de l’université McGill, et titulaire de la chaire de recherche du Canada sur les études de la musique populaire. Ses recherches portent sur les théories du genre musical, l’historiographie et la sociologie/anthropologie de la musique. Son dernier ouvrage, Categorizing Sound : Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music (University of California Press, 2016), a remporté le prix annuel Lowens de la Society for American Music pour le livre de l’année. Parmi ses publications antérieures figurent Interpreting Popular Music (Cambridge University Press, 1995 ; réimpression University of California Press, 2000) et une collection de sources d’archives annotées, The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader : Histories and Documents, publié par Oxford University Press, dont la quatrième édition est parue en 2020. Ses projets actuels comprennent un volume qu’il coédite avec Georgina Born pour Duke University Press, intitulé Genre and Music : New Directions ; et un livre – dont le titre provisoire est 1966 : The Year in Music – qui étend l’approche développée dans Categorizing Sound à l’étude du genre musical.

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