Notes Toward a Manifesto on Genre Diversity

Recently at a music conference “radio panel” I found myself apologizing for the number of genres I use on my new album (country, power pop, electro pop, bluegrass, jazz, world music; with lyrics comic, political, psychological, philosophical). Until I realized there was nothing to apologize for. For me, genre diversity is not an accident, it’s a feature.
Coming of age musically in the ’70s, when radio would segue from Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” genre diversity was a given. The Beatles’ White Album was my cornerstone. It gave me, and, I assumed, everyone else – music consumers and producers alike – carte blanche.
Genres have always fascinated me. They start as products of distinct cultures or subcultures. But as they are absorbed into the mainstream, they become styles and ultimately end up as feels.
To me, genre is a musical consideration like key or tempo. What genre best lends itself to the subject matter of the song? But more than that, genre is an interesting avenue of exploration. What kinds of effects can be created by juxtaposing genres or merging genres? This has been my approach to making music since I first started.
There is nothing particularly novel about genre hopping. Historically, it has been more the norm than the exception. Mozart evoked Turkish janissary bands, wrote German Lieder and Italian Opera. Stephen Foster, the father of American popular song, wrote Irish ballads, minstrel songs and waltzes. Genre hopping was purely practical; different genres represented different markets for selling music.
But in our time, for people like me, genre is a choice. I like mixing genres within one song, butting up one against another, or melding two together. And I am far from alone. Many of my favorite musicians do the same thing, some much more so than I. It’s fun. You can try it at home.
Since I first tried it, I’ve gotten lots of push-back to my ecumenical attitude. I remember arguing at age twelve with a bandmate over using kalimba on a song. Commercially, it has not been perhaps the wisest tack for me. Apparently, it makes radio programmers heads explode. But I make music the way I want music to be.
I understand the resistance. First, music is hard to talk about, and hard to categorize. People want to get a handle on it. Genre non-specificity makes it all the more challenging. Second, I believe genres function, consciously or unconsciously, as sort of cultural stereotypes. Genre hopping can be jarring and, in a sense, dissonant, because it makes us question our stereotypes.
There is an idea that music that hops from style to style somehow lacks integrity or authenticity. Fans want their favorite genres to retain their stylistic individuality; the genres to stay separate but (un)equal. The assumption seems to be that one should make music in the style that one was first exposed to as a child (one’s so-called “roots”). Well, I suppose, as someone who grew up on the wide open ears of ’70s radio and the White Album, that’s what I do.

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2 thoughts on “Notes Toward a Manifesto on Genre Diversity”

  1. You converted me to Radical Genre Equality when we first moved in together in 1980 and you rearranged all our albums in alphabetical order by composer, regardless of genre. So it went: Bach, Bartok, Beach Boys, Beatles, Captain Beefheart. (The Bad Plus did not yet exist). That was mind blowing and ear opening. And you’re still doing it.

  2. That’s the beauty of it you CAN! You can read as many of the gernes as you like, if I read the information correctly. Oh, and I saw the ABNA information and I toyed with it, but I’m not sure romance would fare as well against thrillers and lit fic. Hard to say, since they’re all so different. I’m surprised they don’t have it broken down more, at least, initially.

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