Blurred lines: We're living in a post-genre world
'Old Town Road' and the death of genres
Words— Marc Richardson
There was a time when genres reigned supreme. There was a certain badge of honour associated with earning plaudits within a specific genre, without earning mainstream acclaim. In hip-hop, for example, you’ve had the mainstream rappers—the ones churning out club hits and Top 40 features—and, on the end of the spectrum, you’ve had the lyricists. There have been tribes of fandom associated with each and allegiances were deeply-rooted. Hip-hop, of course, is not an outlier—it was emblematic of a far larger trend that saw things broken down into hyper-specific sub-categories.
That’s what makes it so incredible that—if you take a good, hard look at what’s happening at the moment—we are essentially in an era defined by a lack of genres, regardless of the industry.
"I like everything, including rap and country."
Nowhere is it quite so obvious as in music, where it’s increasingly difficult to assign a song to a specific genre. Music, as a whole, is beginning to sound ever more homogenous. Consider two of the biggest musical moments from the first half of 2019: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and the release of Billie Eilish’s first studio album.
The former is, arguably, the biggest song of the year, spurred—ha, get it?—in part by viral TikTok videos. It’s a genre-bending track on which the Atlanta-born artist borrows from both hip-hop and country. Initially, it charted as a country track, before being removed for being too “urban”, something which set off a pointed debate about race and music in America. But, looking beyond wider socio-political debates, the track isn’t a cut-and-dry country song—but it’s also not not a country song. Instead, it’s representative of a new type of music that exists outside of any traditional genre. Musicians, these days, borrow bits and pieces from various genres, inspired by the eclectic mix of sounds they grew up listening to. The beats may be hip-hop, but the lyrical content can be country, while the vocals themselves can draw on an entirely different genre.
Which brings us to Billie Eilish, whose discography is considerably larger than Lil Nas X’s—he’s really only released different versions of “Old Town Road”. Eilish is—by most accounts, or, at the very least, according to the paper of record— the most unconventional pop star we’ve seen in a minute. While others court stardom, Eilish seems to want to do anything but. Not only does she eschew the typical visual branding of contemporary pop stars, dressing in baggy, oversized clothes—a direct response to people’s reflexive opining about celebrities’ appearances—but the music she makes exists outside of any traditional chart-topping genre. It’s parts pop, techno, punk and emo. She whisper-sings in a melancholic, almost disinterested tone that harkens back to the early-to-mid aughts punk-pop, but the vocals are decidedly contemporary—“make your girlfriend mad type, might seduce your dad type”—while the beats are upbeat.
It’s an odd combination that defies the established recipe for success in the last decade. But, it also typifies the state of music today. There are myriad acts who are borrowing a similar blueprint, from Lil Uzi Vert’s melancholic post-punk rap to Tyler, The Creator’s latest, vocal-heavy album “IGOR”, to Twenty One Pilots, who are best described, in the words of Erik Leijon as "a 21st-century outfit, with elements of hip hop, reggae, dub, electronic and pop crammed into two performers.”
But while it all represents something of a break from the established trends, there are ties to the early 2000s. Eilish’s most popular song, “bad guy”, is somewhat Britney Spears-ian—a distant cousin of Spears’ “Toxic”. Just like how Lil Uzi Vert and Tyler, The Creator’s sounds are drawing on acts that preceded them—even if that means mixing Blink-182 with Pharrell. Drake, so accustomed to topping the charts, has developed a sound that is distinct to him but exists outside of what conventional hip-hop is. He borrows from everything—pop, rap, dancehall and grime.
It can, of course, get a little boring. Everything sounds similar—a mish-mash of familiar sounds that are hard to pinpoint, but that you know you’ve heard before. It can be both nostalgic and frustrating.
Genre-blurring comes for fashion
A 2019 London Fashion Week attendee expertly mixes the high and the low, the country and the street. Photo by Marc Richardson.
It’s also fascinating because there are parallels to be drawn with fashion. Streetwear has become the catch-all term to describe the current state of popular fashion, but even that is a misnomer. There are elements of traditional streetwear that are dominant at the moment—be it oversized silhouettes, sneakers, or the popularity of graphic tees and hoodies. But, for the most part, what we’ve been calling “streetwear” is a sort of super-sterilized, cross-bred genre that draws on techwear, luxury fashion and even tailoring. But, like with music, there are parallels to be made with the early-to-mid 2000s, a period during which a new breed of technical streetwear and skate brands emerged.
The specific details are less important—instead, it’s about the bigger picture. In music and fashion and everything, really, we are dealing with a new generation of creatives. The first that truly grew up with the internet—with unlimited access to information of all kinds: Musicians who grew up listening to punk and rap and pop and country and are making music that reflects an eclectic mix; designers who are inspired by the streetwear and skatewear they wore growing up, and the technical luxury fashion they grew up aspiring to.
We are, quite simply, in a post-genre world.
Music and fashion and art are just that—they no longer have to be qualified with nebulous, hyper-specific characterizations that end up pigeon-holing artists for the entireties of their careers. Perhaps the internet plays a bigger role than simply having inspired this new generation of creators. It has also freed them from third parties categorizing them. Walking into a record store, one was confronted with the inevitable genre-based sections and while that’s still the case on streaming platforms like Apple Music or Spotify, never has it been less important. Artists, today, have the power to put out music, knowing that people will find it if they like it. In the post-genre world, we are free to experiment and discover what we like—without having to first grapple with some pre-conceived bias that we don’t like country music, say.
Perhaps it’s temporary—maybe, in 20 years, fashion will again be dominated by neatly delineated segments, with streetwear brands and fashion houses and tailoring existing entirely separate from one another. Maybe post-genre will become a genre unto itself—a catch-all for music, fashion, art, and everything, really.
Marc Richardson is a writer and photographer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter.