Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pop music as genre fiction

Musical genre.

We use musical genre labels all the time for important reasons: to try to make sense of the overwhelming selection available, to signal the generational influence of this music to older music, and to sell recordings (the main reason why genres were developed by record companies).

Sometimes, though, I ask myself: why are so many pop songs about love and sex, when there are so many other emotional things to write about? Why do so many groups use the same instrumentation? Why are songs within a genre of similar length? If you ask these questions to artists or record producers, I imagine the answer might be “well, that is how pop music is done” or “if we do it that way, it will probably sell,” or “that’s the way I learned to do it.” But I want to dig a little deeper.

To try and make more sense of how musical genres operate, I’ve recently started thinking about music genre (pop music genres especially) in terms of literary genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery novels. People enjoy having variations on their favorite theme in popular literature, and the same is true in popular music. I myself read the science fiction/fantasy genres almost exclusively. Here are some ways that pop music genres are similar to genre fiction (or course, as with any generalizations, there are exceptions).

Songs in the same popular music genre usually share:

1. Similar vocabularies, both musically and lyrically
Literary genres have themes and similar protagonists, and this happens in popular genres, too. You wouldn’t have a punk song that is gushingly romantic because it would seem out of place, musically and culturally.

2. Similar structures
Like the hero’s journey in novels (especially fantasy), pop music has developed a length and structure (ABABCB), though some popular genres will stretch the length of this form or have their own common structure. Of course, the popular form changes over time, just like romance novels have evolved over time—for example, for a long time the favorite popular American music structure was AABA, which in turn evolved from an extra long chorus.

3. Similar themes
For much of pop music, that theme is love and sex, but we know that country music or death metal have their own conventions.

4. Subgenres
Each genre has divisions, with different people carving out their own favorite repeated themes, or narrative structure.

5. Similar ways of distribution
For SciFi/Fantasy, it’s a book trilogy; for music genres, it would be an album with a certain number of tracks or a length. Pop musicians have to put out an album, even if everyone knows there is only going to be three good songs on it.

So why would analyzing popular music
this way be useful? It has certainly proven useful for literature—genre theory is a big field among literary academics, but it isn't quite so developed in music. I think this type of genre classification could be helpful for composers/songwriters, too, because once genre conventions have been identified, it is easier to break barriers and mix things up; it is exciting to have someone take a well-known genre convention and either use the themes, structures, and vocabularies better or differently than the rest of their genre, or bend the genre expertly enough that the old genre is apparent in the new piece of art.

I’m sure there is much more to say about this, but I’ll stop for now. Is comparing music genres with genre fiction helpful for you at all? Or is it unhelpful?

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