Genre Specific Experience…
…On the importance of style.
By Luke Bradley
”The more I know, the more I know that I do not know anything”
These words (or words to this effect when translated into English) are likely attributed to some ancient Greek philosopher, but this concept of an ever increasing realisation of the vastness of available knowledge has probably been pondered upon since deep into man’s history. What does it mean ‘to know’ something? Is factual accuracy necessary to the idea of knowledge, or is falsity also knowledge? What is the difference between knowledge and belief? Is the amount of information in the world infinite? Is it ever increasing? If so, was there ever a point in time when there was no information? Or just one piece of information? Is it crucial that there is a cognisant being to convert this information into knowledge? All these questions, like all philosophical debate, are clearly moot, but that doesn’t stop many a person attempting to answer them. The focus of the original quote can be applied to any area of existence, with music being the subject of my attention in this piece of writing.
I used to think I knew a thing or two about music. Obviously, compared to the general populace anybody can claim to be more knowledgeable about music, and this is often a fairly safe claim to make. However, this relative knowledge can only equate to an impossibly minute amount compared to the total knowledge regarding music that exists, even if we define the term ‘music’ in the narrowest reasonable sense. So we must organise this information to exclude virtually all of the musical information that exists (Music performed without an audience, music that has not been recorded in audio or visual (notated) form, ‘forgotten’ music etc.) By eliminating these essentially insensible elements, we can roughly attempt to organise this complex web of musical data into a more cohesive and accessible way that is line with the normal purpose of music; to enjoy the sounds.
So how do we organise this mass of music?
Generally, by utilising two distinct constituents: elements intrinsic to the music (sound) and those extrinsic (non-sound). These two categories aid in the establishment of an even more key method of classification: genre. Although genres are naturally vague, amorphous labels, I believe they are the most useful and efficient way of separating this nebulous musical mass into divisions that facilitate the ready and simple enjoyment of music; if I want music to (listen/dance/relax/sing along/study/etc.) to, I know to search within certain genres with traits I am looking for, thus expediting my journey to pleasure at that point in time. Likewise, the most useful detail a music review can provide is the genre name (as well as similar artists). The designation of what constitutes a genre, and the demarcation line between a genre, sub-genre and meta-genre are so inscrutable that I won’t debate them too vigorously, and just rely on my own intangible, indefinable instinct to deal with them, and accept my interpretation as being highly personal.
Since both the musical and extra-musical factors can be essentially boiled down to merely time and space for both classifications, I’ll elaborate here on what exactly can constitute these descriptors.
Musical – Sound
Timbre (including instrumental range and aural characteristics)
Pitch (vertical organisation of tones, noises; harmony; and systems dictating such usage)
Spatialisation (relative to the position of listener)
Rhythm (horizontal organisation of tones, noises; melody; tempo; and systems dictating such usage)
Extra-musical – Culture
Imagery (including instrumental appearance and iconography)
Geography (global and local positioning)
Language (lyrical content)
Now I will attempt to apply these criteria to a host of genres that I believe will be of interest to the reader. As I put no faith in the accuracy of my analyses and accept the irrefutably subjective nature of many elements of these investigations, I hope that at least people will be introduced to new music they like, or enjoy the process of examining these genres. I’m using this writing framework as a handy tool to hopefully engage the reader, but the essence of this article is to promulgate and expose specific music to a receptive audience, with the addition of being able to write some fanciful bollocks an added bonus.
Sounds – That’s what the speakers are for
The largest distinction I make between types of music is the division into dance and non-dance. However, these two categories are almost impossible to define with any authority. You would assume that dance music would need some element of repetition and utilisation of a definite beat to count out moves and steps, but as can be seen, this is not always the case. So any music can potentially be danced to, but some is created with an intention to facilitate dancing and to easily accommodate the accompaniment of a choreographed routine. Musically, this means the adoption of a regular beat and metre, and a somewhat steady tempo. This can apply to any number of genres though, from hard rock to minimalist classical, ragtime to thrash metal, but these aren’t what we commonly group together as dance music, so we have to specify further. No one is going to consider Francisco Lopez or Giacinto Scelsi to be creators of dance music but how about Sonny Terry or Dr. Feelgood? There is a host of music that isn’t considered dance music yet can be easily danced to, so we have to contemplate the extra-musical factors. Firstly, where the music is intended to be consumed. Disregarding music composed to be performed alongside dancers on a stage in a theatre, where the majority of the people in that building (the audience) will not be dancing, and honing in on open participation dancing, we arrive at the natural home of dance music: clubs. Therefore, is dance music any music played (or intended to be played) in nightclubs? Well, clearly not exclusively, but apparent exceptions aside, as a general rule, that would be the case (taking into account the changing role of clubs over the decades, since the rise of the disco, this is usually correct). So the main facet that separates dance and non-dance music is not actually how the music sounds but where it is played, in terms of environment rather than geography, although the latter plays a huge role in arranging the various sub-genres.
Not dance music?
I’ll see you after the function
I am a straight, white male, born and raised in the north-west of England, and have lived in the same metropolitan area all of my life. In terms of culture, I have very little in common with those involved in the ballroom scene on the east coast of the US (I can’t imagine many vogue dancers being into rugby league); I will always be on the outside looking in, yet I find the music extremely interesting on a few levels. Firstly, the evolution of ballroom from what it once was and what it is now does display properties of revisionism similar to those of heavy metal, but at its core, ballroom is the music played at ‘balls’. Unlike a genre like pub rock, which, although being named after where the music was performed, as time passed became rooted in the time of the 1970′s and the space of London, ballroom shares a fortune similar to it’s parent genre; house. According to anecdotes and accepted lore, house music is so named because it was the music played in the Warehouse club by resident DJ Frankie Knuckles. At first, in the early 80′s, this would be mostly disco, soul and R’n'B before Chicago’s local producers began to mould house music into what it would become later in the decade. Then following this, house splintered off into the myriad of sub-genres and sub-cultures we see today, one of which coming to include vogue house, a term now used almost interchangeably with ballroom. However, seeing as the ballroom as a social function pre-dates house music’s creation and formalisation, naturally disco and soul music would once have been the staple diet of the scene. Thus, over time, the notion of what ballroom is has changed.
The ball scene in the late 80s, before ballroom as a musical genre was fully formed
Present day ballroom has further solidified its position as an independent genre by becoming very heavily reliant on a small numbers of tropes. Among the most important, musically speaking, is the Ha. A few second clip of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd chanting garbled nonsense that was used as a basis for Little Louie Vega and Kenny Dope Gonzalez to produce a house banger, The Ha Dance, which in turn spawned the ubiquitous crash that is used as both a punctuation mark within a ballroom track, and as an aural watermark that confirms that the track is indeed a ballroom track, even if it might sound like straightforward tribal house, funky house, minimal techno or Baltimore club, the presence of the Ha in some form defines the whole track. The aggressiveness of the Ha crash has also influenced the development of the music towards a more forceful, whip-crack sharp, propulsive, rhythmical dynamism that is reflected by the hamstring-straining duckwalks and cruciate-snapping dips the vogue (particularly femme) dancers perform. The Ha is not mandatory within every single ballroom track, but its presence periodically throughout a mix or set is almost de rigueur.
Aside from the musical aspects and the vocal delivery favoured by ballroom commentators like Kevin JZ Prodigy, the actual ‘lyrical’ content and repetition of specific words and phrases that reference ball culture are as useful an indicator of ballroom as the Ha. Without context, the words commonly repeated in ballroom lyrics could lead you to believe that there is an underlying misogynistic current to the genre, with some words echoing those commonly found in the hyper masculine world of ghetto house/ghettotech. In a world where dressing in drag is commonplace, terms like ‘cunt’, ‘cunty’, ‘pussy’ and ‘bitch’ don’t carry the same connotations as they do in wider society, so applying any meaning to these words beyond a vagina, the property of being like a vagina and a female dog, respectively, is done so with a set of parameters that are at odds with the tenets of ball culture (although I personally know some people to whom referring to a person as a ‘soft cunt’ is merely a part of their everyday vocabulary). Alongside more neutral terms like ‘walk‘, ‘work‘, ‘fierce‘, ‘serve‘, and other words that are entrenched within the collective psyche of the scene, these help to define whether a track is ballroom or not. Of course, if these keywords were used as a watermark like the Ha, then there would be an incredible bleed and interconnectivity between genres as these terms aren’t exclusive to ballroom, but taking into account their delivery and the context of the song, then assumptions can be made with reasonable conviction. Whether the musical or extra-musical elements take precedence is a tricky dilemma and must be left to individual choice; this DJ Rashad track that samples Tronco Traxx exhibits the problem expertly, especially considering that footwork itself is a very chameleonic genre that relies on characteristic drum patterns and vocal samples, on top of its high bpm, to distinguish itself from various other dance music genres.
So, after analysis, we arrive at a point where we know what is a strong indicator for the genre (the Ha and certain keywords and phrases) but due to the immense musical overlap between other house styles (specifically native to eastern US cities like New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Philadelphia, as well as the crushing influence of Chicago and Detroit) to pinpoint what is or isn’t ballroom is difficult, with it being more the case of a track can be ballroom within the confines of a DJ mix, but in isolation is possibly not a ballroom track.
MikeQ, Vjuan Allure, Kevin JZ Prodigy, Robbie Tronco, Jay R Neutron, Divoli S’vere, Sugar Shane, Angel X, Junior Vasquez, Kevin Aviance, Dat Oven
Be real, it doesn’t matter anyway, you know it’s just a little too late
From a genre that exists within a concrete, physical space to one that inhabits an imagined space, a virtual realm. Although genres like hypnagogic pop, or chillwave and synthwave, even witch house, were chronological and spiritual forerunners to vapourwave (spelling it as vaporwave does look better, but I refuse to kowtow to American cultural imperialism), and could claim to have been the first genres to be aided by the universalisation of the internet, vapourwave is the first genre that doesn’t seem possible pre-internet; conjuring up hazy recollections of pre-millennial technology and wallowing in nostalgia for sounds that occupy a distant compartment in the mind, music that had no pretension to artistry or importance; functional music, background music, light music, Muzak.
I remember when I first got into vapourwave, I could have sworn that most of it sounded like it was made by the same guy, which further down the line I learned to be partially the case, except the guy was a girl. Discounting Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro, who had already captured my attention with glorious minimal synth and lo-fi hypnagogia respectively, the artist who was then commonly referred to as Vektroid, but had a host of aliases, including Macintosh Plus, 情報デスクVIRTUAL, PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises, New Dreams Ltd, esc 不在, Laserdisc Visons, Sacred Tapestry and fuji grid tv, and who has since been revealed to be 22 year old producer Ramona Xavier, has arguably had the greatest impact in solidifying the genre to date. So that’s someone who was still a teenager, creating these seminal opuses, almost single-handedly exhausting the avenues of future progression within the genre in as little as 2 years, and leaving a plethora of imitators in her wake. I’m not a person who proclaims a genre to be ‘dead’, but I do believe genres are like a fashion, naturally linked to a time and place. As I have mentioned the place is the digital plane of the worldwide web, and the time will probably be honed into as 2011-2013, much like punk is remembered as ‘happening’ around 1976-1977 or acid house 1987-1989. Obviously, revisionists can find proto-versions of any genre when they know what to look for, and on the other side of equation, the impact of those genres will linger and influence musicians for many years after the core booming period, including clear evolutions like jungle into drum’n'bass or Eurodisco into hi-NRG, but there is always a bandwagon-ing period, and then the period after that which really interests me, when artists remain steadfastly true to the principles of the style, unwavering in the face of accelerationist pop culture, wallowing in the supposed carcass of a deceased mode. But before examining the current state of vapourwave I must try to define it’s qualities.
As chiefly a form of plunderphonics, vapourwave relies on the cannibalisation of other genres in order to exist, and even wholly original compositions act as more of an homage or pastiche to past styles than as innovative, independent works. These other genres consist mainly of those commonly maligned by ‘serious’ music critics or enthusiasts, and coming to prominence in the mid 80′s through to the millennium; smooth jazz, post-16 bit computer music, Muzak, new age, stock music, advertisement music, soft rock, chart pop, incidental television music, AOR, lounge music, chill out. Therefore, musically, the foundations are rooted in diatonic tonal harmony, identifiable melody, consonant progressions and unobtrusive arrangements married with common timbres associated with those styles; FM synthesisers, general MIDI presets (often early inaccurate attempts at imitating various acoustic instruments, especially vague ‘ethnic/world’ presets), elegant alto and soprano saxophones, bright pianos, airy pads, fretless basses, gated reverb drums etc. But how do we separate vapourwave from its sources of inspiration? Well, generally, the appropriated samples are usually looped in a DAW or even just a digital audio editor, adding chopped and screwed elements, slowing the tempo down, processing with effects like reverb, pitch-shift, compression, filters, making the track more lo-fi. This act of ‘creative borrowing’ is the essence of the genre.
That’s the musical aspect investigated, but we have a problem, whereby it is possible to retroactively assign a piece of music as being vapourwave, even if it was created before the concept of vapourwave was even conceived. Yasuaki Shimizu or Mark Isham weren’t creating vapourwave back in the 80s, even if it’s easy to construe it like that nowadays. So, clearly, again, we need to look at the extra-musical components.
Typical vapourwave artwork using Japanese script, often katakana renderings of English words and proper nouns
(Images: Cybernet Utopia, Unlimited Dream Company, カスタマーサービスLine✆NE & ショッピングワールドjp)
Aside from the already mentioned general notion of the internet, the specific virtual location of Bandcamp is the key site for vapourwave releases. Considering the process of manufacturing vapourwave is so simple, and non-time and labour consuming, it makes sense that most of the music should be given away for free digitally and sold as a collector’s item, like a cassette tape, for listeners who wanted to somehow support the artist. The imagery accompanying the works could be as good an indication of the nature of the content as anything, with the use of Japanese kana and kanji (in reference to the late 80′s Japanese bubble economy ushering in technological, commercial and industrial influence overseas, and promoting the image of Japan as an exotic technopolis) frequently in track titles, artist names and emblazoned on covers which often made use of deliberately primitive computer technology and 3D rendering graphics to harken the mind back to the 90′s, combining this with more obvious signifiers like fashion, products, ephemera and anything congruous that could invoke a nostalgia for that particular era. The basic template used on Eccojams, Far Side Virtual and the early Vektroid albums becoming such an inescapable influence as to define the aesthetic from thereafter, (although if you were to replace the oceanographic images with 80s/90s vision of glamour, industry and commercialism, there is a slight overlap with the seapunk iconography). So similar to ballroom, the extra-musical parts of the genre, are as, if not more, important than the sounds, in defining the boundaries of the style. (Obviously, the music is more important in toto, otherwise I may as well be looking at fashion or just pop culture trends).
A mix of some potential vapourwave visuals and pre-vapourwave audio
I must point out that I have barely listened to any vapourwave since R+7 came out. I view that as almost the culmination of what started with Eccojams, then was extended further by other artists, before being reabsorbed by Lopatin into the apotheosis, the transcendence of the genre. Looking back, I remember not ‘getting’ Far Side Virtual when it first came out, even though I was I huge fan of Ferraro’s earlier noisy, lo-fi, noodly, smeared soundscapes like Clear and iAsia, then when The Wire adjudged it to be the best album of 2011, I gave it another chance and it just clicked; obviously, then I had to find more stuff like it, but I had no idea what to look for. After a while I discovered Floral Shoppe, which was followed by more and more albums bubbling up from the virtual ocean, and most importantly, the genre got its name. The mere act of applying a universal adjective to the music made discovery of new releases so much easier (even if at first many didn’t use it, either sticking with more general terms like ‘ambient’, ‘lo-fi’, ‘experimental’, not distinguishing it from predecessors like ‘hypnagogic pop’ and ‘chillwave’, or using their own personal names like ‘babewave’, ‘dream age’ or simply ‘eccojams’), but it seemed the pigeon-holing signalled the beginning of the end in terms of creativity, but I didn’t care; I was so excited by the radicalness of it, the simplicity and naivety involved in its creation, the paradigm shift it seemed to have ushered into the lo-fi/experimental scene; I naturally burnt out on it, especially considering how limited its palette is. So for the past year and a bit, apart from a few exceptions like Nmesh, I haven’t took much stock of what was occurring in the scene, but I don’t think there have been any seismic movements in style judging from what’s come out recently, rather producers are incorporating elements of vapourwave into new modes, such as some of 1080p‘s roster. It is interesting though that there seems to be as much new vapourwave released in the past 12 months than was released in the 3 years prior to that combined. That people are continuing to find interest in exploring these vapour trails gladdens me, the idea that not everyone is caught up in the never-ending quest for novelty and rushing headlong into the future, and that a simple form built on nostalgia and copyright infringement can provide so much enjoyment is emboldening.
I have deliberately ignored many political or social commentaries that people may try to apply to vapourwave, or insights into post-modernity, irony and kitsch, as these hold no interest for me. I merely enjoy the music, and as a matter of fact, have learnt that I enjoy the source material as much as the vapourwave interpretations. After a period of getting into increasingly more esoteric and experimental genres of music like EAI, power noise, free jazz, atonalism, microtonalism, Fluxus and drone, vapourwave either appeared at a time when I was having a personal ‘pop renaissance’ or directly influenced me in my return to more populist, accessible music that I was into as a kid and teenager. Through vapourwave I gained an appreciation of the very music that could be claimed to have been pastiched by these vaourwave artists; The Rippingtons, Suzanne Ciani, Grover Washington, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Software, Himiko Kikuchi’s Ceefax Music, plus virtually anonymous backing music for things like aerobic workout videos and 80s/early90s porn soundtracks; basically a whole bunch of artist I would have dismissed as too smooth or commercial, or even artificial, which in turn led my reappraisal of current chart music, and why I didn’t like a lot of it. This leads onto my next genre to examine, which also lead to me re-engaging with a past musical love.
Recommended Bandcamp pages:
Beer on the Rug, Fortune 500, Dream Catalogue, Business Casual 87, Ailanthus Recordings, AMDISCS, Crystal Magic
Yeah, there’s something I want to say
As a child, well, a young teenager to be precise, I was really into trance for a few years. I suppose it’s because it was at its height of popularity in the late 90′s/early 00′s, but there were other genres that were big at that time like garage, nu-metal, Eminem-style hip hop, Timbaland-style R&B, and the just surfacing grime, that were vying for my and peers attention, alongside the mainstream chart pop à la Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but I remember that trance was a big presence. At the time I wasn’t even conscious of it being ‘trance’, I just listened to what was on MTV Dance back then, as well as some local Greater Manchester radio stations that also played a mix of British garage with the European trance, plus the regular house fare. ATB, DJ Sammy, Barthezz, Energy 52, Ian van Dahl, Watergate, Alice Deejay, Fragma, PPK, Darude. Even after more than a decade, I can recall these tracks more vividly than I can some of the music I was listening to last week. I suppose that’s down to being subject to radio and MTV heavy rotation and playlisting at a time when listening online was nearly impossible, especially with a 56kbps modem. I remember just moving towards indie and the whole post-punk revival with Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party when acts like Ultrabeat and Cascada where making big waves in the commercial trance market, and thus began a period where I listened to less and less mainstream music and kind of lost touch with chart pop music towards the end of the decade, by which point I was listening to a lot of non-current music, be it classical or jazz, or older strains of underground electronic music and rock.
The point being that I got caught in the mental trap of thinking that commercial or populist (but never popular) meant vacuous or shallow; that the music in the charts was not as artistic because it was written to a specification and with an audience in mind, rather than the creator making music for themselves and not considering the wants of others; that compositional technique, instrumental ability and the skill level involved in the production had any bearing on the overall worth of the music; that art that challenges is more important than art that panders to the masses. All of this is clearly bollocks; any views on the nature of art are entirely subjective and imposing these on others is ridiculous, but at the time I was a musical discriminator, or in other words, I had become a snob.
Snobs are everywhere, not just in music but in life in general, and I’ll be lying if I said I didn’t have to occasionally curb any snobbish thoughts on my part when stumbling upon The Jeremy Kyle Show and the like. However, since the focus of this text is music, I’ll stick to just musical snobs. You can see snobbish comments on just about any modern pop song in existence, with a lot of people just having a case of rose-tinted spectacles, or retrophilia (x was better in my day) feeding retromania, but one particular genre immediately splits people into the snob or non-snob camps: bubblegum bass (not a term I particularly like but it seems to be more inclusive than just the label name ‘PC Music’, especially when I’d consider Manicure Records as releasing equally interesting music recently). Maybe it’s because it’s mainstream music targeted at an underground audience, or conversely, that it’s not quite mainstream enough to be considered pure pop, but either way, it has stirred up some intense hatred amongst certain online arbiters of taste. It’s not a case of liking or disliking the music itself, but the reaction it provokes, claims that it is either insincere, nothing but trendy music, style over substance (anybody who even begins to think of bringing up ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ analogy should immediately lose all credibility), pretentiousness etc. are common detractions but, similar to vapourwave, the supposed supporters of the style, who often claim it as being ironic, satirical, social commentary, parody, conceptual etc. can show themselves to be equally snobbish. Apart from the lyrical content, any song can be interpreted in any way; the sounds have no standard meaning other than our own personal interpretation; it’s music, not language. People can read whatever they want into the meaning behind PC Music and bubblegum bass, but it’s better for everyone if we accept it doesn’t matter, enjoy the music, and dance.
Now trying to define what exactly is or isn’t bubblegum bass is infinitely more troublesome than both ballroom and vapourwave combined. Literally, it can be thought of as an amalgamation of bubblegum dance-pop with the heritage of the UK bass associated genres (‘the hardcore continuum’), but that would be reductionist and not definitive enough to pinpoint what exactly the genre constitutes. So unless we go the vague route and say that anything PC Music releases is bubblegum bass and everything else is up for debate, we need some concrete criteria.
Starting with the musical dimension, what are features shared amongst bubblegum bass tunes? Let’s start with the obvious. Electronic/digital instrumentation, timbres shared with other dance and pop genres dating back to the 90′s, the use of functional diatonic harmony including common pop progressions, verse-chorus structure, typically 3-5 minutes duration. All this isn’t telling us much yet, so let’s look deeper. Often female vocals with either a ‘chipmunk’ pitched up effect or deformed in some way, with a very idiosyncratic delivery style exemplified by Hannah Diamond and Kero Kero Bonito‘s vocalist, a southern English (neutral/London) accent, mimicking contemporary teenager speak, but coming across as a British version of a California valley girl. Plenty of cross genre pollination, pulling tropes from wonky, bass music, trance, happy hardcore, purple sound, house, R&B, UK funky, electro, garage, but normally only the more upbeat, playful, vibrant and ‘light’ characteristics of these genres, extrapolating them to extreme levels. There isn’t a specific tempo associated with genre like there is with most dance musics, so it’s pretty free in that respect. A tenuous link to J-pop and K-pop can be imagined but considering the huge American and European musical influence in those regions (the sustained popularity of Eurobeat in Japan demonstrates this), it’s more a case of trying to tie the kawaii element together with the rest of the aesthetics. (I wouldn’t complain if bubblegum bass incorporated some more Nakata, plus SOPHIE is rumoured to have been working with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu). To my ears, though, a strange union of the pure unabashed pop of Aqua and The Vengaboys with the underground sugar rush of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke is a possible comparison point. Add to that a completely hi-fi production quality, and we arrive at something like a decent musical structure for the genre. However, unlike ballroom (the Ha) and vapourwave (slowing down) there is no single sonic trademark associated with the genre, so much genre judgement is left to the discretion of the listener. If we expand it to include other hyper-pop virtual genres like nightcore, ‘Manicured’ or mutated seapunk, then instinct and intuition are as useful as analysis.
Examples of PC Music’s imagery, especially its portrayal of women
(Images: Hannah Diamond – Every Night, GFOTY – Don’t Wanna / Let’s Do It, QT – Hey QT, Lipgloss Twins – Wannabe)
Moving on to the extra-musical areas, the first thing I’d point out that, again, like vapourwave, it is an online situated genre, with (depending upon the inclusiveness of genre definition) all releases thus far being digital only and most being free to download. Furthermore, most releases have been either standalone tracks or mixes, with the album format seemingly not having the same draw as being the artistic pinnacle it once had (although a Hannah Diamond full length is scheduled in 2015). The accompanying imagery, consisting of the plasticky, synthetic, digital visuals that DIS Magazine has been promoting for years, in combination with a heightened sense of saccharine cuteness, pastel colours, kitsch glamour, eccentric femininity and a kind of distortion of banality, create a distinct style. Without digressed too much, I think I’d probably better clear up what exactly I mean by ‘eccentric femininity’. I am accepting the proposition that beyond the obvious physiological differences and resulting psychological tendencies, what constitutes ‘femininity’ is an entirely cultural construct. In other words, while physically feminine characteristics, like female sexual and reproductive organs, breasts, a voice in a higher frequency range, less facial hair, are universally considered to be feminine, extraneous signifiers of femininity, such as make-up, nail polish, high heels, long hair, perfume, certain items of clothing (dresses, skirts, tights, blouses etc.), even down to fabrics like chiffon and sheer, or, most absurdly, colours, are only associated with women and femininity due to acquired traditions and socially accepted norms. In this sense, PC Music, SOPHIE, Manicure et al focus on these extrinsic indicators to an extreme degree, with neotenic girls garbed in shocking pink and neon yellow, digital recreations of glossy lips, androids posing as submissive Barbie dolls, everything very knowing and calculated. However, it lacks the clear allusion to sexuality that global pop starlets like Katy Perry, Beyoncé, even Lady Gaga’s iconography uniformly possess. I’m not condemning these artist’s sexualised imagery either, as on a basic level I quite like looking at attractive women wearing suggestive clothing, and obviously for musicians like Laurel Halo, Karen Gwyer, Julianna Barwick, Fatima al Qadiri and other female artists who don’t push their personal appearance to the forefront of the visual presentation, it shouldn’t be important, but for those artists who choose to operate in the pop realm and take advantage of its heavy emphasis and scrutiny of every facet of an artist’s life, it’s good to have a response to these aesthetic choices that isn’t a flat refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of sex appeal as an artistic tool, much like impressive dancing skills or an interesting persona (or all three) are equally valid non-musical properties for a musician to utilise in order to achieve their goals. However, to summarise, I’ll try to make a tenuous link back to the ballroom; whereas drag queens are all about achieving ‘realness’, PC Music and company have no desire for that, as they are already ‘real’, the imagery is pure artifice, a sublimation into girlishness and cuteness that allows these ordinary people to escape into the world of the extraordinary. (Not to mention their ability to use the media hype surrounding them to establish a whole genre based on a handful of key artists is impressive to say the least.)
After all those words I still don’t know what exactly bubblegum bass is, if indeed it is anything more than just PC Music, but that doesn’t really matter; I like most of it and want to hear more of it. I want a group of new artists to appear and make great, catchy pop music, whether it has an impact on the charts being inconsequential. We may arrive at a point where the underground is more pop than the mainstream, which is surely a literary paradox. This deep house revival we are experiencing at the minute is fine, but I hope there is still some room for some ‘cheese’ in the charts. As it has been for many decades, the chart sales are dictated by young kids who still buy singles, and they are in turn indirectly dictated by the promotional and advertising powers that back certain artists, enabling wider exposure and greater possibilities for financial gains, thus guiding popular culture towards specific channels of growth. However, this doesn’t mean a mono-culture will prevail, as the incomprehensibly complex web of human interactions that make up the worldwide web will never allow that to occur. Genres and niches may not necessarily be as centred around location, class, race, sexuality or age like they once were, but new formations of artistic preference will appear, and both the confluence and diffusion of genres will continue unabated. The codification of these genres will always be important, as they are more helpful in the dissemination of the style, and the conversion of artists, than any single artist or label can possibly be.
‘Pink and Blue’, ‘Hey QT’, ‘What I Mean’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Pretty Green’, ‘Bipp’, ‘Broken Flowers’, ‘Hard’
Under my umbrella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh
What have we learned about genre? Firstly, it is a far from perfect system for classifying music, especially the newer strains which have yet to be rigidly defined. As such, labels are also a very expedient method of discovering music in line with a person’s tastes, but still have the vagaries that discount them as being entirely successful in guaranteeing fulfilment of expectations and satisfactory consistency. Nevertheless, labels like L.I.E.S, Hyperdub, Lit City Trax, Night Slugs, Keysound, Livity Sound, 1080p, Houndstooth, Her Records, Ostgut Ton, Rephlex, Planet Mu, Kompakt, Not Not Fun, Aus Music, Tresor, PAN, Numbers, Thrill Jockey, Editions Mego, Raster Noton, Blackest Ever Black, Activia Benz, Software, in addition to those labels mentioned earlier in the text, and plenty more I’ve either forgotten or aren’t aware of, are currently operating as micro-genres. As the boundaries between genres becomes increasingly blurred, especially considering the profusion of individuals with the means and opportunity to produce certain styles of music nowadays, these labels function as stars in a galaxy; stars which gather artists into their orbit and help give shape to the nebulous cosmos that is music. However, even if these labels try to remain true to a set aesthetic, the nature of things is that people change, tastes and interests shift, and with that being the case, the labels have to choose between being museums or losing their initial identity. Warp, R&S, Rough Trade, Ninja Tune, 4AD, XL, Mute are examples of labels that have managed to move with the times, in doing so losing some of their uniqueness but retaining enough of a mental association with a particular style as to be permanently entwined. Then there are labels that are so synonymous with either a genre, or a subsection therein, to become more convenient descriptors than the actual genre names: Motown, Stax, Chess, Sun, Blue Note, Impulse!, Factory, Salsoul, Windham Hill, Trax, Dance Mania, 2 Tone, Trojan, PWL, Strictly Rhythm, Stiff, Underground Resistance, Minimal Wave. Thus, record label heads and A&R staff have had power not only in establishing individual artists, but also in influencing whole sections of the genre landscape, with a consistent and visionary curator being as important to a genre’s future as most artists.
We pay your benefits
How a label name, or any other word, morphs into the name of a genre is an interesting mystery that seems rooted in the complete randomness and chaos that underpins the universe at the most fundamental level. Often a genre name is established after the actual genre itself, so whilst the new music would have still been referred to by the name of whatever genre it derived from or most closely resembled, after the new name is popularised, it will be retroactively applied to the music which resembles the newly approved genre name. This is quite confusing until the new name is universally accepted, and then confusion is replaced by contention, as people nitpick over what the earliest entries into a genre were, and where the cut-off line lies.
When did jungle start being called drum’n'bass? When did hypnagogic pop become chillwave? And what happened to the term ‘glo-fi’? When did Black Sabbath go from being just plain old ‘rock’ to ‘hard rock’, then to ‘heavy metal’ and finally ‘doom metal’? When does a genre become a ‘post-’ genre?
Although there can be seen to be a logical evolution of musical genres throughout the ages, there will always be unpredictable ingredients falling into the mix that will create strange divergences that eventually lead to a destination that seemed impossible from the initial nexus. Much like a natural phenomena, such as the arbitrarily emerging and dissipating of chants at a football stadium (including player specific songs like the ‘Steven Gerrard-Demba Ba‘ song which often appear when neither player are even on the field of play), or better yet, the establishment of a musical canon within the PDC darts circuit, specifically the Alexandra Palace-held world championships. Logically, many darts chants start out as the players walk on music, but only a select few become regular anthems; ‘Seven Nation Army‘, ‘Hey Baby‘, ‘Give It Up‘; add to this the ‘official’ PDC theme tune, ‘Chase the Sun‘, plus organically formed chants based around well known melodies like ‘Winter Wonderland‘, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, ‘La Donna e Mobile’, ‘No Limit‘ (borrowed from football, and in reference to players Yaya and Kolo Toure, now much more commonly heard at the darts), ‘Go West‘, ‘Son of my Father’ and we begin to get a definite repertoire of tunes that can spring up at any moment during a darts match. Obviously, on a musical level there isn’t much to unite these disparate pieces in terms of genre, but there is the blatant quality of them being very simply, catchy, melody-driven songs that, crucially, are relatively easy to sing whilst in an absolutely bladdered state, like most at the Ally Pally will be in. So, whilst being a stretch to call the darts canon a genre of music as yet, it does serve as a collection of music that unites a few thousand people over the course of a sporting event, and operates as a modern day, spontaneous form of folk music. This haphazard approach to ‘genrification’ is not too dissimilar to the creation of actual genres.
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping…
I mentioned space earlier in the piece as being an integral extra-musical factor in the establishment and consolidation of a genre, but equally important is the role of time. Without getting into a discussion on what exactly time is, and accepting it as what it is generally understood to be by the majority of people, and not getting too concerned with the political and social tendencies of an era, I will simply examine how the timing of an artist’s emergence and their input effects the subsequent development of a genre. In relation to a single genre, most artists can be divided into four major groups (in chronological order):
1. Pioneers: artists who are before their time, who act as forerunners of what will come, or as eccentric outsiders who have tried to forge their own unique path.
2. Popularisers: artists who spearhead the promulgation of a genre into a wider public arena, refine and develop its characteristics, and eventually come to embody that genre.
3. Adopters: artists who respond to the popularisers, imitate their stylistic elements, and come to form the core of the genre.
4: Revivalists: artists who operate within a genre whose popularity and activity has radically decreased since its initial heyday, but at a time when interest in it is beginning to resurface, occasionally through another pop culture media outlets machinations.
The pioneers and revivalists can be active any time before or after the other two categories, and in some genres may not even exist at all, but the popularisers and adopters should appear within a relatively short space of time of each other. (As communication technology has advanced this time period has drastically shortened, with the spread of radio, television and the internet accelerating the process exponentially.) A slightly different category does exist, but it overlaps with the other categories somewhat; the reactionary is an artist who is in opposition to a genre and reacts by pioneering, popularising or reviving an antagonistic genre. Examples of this would be popularisers of punk The Sex Pistols, who reacted against progressive rock, or any of the ‘Four Big Minimalist Composers’, who reacted to the growing complexity and theoretical rigidity present in the Modernist, atonal and serial music of the 1960′s, specifically the Darmstadt school. I will add all these groupings of artists are completely fluid and subject to change over time, as well as simultaneous identification being possible.
Firstly, a pioneer of a genre may not necessarily belong to that genre, much like it wouldn’t make sense to call Jesus Christ a Christian, the pioneer can sometimes just open up available routes for subsequent artists to explore. No doubt Liszt, Wagner and Beethoven all did things ahead of their time but as a whole their output is clearly Romantic (or in Beethoven’s case part Classical), but individuals like Erik Satie (ambient), Harry Partch (microtonalism/Just Intonation exploration), Luigi Russolo (noise), Conlon Nancarrow (automata/humanly unplayable music) and La Monte Young (drone) are so far ahead of the curve they are both integral to, and apart from, the genres that would come into existence many years later. Then there are just weird anomalies that happened to exist prior to a genre’s formation but not really be influential on the genre like ‘Prisencolinensinaincuisol‘ or Synthesizing Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. Kraftwerk are an interesting case as depending on the genre in question they can be either a pioneer or a populariser. However, what can be considered a true pioneer is very difficult and often relies upon advancements in technology to enable, rather than just a progression in theory or perception. Without electric guitars and amplifiers there would be no rock or metal, without synthesizers there would be no techno or house, without samplers there would be no jungle or footwork, without DAWs there would be no black MIDI, and so it goes on. Considering that most of the inventors of these tools aren’t also the key artists, it means that genres are reliant on yet more extra-musical input.
Popularisers most often have the highest name recognition (高知名度) amongst a genre’s proponents. Think of any artist, especially one from a genre you aren’t really overly familiar with, and chances are you will name a populariser; The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Chic, Larry Heard, Metallica, Nirvana, Bob Marley, The Ramones, Madonna, Aphex Twin, Prince, The Beach Boys, Juan Atkins, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Velvet Underground, Goldie, Dizzee Rascal, Fela Kuti, Ariel Pink, Lee Perry, Black Sabbath, YMO and many, many more. Due to music broadly being a gradual process of evolution with many minor innovations leading to the seemingly vast aesthetic variations across the board, often a pioneer isn’t required for a new genre to be created; this is most often the case with what are generally called sub-genres or meta-genres. For example, with a fusion genre like tech-house, or with a subtle progression, like from reggae to dub, it’s readily apparent how the process came into motion. This is not to say these artists are less innovative than the pioneers, however, they often don’t have a reason to push the boundaries too much as they have already found a sound they are content with, they just tailor it to their exact desires.
Adopters are by far the most numerous, in that pretty much every musician who hasn’t achieved a decent level of public recognition belongs to this group. That includes most bedroom producers, Soundcloud uploaders, pub and club bands that play original compositions, artists on a DJs setlist, hobbyists and dilettantes. It isn’t necessarily that these artists are just imitators or conservatively minded, it may be that for some unknown reason they failed to have an impact on future artists, or their additions to the genre weren’t popular enough to catch on. There are bandwagon jumpers, or trend chasers, who will quickly move onto the next interesting thing to come along, as well as those die-hards who remain true to a genre’s core principles long after its mass appeal has dissipated. These artists may not define a sound but they strengthen its position as a powerful artistic movement. It’s interesting to note that this group consists of both some of the most famous musicians on the planet and, conversely, complete unknowns, but overall it displays the progression from the near uniform obscurity of the pioneers, through the underground upheaval of the popularisers, to the mainstream diffusion of the adopters. (This is very relative when considering niche genres like those among the post-hypnagogic lineage or the perpetually fractalising branches of metal and dance music.)
The final group is the most curious because they aren’t just people who like old music and want to create ‘new’ old music, those would again be adopters, no, revivalists are artists who have recognised a change in the public consciousness, where there is a hunger for a resurgence in a particular, long neglected style. These artists arrive at this perfect opportune moment and take advantage of it. Also, this doesn’t mean that the revivalists will just rehash old tropes, more often the case being that the revival initiates a new evolution within the genre, almost as if it was cryogenically frozen for a number of years, woken from hibernation and begins to expand and grow once again, only now with the insight and technology that wasn’t available first time around. Actually, that suggests the idea of ‘genre stasis’, which isn’t correct, as all things are constantly changing, no matter how microscopically. No, rather imagine time as a horizontal line on an infinitely long and wide piece of paper, that diverges with each musical advancement. Obviously, this is unimaginable as the amount of offshoots will be incomprehensibly high, but just visualise a simplified version. Then imagine the paper being folded so that the present and the point of the genre’s initial appearance conjoin together. Everything that occurred between the two points in time still exists but is folded away out of sight and out of mind, and the present continues to unfold as normal.
What triggers the revival or reinvigoration of the genre can be many things and is often difficult to pinpoint. In some cases it’s a stimulation from another art form or media. Ragtime underwent a few revivals, firstly by the release of 78s of Joplin‘s composition, but latterly by the release of the film The Sting. I believe the videogame Grand Theft Auto: Vice City led to an increase in awareness of 1980s popular music amongst the youth in the mid-2000s which aided in the revival of synthpop, as well as possibly nu-disco and the then upcoming synthwave (neo-80s) genres. However, more often than not it’s one or two artists or bands that generate a snowball effect that catches the imagination of likeminded artists for a short period; Neoclassicism (Stravinsky), neo-swing (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer Orchestra), folk revival (John and Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger), psychobilly (The Meteors). Then there are the revivals that adhere to a similar phenomena to that of football chants, in that during a match, fans will constantly try to rouse a song out of the crowd but there are only certain times it will take off and spread to the entire support, plus there seems to be no way of predicting if a chant will take off, or when it will fizzle out. All that seems to be true is that it needs to be sung by a certain number of spectators, and that if that number is reached, its chance of successfully engulfing the majority of fans is very high. Similarly, many revivals like the post-punk revival, garage rock revival, neo-psychedelia and the current house revival in the UK, although aided by a nucleus of artists, seem to have naturally coagulated from the aether, then reached a point of unstoppable momentum whereby the reactivation of the genre had become inevitable and only its longevity up for debate. By the time bands like Interpol, The Strokes, The Flaming Lips and Disclosure arrive on the scene, their respective genre revivals had reached that moment where the entire football stadium will be in full chorus, its appeal irresistible.
The only thing I can see in common with all these revivals is that it takes about 20-30 years for the feeling of collective nostalgia to be either, strong enough to compel a few people to start a revival, or compel enough people strongly to start a revival. This 20-30 year period, as with the time between the populariser and adopter stages, is becoming shorter as the speed of the transmission of information continues to increase, and as demonstrated above with vapourwave and bubblegum bass’ focus of nostalgia centring around the 90s and early 00s. In as little as 10-15 years, a sense of distance from the events has been formed with enough intensity as to evoke inexpressible emotions that play on half-forgotten memories among a large group of people.
So whilst the direction that the development of genres displays in total is exceptionally chaotic and unforeseeable, the temporal progress of a single genre is predictable up until the point a part of it deviates enough to be considered a new genre mutation.
Driver, roll up the partition, please
How defined are these divisions of genre, and how can they be recognised? The simple answers to both these questions are ‘not very’, and ‘with some difficulty’. Yet this isn’t necessarily the case, since as mentioned in regards to the Ha in ballroom, an established idiosyncratic element within a piece of music can make it instantly identifiable as a specific genre, combine this with a secondary, less unique element, and a reasonable assumption can be readily made. However, much music exists in the ‘cracks’ between genre boundaries, or simultaneously utilising multiple elements to create a hybrid style that isn’t categorisable as any one set genre, but the presence of these signposts at least guides the listener to a rough area within the sprawling network of interconnective musical exchange.
Firstly, certain timbres are so strongly affiliated with a genre as to be a necessity. The TB-303 in acid house is probably the most famous, but this point equally applies to much more traditional genres found across the world. The mbira with traditional Shona music, the shō and hichiriki combination with gagaku, the peculiar Indonesian metallophones with gamelan, the overtone-rich jivari strings with Indian classical music, the bagpipes with traditional Scottish music. This can even extend to certain playing or performance techniques that enable a timbre; the golpe in flamenco, slapped and popped bass in funk, growled vocals in death metal, but these aren’t as exclusive as the differentiation in instruments. However, most of these aren’t reliable genre identifiers on their own, so a secondary characteristic helps greatly. For example, breakbeats in a track don’t necessarily mean the genre is d’n'b, but if played at a high tempo, that is likely to be the case. Just like compositions based on strict species counterpoint don’t have to be baroque, but when in combination with a fugal structure, no matter the timbres or tempo used, it will tend to sound baroque. The hoover sound, down tuned distorted guitars, square wave bass synth