UNREMARKABLE MEDITATIONS ON GENRE TERMS

When I was a teenager, and went to SOME in the Montrose neighborhood near downtown Houston — as well as when we went to what people just called “parties” (now events openly called “raves”) — people used a variety of terms to categorize and subcategorize electronic music.

But why were (and are) we so obsessed with imposing boundaries around a diversity of sounds by conflating them under the term “deep house,” for example, both back in the mid-to-late 90s and now? I heard a recent “deep house” mix with such manifold variety I was delighted, but certainly all this music wasn’t “deep house,” was it?

Today, just as it was in the 90s, DJs, (independent) media publishers, and the artists who produce the songs that define genres themselves construct vocabularies that link certain qualities of music to ways of categorizing songs/singles.

Think of the amen sample in jungle. Think dembow. Think of the kick/snare configuration in lotsa dancehall and most Major Lazer tunes. Think snare rolls in trap. Think 4×4 in house. Formal elements tied to the words we use to describe our experience of dance music, song by song.

“These categories aren’t just the tool of lazy abstraction enthusiasts; they serve legit purposes.”

Stravinsky said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” This is the origin of genres, the incorporation of prior conventions and patterns to create while cohering in a culturally-legible way. For example, when multiple artists combine things like beats-per-minute, time signature, percussion patterns, and the sonic nature of the sounds synthesized themselves, they draw on shared ideas about formal elements that ultimately make individual songs seem to cohere logically when looked at collectively, as instances of a more broadly-conceived musical genre (e.g. “dubstep”, “bass”, “future jungle”, “garage house”, “joywave”, “breakcore”, “idm”, etc.).

These categories aren’t just the tool of lazy abstraction enthusiasts; they serve legit purposes. Categories emerge out of (economic and circulatory) necessity. At the end of the day, somebody out there is selling this music we call the cornerstone of “our culture.”

And for people who don’t have 12 hours free each day, the focus to listen to every song on soundcloud ever, and a prescription for Adderal, finding some way to quickly identify prospective fire club joints is attractive. So, genres exist in dance music culture because they help create a shared vocabulary that makes possible the social consumption of electronic music. It is this shared vocabulary that enables us to reflect on our shared experiences, and it is within that network of shared meanings we make sense of dance music.