Is the collapse of genre boundaries and the erosion of fervent musical loyalties a good thing?
Ispent much of my youth in sprawling record stores, drifting through aisles marked by signs that said things like rock, r&b, hip-hop, and—it was the ’90s—alternative. Anyone who grew up in or near a city in the later decades of the 20th century probably remembers the dial locations of classic rock, country, modern rock, “urban.” (Of course, there were also the catchall behemoths of Top 40 and adult contemporary; young snobs like me looked down on them as the presets of dilettantes.) But these days, to judge by the omnivorous listening enabled by Spotify and the stylistic free-for-alls of mega-festivals like Coachella, the genre boundaries that once defined popular music and its fandoms may be collapsing.
On the one hand, that’s hardly a surprise: Physical music stores and terrestrial radio—those two mainstays of 20th-century music consumption that depended on genre to segment and serve specific consumer markets—are coming to seem as obsolete as a yellow Sony Discman. On the other hand, the notion that musical genres might no longer matter as they once did feels more like a momentous cultural shift than merely like fallout from new distribution and marketing modes. Musical genres have long had a peculiar imaginative power and participatory quality. They aren’t just labels imposed by an industry; they’re shaped by passions and arguments, love and disgust, allegiances and disavowals.
A phrase like action movie or mystery novel calls to mind a particular aesthetic and emotional experience, but terms like country, hip-hop, and punk do more. They evoke a kind of person—an incomplete stereotype, certainly, but one that’s instantly legible to anyone who’s even minimally engaged with popular culture. And they also conjure communities: a crowd clad in black T-shirts, combat boots, and studded bracelets at a metal show; in Birkenstocks and cardigans at a folk club. Metalheads and folkies, separated by a chasm, each bond over a love for their chosen music, even if they might now both be endangered species.
As a guide to the erosion of fervent musical loyalties that seems to be under way, few could have better credentials than the New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh, who has published a delightfully provocative new book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Back in 2004, while a young critic at The New York Times, Sanneh wrote an influential rumination on genre and its relation to music fandom in the 21st century. This short and acute essay, “The Rap Against Rockism,” introduced the wider public to a debate within music criticism that quickly became framed as “rockism” versus “poptimism.” (Sanneh’s article never used the latter term.)
Rockism was the tendency to judge every kind of popular music using standards set by a certain romantic ideal of rock music as a heroic ground of creativity—where every artist was “a rebellious individualist, not an industry pro,” giving “listeners the uncomfortable truth, instead of pandering to their tastes.” In practice, the verdict was almost always that other musical genres were lacking—in intellectual sophistication, in artistic integrity, in that ill-defined but incessantly fussed-over quality of “authenticity.” This “imperial” rockist attitude irked Sanneh. “Could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?” he wondered.Musical genres aren’t just labels imposed by an industry; they’re shaped by passions and arguments, love and disgust.
His essay heartily endorsed a more inclusive and less prescriptive approach to musical pleasure. The best way to engage with, say, Britney Spears’s music wasn’t simply to point out that it wasn’t as wordy, sweaty, and self-consciously serious as Bruce Springsteen’s. It was to appreciate the unique forms of enjoyment that her infectious pop brought to her fans, many of whom happened to be part of a demographic (young, female) that rockism had historically denigrated.
Like many ideological disputes in contemporary America, this one has long since devolved into a caricatured standoff between incoherent extremes. Doctrinaire rockism is no longer a tenable stance in professional music criticism, but overzealous rejections of its vestigial snobbery continue to thrive anyway. (“Olivia Rodrigo Is a Revelatory New Pop Voice on Sour. Deal With It,” read the online headline of Rolling Stone’s review of Rodrigo’s debut, as if in defense of an underdog—a strange tone, considering that Sour is one of the best-reviewed albums of 2021.) On the other side, poptimism’s detractors characterize it as the belief that every popular song is necessarily a good song, which is absurd: Most critical best-of lists don’t align with the year-end Billboard charts any more closely than they ever did…