Pitchfork, widely viewed as the world’s leading alternative music website, relaunched this week. Along with a rather pleasant new look, it announced “a significant new feature”, the ability to view the site according to genre. At first glance this might suggest that genre boundaries — like pop versus rock — are as robust as ever. But it could mean the opposite.
What does it mean that a site whose name has become synonymous with a specific type of alternative rock is offering readers the chance to read about nothing but pop, or metal, or rap? And what does it mean if Rostam from Vampire Weekend works with Carly Rae Jepsen, and The Weeknd works with Max Martin? What if the likes of David Guetta and Calvin Harris call on a wide array of singers and MCs, with little concern for genre boundaries? If Rihanna covers Tame Impala, and Ryan Adams covers Taylor Swift (13 times)? How about Miley Cyrus collaborating with the Flaming Lips, or everyone working with Sia?
The 1975 have just scored a transatlantic No 1 with an album whose influences range from Yazoo to David Bowie. If you look at everynoise.com and key in, say, Lana Del Rey, you’ll find her listed under “pop, indie R ‘n’ B, indietronica, chamber pop, synthpop”; she’s all of those, a bit, but at the same time not completely any of those. All are representative of a strain of artists who are post-genre. They now straddle, or exist beyond, genres that seemed set in concrete as little as 10 years ago. They represent a cross-pollination that makes it harder than ever to definitively state that you like or dislike one genre or another.
Last summer, a survey by “millennial insight agency” Ypulse surveyed 1,000 young adults. When asked about their favourite artists, many respondents couldn’t answer, not through ambivalence, but because, it was concluded, “this generation is interested in so many music genres and artists”. It found that while millennials are passionate about music (76 per cent within the 13- to 17-year-old bracket said they wouldn’t be able to last a week without it), 79 per cent of 13- to 32-year-olds said their tastes didn’t fall into one specific music genre. Just 11 per cent said that they only listened to one genre of music. “It seems,” Ypulse noted when it published its findings, “that millennials are a genre-less generation”.
In 2000, music magazine Melody Maker put Craig David on the cover. Fair enough: David had hit No 1 three times by this point. Except it wasn’t Craig David on the cover: it was a ‘lookalike’ (which is to say, a man who didn’t really resemble Craig, but was black) sitting on the toilet. The coverline read: “UK Garage: My Arse”. By this point, Craig had established himself as an R ‘n’ B rather than UK garage artist, but perhaps Melody Maker’s logic was that if black people all looked the same, maybe everything without a guitar sounded the same. In any case, the magazine used its opposition to UK garage as a way of bigging up alternative music, which mainly meant guitar music. Guitar music was good because of what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. Melody Maker published “50 ways the indie nation is fighting back” against “UK garage and pop”. These included Blink-182 referencing Backstreet Boys in a video (“Hilarious vids, cool guys, brilliant music”), Embrace playing secret gigs (“Doing it for the fans, in hush-hush locations. Nice one”), and Coldplay having a No 1 (“Proving that nice guys can finish first”).
Melody Maker was apparently attempting to manufacture a response to manufactured music, an irony compounded by the fact that the magazine seemed to be yearning for a new punk while trying to shut down UK garage, the closest thing British music had seen to punk since acid house. I can laugh, but if my kids one day ask my what I did in the genre wars I’ll have to admit that there’s blood on my hands, too. Earlier in 2000, I’d set up Popjustice, a blog that I hoped would fight the corner for decent pop music. And early on this was pitched as a battle against guitar music. Puerile would be one charitable way of describing those early years: at one point, Popjustice’s home page featured Richard Ashcroft’s face with a cuss word across it. While that may or may not have been true, it’s clear now that it had no bearing on whether or not the third Steps album was a triumph (which, for the record, it was).
At the start of the millennium, festivals were where you’d hear guitar bands; on Radio 1, guitar music was largely relegated to the Evening Session. But, in 2016, radio playlists are bursting with guitar music and festivals have shifted their focus. None more so than V festival, whose top names this year are Justin Bieber, Rihanna, David Guetta and Sia. “It’s absolutely conscious,” V festival director Bob Angus tells me. “Music tastes have broadened massively and we absolutely want to celebrate that.” When I ask Angus if there was any “where are Kasabian”-style resistance to this year’s bill, he replies that they researched potential names straight after last year’s festival, before the full-on Bieber renaissance. “Justin got a 70 per cent approval from our customers,” Angus states. “So we went after him. We targeted Rihanna and Bieber because they scored so highly. To be fair, Justin released a great album.”
Releasing decent music is, of course, handy. When last year’s Justin, Skrillex and Diplo collaboration, Where Are U Now, went to radio in the US, Bieber tweeted fans with a request: “Let’s make it about the music.” But the acceptance hurled at Bieber’s recent career shift has been extraordinary, and surprisingly un-selfconsious. Pitchfork praised vocals “like an angel with a voice made of pure sunlight”. Complex saw him as a “grown adult star”. According to Dazed, which identified him as “a cultural icon of our times”, “attitudes towards Justin Bieber have done a U-turn, and so has his music”. Nylon added: “As an artist, his appeal now transcends teeny-boppers. His bubblegum has popped.”
Clearly, different styles of music continue to exist. Fleur East’s bloodcurdlingly bombastic Sax is clearly not the same thing as Slaves. You cannot argue that grime isn’t a scene, or that Little Mix aren’t a pop band. But the days of pitting one against the other, or dismissing one because it’s not the other, are coming to an end. Different styles of music still exist but, increasingly, nobody cares.
Samuel Potts, Columbia Records’ head of radio, puts YouTube at the heart of this. “Millennials or ‘digital natives’ are the first generation to literally have the entirety of the world’s music at their fingertips,” he reasons. “This influences the creators but also young fans in terms of taste. Online culture is inherently global, so genres that were distinct and contained to geographical locations are now cross-pollinated throughout the world. As a result, you get artists like 19-year-old Raury, who’s championed by the likes of Kanye and Andre 3000, and cites everyone from Bon Iver to Phil Collins as an influence.”
He adds that tastemakers — like music journalists — are no longer getting in the way. “Traditionally, fans consumed the music that was served to them by gatekeepers and tastemakers but now, with an abundance of choice in a connected economy, you’re likely to be influenced by friends, celebrities or music on adverts.” Which isn’t to say that radio hasn’t played a part in the erosion of genre boundaries. During the 00s, Radio 1 started its Live Lounge, in which artists were asked to cover current hits. This was before the constant demand for content made “surprising” cover versions a staple of most release strategies.
Jo Whiley remembers the feel of the slot mutating. “The idea in the beginning was that it would be a talking point,” she recalls today. “Initially people might have been a bit ‘look at us we’re so cool aren’t we being ironic’, but in the end it was: ‘Right, what’s the best song around that we can interpret?’ Arctic Monkeys was a case in point: at the time most people saw Girls Aloud as being very disposable and not particularly cool. Arctic Monkeys chose to do Love Machine because they thought it was a really good song.”
Rewinding another few years, Whiley recalls that her Evening Session show with Steve Lamacq was a walled garden because the alternative music of the time — at the tail end of grunge and continuing into Britpop — just wasn’t being played on daytime. “People like Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis had no interest in that music whatsoever,” she tells me, adding that things changed when Chris Evans took over from Steve Wright’s breakfast show in 1995: “He was aware that music was changing, and he started playing that music on the breakfast show and that infiltrated everywhere else.” Whiley’s former Evening Session slot is now filled by Annie Mac; with groundwork laid by Zane Lowe that slot is now incredibly eclectic. And the spot in which Whiley hosted the Live Lounge — weekday mornings — is now helmed by self-identifying millennial Clara Amfo.
“You can’t say anything’s of a particular genre any more,” Amfo reasons. “You can’t talk in absolutes. People are a bit more free and honest about their influences; it’s not a ‘live by the genre, die by the genre’ situation there might have been in the past. The 1975 have got this six-minute tune on their album; to me it sounds like D’Angelo. At the same time you can hear INXS, Peter Gabriel and Duran Duran.”
The 1975’s current popularity makes a lot of sense, but when they were trying to get signed their genre-hopping was a sticking point. They looked like a Manchester indie band, but they were making pop music. “We were the least signed band in [expletive] history!” recalls frontman Matty Healy. “We couldn’t get arrested. They [the labels] looked at me and went: ‘Well, he’s weird for a start’, but they’d also say: ‘All the songs sound different. They don’t know who they want to be.’” But that, of course, was exactly what the 1975 wanted to be. “I’m there going: ‘That’s who we are. We create in the way we consume. We’re from this generation, and we don’t want to be from another time.’”
Healy’s generation spent its musically obsessive teenage years soaking up everything the 2000s had to offer, and there was more to that decade’s genre-blurring than the Live Lounge.
On opposite sides of the Atlantic, Avril Lavigne and Busted suggested to young music fans that there was, perhaps, a third way. Alternative music left Camden Town and moved to Shoreditch then even further east, and became more exciting as it did so. Clubs such as Trash nurtured a new generation of hangup-free regulars; the brief, but entertaining mash-up scene threw all genre boundaries out of the window; the wave of hyper-pop guitar music that became landfill indie seemed to dominate the charts. Significantly, the only long-lasting pop acts of note in this period — Sugababes and Girls Aloud — were pushing boundaries sonically, but also in terms of how tastemakers and music critics would approach pop. It also became the norm to launch big pop acts — such as Ellie Goulding — through credible blogs. Even on The X Factor, acts were increasingly praised for their authenticity and their credibility; in auditions, songs by the likes of Kings Of Leon replaced Westlife’s Flying Without Wings.
In the same decade, shuffle culture opened up the entire history of music, and it was no longer necessary to endure the raised eyebrow of a record shop employee while attempting to purchase a Justin Timberlake single alongside an Arctic Monkeys album. Even on the iTunes Music Store there was still friction — 79p’s worth — in the transaction. Until the 2010s, when YouTube hit its stride and streaming services popped up.
It’s obvious, but still curious, how much more likely one is to try out a new album if the cost of doing so is zero pence. Labels may still be getting their heads around how their business looks with no purchase journey, but consumers have already adapted: in 2016, there is no financial imperative to stick to what you know you like.
No clinging required
Perhaps, in the age of endless ways to express yourself, it’s also less necessary to define your identity in your teenage years by clinging to genres. If you look at artists such as Lorde or Halsey, you see that while fans might once have bonded over those artists’ musical styles, they now bond by congregating at the point of consumption, which can mean places such as Tumblr.
For musicians, too, the hangups of peers and fans seem to be less of an issue. Skrillex, for instance, is full of praise for Bieber. “I got to work with one of the biggest artists in the world,” he says. “Someone with that big a voice, and that kind of a reach, that’s important. He’s a vehicle to touch so many people and if you can turn that into something positive that’s one of the greatest ... The reason I started make music was to touch people and make people feel great.”
There are pockets of resistance to the levelling of the music soundscape: there will always be artists such as Jake Bugg flatulently banging on about being an alternative to rubbish pop music. And notions of credibility are still important, so memes about the relative merits of Kanye and Queen will still flood Facebook. But these seem to come from the older generation and it’s striking how outdated such musical conservatism seems now. So, if genre boundaries are evaporating, and presuming post-genre doesn’t become a genre and cancel itself out, will anything replace them? Potts suggests the answer may lie with streaming. While all the major streaming services, and Tidal, offer genre-specific playlists (many, of course, sharing the same artists and songs), a huge number of their most-subscribed playlists are themed, multi-genre offerings. “In many ways, genre has been replaced by context as playlists become a dominant format,” Potts reasons. “Just look at some of the top Spotify playlists: Your Coffee Break, Feel Good Friday, Songs to Sing in The Shower. It’s a 24-hour service providing a soundtrack to every moment in your life.”
What we’ve seen in the past 15 years is that consumption methods have broadened attitudes, music has changed to reflect that, and attitudes have then changed even further. Music scenes may historically have appeared, disappeared and reappeared in a regular cycle, but it’s hard to imagine music fans moving on from this new sense of freedom.
Skrillex sums things up as much for consumers as he does for creators. “You should never believe that art has any rules,” he says. “And if there are any rules, you should break them all.”
Sui generis: six game-changing genre benders
Justin Bieber — What Do You Mean?
In US policy-making, the Overton window refers to the range of ideas the general public will tolerate. What Do You Mean? showed that the Bieberton window had been flung wide open. Curtains billowing, the whole lot.
Carly Rae Jepsen- E*MO*TION
This album’s cast list was a post-genre catnip. Alongside Jeppo’s own writing, the album included work with Ariel Rechtshaid, Dev Hynes, Rostam Batmanglij and the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson, alongside Mattman & Robin, Shellback and Greg Kurstin.
Rihanna — Drunk On Love
Rihanna covered Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes on this year’s Anti and frequently skips between genres, but this Stargate-produced, 2011 album track is notable not just because it sampled the xx’s Intro, but because the xx cleared the sample.
Ryan Adams — 1989
While some jumped on Adams’s supposed “rocksplaining”, his beginning-to-end cover of Taylor Swift’s blockbuster album seemed to come from a place of true affection.
Lorde — Tennis Court EP
While some artists have started off in one place then drifted or stampeded to another, Lorde appeared as a fully realised post-genre proposition. Her second EP laid the groundwork for Royals to become an international smash.
The Weeknd — Can’t Feel My Face
In 2011 it seemed unlikely, to say the least, that the chap throwing out indie R & B mixtapes for free would choose to work with Max Martin. Flash forward to 2015 and Beauty Behind the Madness makes perfect sense.