Date of Degree
Musicology | Music Theory
popular music, genre
This dissertation approaches the broad concept of musical classification by asking a simple if ill-defined question: “what is genre in post-millennial popular music?” Alternatively covert or conspicuous, the issue of genre infects music, writings, and discussions of many stripes, and has become especially relevant with the rise of ubiquitous access to a huge range of musics since the fin du millénaire. The dissertation explores not just popular music made after 2000, but popular music as experienced and structured in the new millennium, including aspects from a wide chronological span of styles within popular music. Specifically, with the increase of digital media and the concomitant shifts in popular music creation, distribution, and access, popular music categorization has entered a novel space, with technologies like internet radio, streaming services, digital audio workstations, and algorithmic recommendations providing a new conception of how musical types might be understood and experienced. I attempt to conceptualize this novel space of genre with what I call a genre-thinking or a genreme, a term which is meant to capture the ways that musical categorization infiltrates writings about, experiences of, and the structures connecting genres.
This dissertation comprises four main chapters, each of which takes a slightly different perspective and approach towards questions concerning genre in popular music of the post-millennial era. Chapter 1 provides a general survey and summary of music theory’s and musicology’s discourses on musical categorization and genre. After describing the “problem of genre,” I outline the main issues at stake and chief strategies previous authors have employed. This involves describing the closely intertwined facets of the “who” of genre (is a musical category defined by music, a musician, an audience, the industry?) and the “how” of genre (is it a contract, a definition, a pattern, a system, an experience?) By asking these questions, I open new approaches to understanding and analyzing genre’s role in both the structure and potential experiences of post-millennial popular music.
Chapter 2 takes on the digital compositional practice of mashups—most prevalent in the first decade of the 2000s—in an attempt to understand genre as a crucial element of meaning-formation and creation. Previous mashup scholars have tended to focus on the ironic, subversive, or humorous juxtapositions of the particular samples or artists which get layered together. However, this leaves out the broad, exceptionally potent acts of signification that are possible even when a listener lacks the knowledge of the specific autosonic source materials. By incorporating methodologies from musical semiotics and topic theory, I create a field of “interaction methods” to explain the dynamic relations between samples, exploding the analytical potential for signification and collaboration in mashups. These interaction methods are placed in dialogue with formal analysis to show ways that artists, samples, and genres intermingle in this form of digital musicking.
Chapters 3 and 4 then progress chronologically into the second decade of the new millennium, taking a twinned approach to our contemporary world of streaming services and online musical cultures. First, I pursue a brief musicological and sociological exploration of current discourses engaged with genre in the 2010s, outlining the ways that critics, fans, and musicians deploy stylistic terms and musical categories. A somewhat paradoxical position emerges in which genre is both in a state of decline and a state of proliferation, simultaneously atrophying yet employed in increasingly abundant and sophisticated manners. I then describe how this contradictory state fits into sociological research on “omnivorousness” and musical taste. The following chapter investigates how these perceptions and linguistic usages of genre compare to two main ways that Spotify classifies its artists. This quantitative analysis reveals some potential systemic patterns of bias that shed light onto genre’s paradoxical position; whether genre is dead or not depends on who is classifying the music and who is being classified. These two chapters map out my concept “#genre” which I employ to describe the multivalent genre-thinking we currently inhabit.
Johnson, Thomas, "Analyzing Genre in Post-Millennial Popular Music" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.