The (Non-)Problem of Genres

THINKING ON MUSIC

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When Billboard began publishing music charts in the 1930s, it used three categories: Race, Folk, and Pop. Race was code for African-American, which changed to Rhythm & Blues by the late 1940s. Folk meant Caucasian songs from the south, which changed to Country & Western. Pop was everything else, which is basically how the term is still used. Many more charts have since been added, each intended to highlight a nuanced division within a larger category. Pop, for instance, is now divided into three subcategories: Pop Songs, Adult Contemporary, and Adult Pop Songs. While not as blatantly offensive as the original charts, these current distinctions are still organized by social exclusion—in this case concretizing barriers between younger and older listeners.

It is easy to find fault with such labels. For one thing, they tend to set the artists’ creative goals against the corporate need to target specific consumer…

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