Musical Genre Is Not Disappearing

This was originally published on March 16, 2021 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

Amanda Petrusich’s New Yorker piece titled “Genre is disappearing, what comes next?” correctly identifies a contemporary trend but overstates its reach. She’s right that “genre feels increasingly irrelevant to the way we think about, create, and consume art,” but genre isn’t, as she suggests, going away completely. As Petrusich argues, “genre was once a practical tool for organizing record shops and programming radio stations [technically, as my JPMS colleague Eric Weisbard has explained, radio stations are programmed by format, not by genre], but it seems unlikely to remain one in an era in which all music feels like a hybrid, and listeners are no longer encouraged (or incentivized) to choose a single area of interest.” The music industry is certainly evolving, but it’s more accurate to think of pop music genre as a category system suited to the Fordist culture industry that, as Western culture industries become more financialized and more speculative, persists relatively unchanged in some contexts and is supplemented with new category systems in others. Just as juridical power persists as new forms of biopower are interwoven with it, or commodity exchange continues to happen amid the proliferation of speculative investments, genre is a legacy practice that people continue to use as the music industry evolves.

Although music streaming platforms de-center genre as a category system, it thrives on other platforms. TikTok is one of them. There’s goth TikTokmetal TikToktechno TikTokgabber TikTok, you get the idea. Peloton is another such platform. They categorize workouts by either activity or music genre (e.g., “30 minute 90s dance ride”), and you can search for workouts by genre. 

I do think it’s worth taking the time somewhere else to drill down into Peloton’s use of music categories to see if they work more like genres (style-based categories) or more like formats (demographic categories), though I suspect it’s a bit of both. But the point is that even though music streaming platforms de-center genre, other platforms treat it as the main way to categorize music.

And even on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, genre isn’t so much fading away but evolving. Music streaming services have been using mood and activity categories interchangeably with genre categories for at least five years

Moods don’t correlate to genres; most mood-based playlists are highly omnivorous and juxtapose artists with otherwise unrelated or even antagonistic styles. Moods are genre-omnivorous categories that must mark each song’s genre in order to position moods’ transcendence of genre

These screenshots are from my Apple Music ap on 2/21/2021. They document two different playlists, “Pop Deluxe” and “Vibes.” The description of each playlist positions it as a mood- or vibes-based organization by explicitly contrasting it to genre: “Pop isn’t just a genre…it’s a mood” and “the most exciting sound right now isn’t found within the boundaries of traditional genres.” As that latter quote from the “Vibes” playlist shows, you can’t claim to transcend or supercede something without also referencing and marking that thing. It’s not just some copywriter at Apple Music who’s doing this. On the Victrola company blog post about 2021 music trends, they describe Spotify’s flagship mood/vibe playlist Pollen in terms of its supersession of genre: “Spotify’s Pollen concept is a way to feature music from a mix of mainstream and underground musicians that share a similar aesthetic. This concept focuses on curating for the mood of the moment. Whether that’s gathering sounds that spark creativity, soothing music that lets you relax, or party playlists to get hyped up, setting the mood is the focus over choosing one specific genre.” Here again, mood is defined by its supersession of genre.

So what’s happening is not that genre is disappearing or is losing relevance–it’s just relevant in a new way. As these examples demonstrate, these new mood- and vibe-based category systems gain their coherence by positing genre as something they overcome, transcend, surpass, or otherwise exceed.

The question we should be asking is why mood/vibe is represented as the transcendence, overcoming, or supersession of genre. What does “mood” do that “genre” does not, and why is that supposed to be a good thing?

There’s a growing body of scholarship (including my own work, such as my presentation at IASPM International next summer) that shows mood/vibe is tasked with doing the same sort of thing genre is traditionally tasked with doing. As Ignacio Siles, Andres Segura-Castillo, and Monica Sancho argue in their 2109 paper “Genres as Social Affect: Cultivating Moods and Emotions through Playlists on Spotify,” mood-based “playlists work as “genres”—fusions of musical substance, sociotechnological assemblages, and sociomaterial practices—to respond to the exigencies of affect.” In other words, moods, like genres, connect ranked, status-laden aesthetic qualities to ranked, status-laden groups of people and things. 

Mood and genre are just different methods for ranking things. As I mentioned before, genre (and its partner, format) evolved to meet the demands of a Fordist musical industry based on mass production and communication. Mood, however, is developing for post-Fordist contexts modeled primarily on financial speculation and private individual responsibility. 

But this still doesn’t answer the question of why mood is represented as transcending genre. Building on the analysis I did in this paper on the rhetoric and practice of “post-genre” music, the claim that mood/vibe transcends genre is also a claim that this new category system leaves genre’s problematic race/class/gender baggage in the past and offers a new “left of center” (“Pop Deluxe”) method of categorization open to “mix[es] of influences” (“Vibes”). For the last 15 years, debates about rockism and poptimism and the exclusion of hits by Black pop stars (“Daddy Lessons,” “Old Town Road”) from country charts have made the way musical genre is used to status-laden connect styles and sounds to status-laden groups of people all too well-known. By claiming that mood transcends genre, one can appear to “OK, boomer” all those receipts into obsolescence. Marking mood as the future of which genre is the past misrepresents mood-based category systems as unburdened by structural racism, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, and the like. (Readers of The Sonic Episteme will note that “vibe” here functions analogously to “resonance.”) THIS is why descriptions of mood/vibe-based playlists continually reference genre as what they are not–it allows mood/vibe to naturalize its new methods of connecting sounds and styles to the forms of inequality and oppression that characterize finance-based speculative neoliberalisms.