The Weirdness of Genre

(These are rather tentative thoughts meant for elsewhere that I intend to revise at some point, but I needed to get some sense of closure for the moment so here they are!)

What is the ontology of musical genre? How are genres defined, and when do these definitions come into existence? The answer to the latter half of the second question would be something like when a commonly recognised canon has emerged, but the definition part, the space of politics and gerrymandering, is murkier still, and draws us into a world of theoretical, musical, and commercial tensions. These pragmatic and musicological concerns press in on the philosophical question at the head of the paragraph, forcing us to concede that, like any other noumenal and roughly sensible object/thing, genres have reality both in themselves (in so far as their reality exceeds any one moment of their application; they withdraw), and in the world, as process.

We will now move from these last observations into more grounded considerations of genre as both worldly and theoretical phenomenon, particularly as this duality is revealed in musical criticism and musicology.

Despite the problems generic organisation presents for theorists, the category of genre itself plays a decisive role in musical life. Fabian Holt: ‘It is a major force in canons of educational institutions, cultural hierarchies, and decisions about censorship and funding. The apparatus of corporate music is thoroughly organised in generic and market categories’. For an apparently woolly concept, genre is adduced regularly, as indicated in the quote, to support ideologies of taste, patronage, and inclusion and exclusion. Genre in 2011 functions as a determiner and extension of lifestyle norms.

And as will be clear to most, notwithstanding the general diffuse abstractness of the process of genre making, it is actually quite easy to recognise and identify particular genres; once we read a few lines about the style (and here these distinct terms are being conflated only momentarily and advisedly), and hear a piece or a song or two, we feel more or less feel confident that we could talk a little about the genre and perhaps recognise it when we encounter examples of it in the future. This process is easily perceived in our first contacts with a new genre. The critical and musical origins of different genres, too, can often be clear enough. These are frequently attributable to a few writers and musicians at the core of the movement, as for example with David Keenan on the writer’s side, and, say, Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro and a few others on the musician’s in the (admittedly disputable) case of hypnagogic pop.

But a process of reification takes place in most genres, particularly those that become widespread, such as jazz or rock, whereby the category of the genre itself – the genre’s stylistic norms and language – becomes in some sense concrete, causal. Not that a genre in itself can do, but simply that its standards (over and above local applications of those standards) are worked through and responded to in real and perceptible, if nebulous, ways. What are the parameters of that causality as the genre develops, and how do they come to be defined (and developed) over time?

Genre has proved an especially difficult subject in musical scholarship. As Wolfgang Marx points out, ‘in historical musicology there are many studies of specific genres such as opera, the symphony or the piano sonata, yet they usually take the definition of their respective subject as a given, expending little thought on the definition of genres, their categorisation and the interplay of structural and social aspects in this process’. The interplay of the structural and the social is key, as indicated in the Holt quote above. In popular music studies, Marx asserts, the difficulty of genre is felt less keenly, as evidenced in its numerous interesting studies of genre (cf. Negus and Frith’s work in this regard), but the issue remains pressing there nonetheless.

In a typically sharp piece written in June 2009 amidst abundant sermonising on the Simon Reynolds-ordained topic of the Hardcore Continuum (the label Reynolds put on his unification of ‘ardcore rave, jungle, 2-step garage, grime and dubstep on grounds of style, circumstance, and milieu), Adam Harper (at the blog Rouge’s Foam) assiduously brings out the implications of Reynold’s ‘nuum’. Pleading for a more nuanced, more alert deployment in music criticism of concepts derived from scholarship, Harper draws our attention particularly to the buried use of analogy in Reynolds’ arguments. For Reynolds, the Hardcore Continuum is ‘an actually existing, empirically verifiable (and abundantly verified) thing-in-the-world’, but Harper’s point is that theory of the kind Reynolds is engaged in can only ever function analogically, responding to data with conceptual linkages that have no actual material quiddity.

Harper’s critique is warranted and adept, though two elements need to be drawn out. The first regards the relationship between the concept of genre and that of the nuum (which Reynolds equates to ‘jazz or reggae or folk or metal’ (without considering the problematic nature of those generic category’s ontological intensities and implications)). Reynolds aligns the former with the latter, aligns genre with his Continuum. Harper does so too, albeit with qualification, describing the nuum as a ‘macroscene’ or ‘macrogenre’. (The former term would have more support in the literature of contemporary music sociology, and indeed would provide theoretical authority as a result.) Reynolds seems confident in asserting the (generic, and thus, by his lights, concrete) reality of component parts of his nuum, such as UK garage and grime, but even these genres have a Weird (inexplicable, uncanny) aspect to them (as genres – see above) which must be tackled before they might be subsumed into a ‘tradition’, a category Reynolds judges appropriate for the Hardcore Continuum. The Continuum, then, is a thinly worked out concept that seems caught between subculture, genre, tradition, and style, categories that themselves remain theoretically confusing and foggy.

The second element has to do with the relationship of data and theory composed in response to that data, and its consideration here will help us in our investigations of the ontology of genre.

Harper observes that ‘ideas constructed from objectively verifiable but distinct points of data are separate from data itself’. Elsewhere, Harper describes theory as being merely ‘the spice of critical life’, and states that it bears only ‘an analogical relationship to reality’. Determination of such an analogical relationship is surely verifiable when we consider theories, and the data sets they respond to, synchronically, but judged diachronically and holistically, the picture is not so simple as Harper allows. Let us revert back to our considerations of genre for something of an answer to this problem.

Genre discourse, as well as involving practice, includes a theoretical element. It would be impossible to separate completely the latter from the former in appraising genre. Rock music of the 1970s looked very different to its forebears of the 1950s and 1960s, and this growth must be tracked, at least in part, alongside the emergence and influence of rock criticism. Theory contaminates practice here. If it merely existed in the realm of practice, genre-considered-fully would not depend upon discursive intensification to the extent that it does. Even in a largely oral tradition we must recognise an element of theory in the discursive iterations of particular musical styles. In heavily critiqued and mediated, and looped, Western musical cultures of the twenty-first century, theory should be recognised as being at the forefront of musical value alongside practice as it is in reality.

All of this is not to flatten theory and practice as meaningless distinctions; theory is not being taken here to mean merely that which is thought about, that which undergoes ratiocination. But, at the same time, it would be cheap not to acknowledge the important theoretical components, both in the complex multivalences of the practical side and in the more or less effectually theoretical criticisms attending to that practice, that can be easily identified in the course of the evolution of certain genres such as in the example of rock already given.

Acknowledging the theoretical element of genre leads to further implications for our understanding of the relationship of theory to practice, and for our impression of the ontology of genre.

What happens to the ‘analogical relationship’ mentioned above when the theoretical-practical nexus includes sentient components (i.e. people – audience and musicians etc.) with the capacity to respond, feedback, and alter, or, to put it another way, to ‘negate, preserve, and transform’ (to quote Cornell West’s impression of the dialectic) the theory? Genre is, considering its material evolution of conflicts and syntheses, surely dialectical, and it is surely always undergoing some form of transformation, major or minor. Yes, we must understand theory to be fragile, to function analogically in many important ways, but when the feedback loop kicks in, when the theory (generic description, generic regulations) is taken up by actors who seek to apply its repercussions, to continue its practice, then that analogical relationship of theory to practice becomes muddied. Theory becomes as concrete, as existent in the world, as the data it seeks to assimilate. It may not be expressible only as sound, as the practices the theory responded to originally may have been, but its epistemic-musical code is as ontologically real as any purely sonic codes exchanged between musicians heretofore.

We witness this complex entanglement in the discourse of the contemporary musical underground. The underground is a label given to the music and its attendant practices, but the terms of that label are also taken up in time and harnessed, developed across decades, to form a discursive procedure that takes in practical realities as much as it does theoretical anticipations and responses to those realities. Theories of the underground are many and various, and in their dispersal across political, cultural, and musical boundaries they are taken up and transformed by audiences and musicians alike in a way similar to that described above for generic categories more generally. The underground as a theoretical construct, an analogy, and the underground (at least, the loose data its theories address) as a more or less unified practice, are barely separable streams.

Harper’s refinement in the original post mentioned above of Reynolds’ (to Harper) analogy of the Hardcore Continuum to the form of Sagittarius is helpful, but it ignores these crucial aspects of genre, that it is has human and temporal components which cause stumbles and loops to effect the generic (theoretical) discourse to the extent that is inassimilable merely to the realm of analogy.

We still haven’t quite accounted for the Weird ontology of genre. Its participation in a realm outside of mere analogy is by now apparent. When a musician like Katy B emerges, we recognise that a 21-year-old such as herself with a traceable interest in popular music, particularly dance music, is likely to make music that accords with the dominant style of her day, which dominant style is communicated as much through theory as it is music itself, as is borne out by her music’s allegiance with dubstep and other UK styles. It is less likely that 21 year olds will make rockabilly (though postmodernity has left that possibility open for them). Genre, here, is understood as being an actually existing force in the world, and if we accept that genre itself can be seen in some important respects to be theoretical, to be theory, then we see that theory’s supposed analogical limit is something of a misrepresentation.



8 Responses to “The Weirdness of Genre”

  1. Simon R Says:

    what a load of wank

  2. scott mc laughlin Says:

    I’ve not read up on this extensively (and I really should read Negus further…), but it popped into my head while reading this, that genre (aside from the social cultural aspects) has a duality that needs to be taken into account in analysis. To examine the core of a genre and the edge of a genre are entirely different undertakings that require different tools: one is concretising and exclusive the other dynamic and resistant to definition (inclusive too? or exclusively seeking opposition).

  3. Timeeee! Says:

    Saying ‘what a load of wank’ obviously suggests you think something isn’t even worthy of argument, which is unfair here.

  4. robots dancing alone Says:

    Em…right! I’ve used this as a public notepad, which perhaps was unadvisable.

    Just one thing: When I said ‘thinly worked out’, I merely meant in strict scholastic terms, imagining having to defend the concept in that arena and coming up short, or at least a little confused. Then again, I’m not SR, so fair enough if I come across as silly or inadequately clued in or whatever.

    But still, I was trying to defend the HCC (and genre) as having a thingness that can’t be limited to the theoretical realm, and trying to argue that when that thingness feeds back into production as it has done so vividly in rock then a loop is set up whereby theory and practice are forever linked, and a higher order sort of intelligence comes into operation.

    I wanted at base to support Mark Fisher’s assessment that the HCC (for him: an abstract entity as real as anything concrete) functions as a sort of ‘collective circuit’ where individual authorship is ‘effaced’ in provocative ways, thus driving the music-nexus forward in a sort of cybernetic manner ‘not reducible to the intentions and objectives of individual human agents’. I was trying to extend this analysis to genre.

    I should have known my disclaimer at the top would not be taken in good faith – I was aware how stumbling the text feels as it stands.

  5. Says:

    I was interested to see your post about genre, which is something I have been grappling with. As you suggest, it’s difficult because there’s nothing to hold on to.

    I’ve found reading books about Film Studies quite helpful with the issue. Film studies people seem not to have the same hang-ups about approach that we musicologists do. 🙂 They seem happy to write a 50-page article and include only about 10 footnotes. Instead, they simply tell it as they see it. Even the standard textbook ‘An Introduction to Film Studies’ is not without its uses with this field.

    For me, the problem is part of a wider issue in musicology, whereby scholars tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they obsess themselves with the text, the composer, the creators, or they completely ignore it and follow the view that we as the audience bring meaning to objects. So either one feels gay about a Schubert symphony, or the composition can be explained using a Schenker diagram.

    Really, the challenge is to see this as less of a binarism and try to relate what the composer and performer are trying to do to the way it’s being received. While there are obvious flaws in such an approach, at least it’s not so monolithic.

    Why don’t we have your blogposts on the website, Dr Graham? It would be a lot of fun. x

  6. robotsdancingalone Says:

    Thanks Dom. I sort of agree abuot the two camps thing, but then there’s the whole other area of conceptualisation/philosophy, where the ‘gay’ feeling (that made me laugh) and the work itself commingle, somehow, and are thought through on a separate plane. But yes, squaring the circle of music-in-use seems the most important task.

    On footnotes: I think it’s important to build tight arguments with verifiable use of sources and compelling extrapolation of those sources, as I’m sure you do too, but like you I am often struck by the lack of citation in other disciplines. Particularly in Continental Philosophy, for example. The focus on the ‘work’ in music, in my experience, often ends up distracting from the task of discourse-building by fooling musicologists into thinking they’re working through an evidence-based methodology, when in fact they’re being rather unconvincing indeed.

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