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Monday, November 07, 2005

Why So Many Genres?

I've always been fascinated by musical genre. This is a useful tendency for a dj, because you need to be able to keep track of the subtle differences between, for example, dubstep, breakstep, and nu-step, if you don't want to waste a lot of time in the wrong section of the record shop. But with dance music, as my 'step example demonstrates, the genre distinctions often seem minimal and arbitrary to all but the most diligent listener. They exist in such abundance partly as a descriptive aid for the selector, so that he or she will be able to narrow down the search for a particular musical tendency. But at what point does the label affixed to a particular musical tendency transcend being a simple descriptor and emerge as a categorical genre?

Philip Sherburne, music critic, dj, and San Francisco ex-pat (I believe he has relocated to Barcelona), addresses this issue in a classic edition of his Needle Drops column:
I'm a big fan of genre qua genre. I think classifying things is fascinating. I think you can learn as much about a piece of music by how it differs from a similar piece, as by what it does on its own. This is doubly true for dance music, where every track is, in some sense, a variation on a common theme. Every house anthem, every techno track, every drum 'n' bass mash-up is a version of the essential house or techno or drum 'n' bass template. Some of these veer asymptotally close to the non-existent original; the trick here is to see how close you can get without going cookie-cutter. When too many identical tracks start coming out (cf trance, tech-house, tech-step -- the latter a subgenre of drum 'n' bass), the genre is forced to adapt or die off. There's an alternate impulse -- to take the genre's template as a given, but see how far you can venture from the "ideal" and still make it recognizable. That was Squarepusher's original project, and lo and behold, it spawned its very own offshoot called (sometimes scornfully, sometimes fawningly) drill 'n' bass.
The idea is that there is a theoretical (Platonic, if you will) "ideal" template for each type of beat, and that the never-ending (and ever-shortening) cycle of ever more specific sub-genres being born is a result of producers' attempts to project something new on to those templates without going outside of their strictures. Of course, as soon as one producer hits upon a novel technique for accomplishing this, others will immediately start using it. At this point, someone may coin a term to describe the technique (Mr. Sherburne did this with his "microhouse" label). If use of the technique becomes widespread enough (or even if the label is just so catchy that critics can't resist using it), then the descriptor grows in to a genre, and the whole cycle starts over again.

It's important to recognize, then, that the difference between a descriptive term and an actual genre is pretty fluid. There was a common thread to the techno and tech house records I sought out back in the day, even if those are generally considered distinct genres. In the end, the meaning of these terms are in constant flux anyway, so stick to the labels which are useful for your purposes and don't expect other people's ideas about what they mean to line up with your own.

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