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Music genres are not as concrete as they used to be

Genres and the conversations surrounding them are constantly changing and being mixed.
Image by Shalom Berhane
Ferguson Hall on West Bank, June 15, 2023.

The purpose of a musical genre is to give listeners an expectation of what they are about to take in. 

Local musician Annie Thoma of the band Killed by Kiwis provided an artist’s perspective on the way genres are mixing in the present. 

“Broadly we are a rock band, but the choice of sound, instrument and rhythm for each particular song would categorize them within different genres,” Thoma said.

Audiences use genres to better understand if they will enjoy a song or an artist, said Matt Sulla, a doctorate musicology student at the University of Minnesota. 

“When you hear certain things like rock music … you expect there to be guitars and drums and bass and vocalist,” Sulla said.

Charles Kronengold, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University, describes the way people embrace genre as a pendulum. 

“People want to embrace genres. People want to reject them … but they seem like they’re always around because they help people communicate … and still mean something,” Kronengold said.

While genres make it easier for artists to communicate with their audiences, it can be hard to do if people define a singular genre differently. 

“It’s really important for people to [first define] what they mean when they’re talking about a genre before they kind of make an opinion,” said Levi Hutton, president of the University’s Independent Music Promotion Syndicate (IMPS) and a musician himself. 

Similarly, Thoma said younger generations often need to know the “vibe” of the song to have a better sense of what kind of energy it will bring. She references musicians on TikTok using very specific scenarios or circumstances to describe a song they are releasing and draw in an audience. 

Thoma said the concept of genres is a bit dated because “we’re reaching a point where it’s so specific that it is actually hard to define.”

Thoma also mentioned this unique way of categorizing music is also the result of people mixing genres to create something new. Combining elements from different genres is not new, but it seems more accessible and noticeable in the digital age. 

If a musician wanted to have a specific sound in their song, they needed someone who would be able to play it. Now, someone can take the track of an instrument and add it to their song, according to Hutton. He added there is so much music for people to pull from and get inspiration for their own work. 

In the past, genres also played an important role in the marketing of music. According to Kronengold, author of the book “Living Genres in Late Modernity: American Music of the Long 1970s,” before record companies started consolidating, many genres did well and companies would work hard to market them. This was easier in the ‘70s because companies often knew who they were marketing to. 

“In the streaming environment, the question of who your audience is is a lot more open-ended, a lot more flexible, a lot less knowable,” Kronengold said.

The music genre still plays a large role in marketing but in a different way. The influx in subgenres and even more niche genres within those subgenres is due to artists wanting to show they are different and have their own sound. The negative side of this is defining a genre becomes muddled and niche where artists are describing their specific sound, according to Sulla. 

However, the positive side of a band not being able to describe their sound shows the various influences the band has.

“I like that we can’t really explain what kind of music we make. I don’t like being stuck in one thing,” Thoma said.

Not defining a band by genre allows for them to play around with their sound. Specifically within Killed by Kiwis, all six band members combine their influences to make the sound that is Killed by Kiwis. 

“I think [genres] will keep evolving … and is something that can infinitely be added to,” said Ariel Lerner, singer and guitarist for the band Odd Prospect. Lerner also said people enjoy having a label on music so “they have a reference as far as sound.” 

As time goes on, people will discover new ways to make music. The concept of categorizing music to know what to expect from it will most likely change and become completely blurred or irrelevant.

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