Underneath it all
| Gabriel |
A few years ago I had a friendly argument with Jenn Lena and Pete Peterson about their ASR article on genre trajectories. While I generally love that article, my one minor quibble is their position that there is such a thing as non-genre music, and in particular that “pop” can be considered unmarked, in genre terms. They write “Not all commercial music can be properly considered a genre in our sense of the term.” They exclude Tin Pan Alley (showtunes) and go on to write that, “Much the same argument holds for pop and teen music. At its core, pop music is music found in Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 Singles chart. Songs intended for the pop music market usually have their distinguishing genre characteristics purposely obscured or muted in the interest of gaining wider appeal.”
Myself, I disagree with treating pop as beyond genre. First, the Hot 100 is an aggregate without any real meaning as a categorical marker. I find it interesting that in radio it’s increasingly prevalent to call “Top 40” as “Contemporary Hits Radio” in recognition of the fact that in the literal sense top 40 hasn’t existed for decades and many bands who are very popular would nonetheless not get played in CHR and many bands (think Britney Spears) only get played in CHR, implying that CHR is itself a genre of what we might call “high pop.” Billboard itself distinguishes between the Hot 100 (whatever is really popular, regardless of genre) and Top 40 Mainstream (CHR).
Second, and more importantly, it is impossible to have non-genre music in the same way that it is impossible to have language-less speech if you take the Howard Becker perspective that genre is about having sufficient shared understandings and expectations so as to allow coordination between actors. Consider the fact that most genres work on the Buddy Holly model of long-lasting bands who write their own songs whereas high pop almost exclusively involves project-based collaborations of songwriters, session musicians, producers, and (most salient to the audience) singers. Since standards are especially important when the collaborations are ephemeral, then coordination through strong shared expectations is more important in high pop than genre music. Likewise, high pop sounds more monotonous than many genre-based music. Furthermore, high pop is not merely the baseline, but involves specialized skills and techniques (e.g., vocal filters) not found in “genres.”
For the most part this issue is orthogonal to the argument they present in the article (which is why I like the article despite this dispute) but I think it potentially creates problems for the IST (Industry-> Scene-> Traditional) trajectory, most of which involves a spin-off of high pop music (as is seen most clearly with the Nashville Sound, which was basically Tin Pan Alley with cowboy hats). In response to this Pete said that there is a distinction between pop and genre in that with pop change is gradual and more Lamarckian than the creative destruction and churn seen with genres. I think this is definition is fair enough, certainly it’s highly relevant to their purposes. So the question of whether it is possible to have non-genre music ultimately comes down to whether you choose to emphasize churn or shared expectations as the defining feature of genre.
Anyway, I was reminded of this discussion a few days ago when my wife and I went to see No Doubt. This band has had 8 singles on the Billboard 100 chart and had multiple singles in four different Billboard format charts (rhythmic, CHR, adult, modern rock) so I think they are a fair candidate for what Jenn and Pete have in mind as “pop.” However the performance I attended made it apparent that at their core they are ultimately still a ska band. Most obviously, during one of Gwen’s costume changes the band did a cover of The Special’s arrangement of “Guns of Navarone” and when she came back she was wearing what can only be described as a two-tone sequined romper and later on she wore a metallic Fred Perry shirt and braces (worn hanging). More generally all of their dancing was based on ska steps, their rhythm section dominates their lead guitar, and they had a horns section and keyboard (tuned as an organ).
In a sense, I think you can take No Doubt as a vindication of what Jenn and Pete are arguing. Here you have a band that started out within genre music but graduated into commercial success by recording unmarked pop. Note that their return to ska/dancehall with “Rock Steady” didn’t sell nearly as many copies as the mostly pop albums “Tragic Kingdom” and “Return of Saturn”. However there’s also the interesting fact that when Gwen decided to dive headfirst into high pop, she did so as a “solo” act, which in effect meant that she went from collaborating with Tony Kanal to doing so with Dr Dre and the Neptunes. I take Gwen’s solo career as a vindication for my perspective, the idea being that going into high pop involves not just the negative act of losing the markings and skills of genre and becoming generic music (which presumably Kanal could have done), but the positive act of acquiring the markings and skills of high pop (which required soliciting the efforts of high pop specialists like the Neptunes).
Special bonus armchair speculation!
Compare and contrast No Doubt and Dance Hall Crashers. Both are up-tempo California ska bands that started in the late 80s and have girl singers (two of them in the case of DHC). Although this is necessarily disputable, I would submit that c. 1995 (when No Doubt broke), DHC was the more talented band. Likewise, DHC has the better pedigree, being (along with Rancid) the successors to Operation Ivy. So why is it that Gwen Stefani rather than Elyse Rogers or Karina Denike is the one who ultimately became a world class pop star and an entrepreneur of overpriced designer fauxriental baby clothes?
I have three speculations, listed below in rough order of how much credence I give each of them:
- Looking for an explanation is futile because cultural markets are radically stochastic. If you have two talented bands it is literally impossible to predict ex ante which will become popular and in some alternate universe DHC are gazillionaires whereas No Doubt is known only to aficionados of California 90s music.
- Jenn and Pete are right and the issue is that No Doubt was better at transcending genre. Noteworthy in this respect is that basically all of DHC’s music is skacore whereas from their very first recordings No Doubt has always included elements of disco and pop, including AC-friendly Tin-Pan-Alley-esque ballads like “Don’t Speak” that it’s pretty hard to imagine DHC playing.
- There’s a cluster economy explanation in that No Doubt is from Orange County (which c. 1994 was supposed to be the next Seattle) whereas DHC is from the East Bay.