It’s 2020 and Pop Music Has Moved Beyond Genre — Is That A Good Thing?
Last week 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” did what many assumed would never happen; the song simultaneously reached the no. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart, Billboards Hot Alternative Songs chart , and Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart all in the same week. The song was also #1 on the Spotify US and global charts; an accolade that surprisingly seldom pairs with the Billboard charts which so heavily rely on Nielsen ratings. Indeed, a deep wedge exists between the industry-controlled radio charts and the data-driven Spotify streaming charts. This is because, although the music industry has known how to systematically hack a no.1 spot on the Billboard charts since the mid 90s, a song’s placement on this chart doesn’t always convert to streaming popularity, or any longterm popularity for that matter. The sheer amount of singles that had a debut at no.1 over the course of 2020 is proof alone that record labels are adept at bending these charts to their collective will (Can anyone say “Trollz?”). Still, with such heavy placement on 3 disparate Billboard charts that focus on radio, as well as Spotify’s popularity chart, there has to be some significant organic momentum for the song to win over the genre purists that still tune in to terrestrial radio. How does a song achieve both the top spots on pop, rap, and rock radio in the same week?
The truth is genre is dead. This isn’t a secret or really even a new thing. Genre has actually been slowly dying for 20 years. What we used to call genre should now just be referred to as “style”, a tool used to evoke nostalgia about what genre used to mean. At first glance, this seems like a good thing. Music liberated from the walls of genre means new and exciting possibilities right? After all, why should music require categorization? Why do we have to divide music by genre anymore anyway? Why did we ever have to?
Not that long ago, genre fandom was inextricably tied to listener identity and belonging. The high school cafeteria of the 90s was divided by genre. Genre used to proxy for all kinds of social, economic, and racial divides. On a personal level, genre was the way fans of music framed the world; the way they saw themselves and the people around them. Genre was music’s organized religion. While each artist had its own sect, the overarching ideology came from the musical genre.
There was even a rite of passage — it was called buying the album! Forget listening to one song and then seeing if you wanted more. In order to be a fan, one had to drive all the way to the mall, park your car, find The Wall or Sam Goody, find the newest album of the artist in question, pay $20 dollars, drive home, unwrap, inspect the packaging and artwork — all of this came before listening to any music. By the time one was ready for what we like to call active, “lean-forward” listening, a conversion had already taken place. You were invested with both your money and your time.
For artists, genre was the basic framework with which you could build culture.
Now that the internet’s influence has turned musical listening into an abundant marketplace, the rite of passage of purchasing has gone away, along with many of the other elemental building blocks that helped artists build culture around their music.
“Mood”’s success marks a milestone in the slow death of genre, indicating that the radio listening populace has begun to accept genre’s fate as a mere musical accessory.
While the disbanding of genre is great for music listeners in theory, it’s a sign of the final nail in the coffin for the cultural building blocks of the pre-streaming era. Now, there are new initiatives for artists to do this kind of culture building. This has come in some new forms in recent years, whether it be the creation of memes on platforms like Tik Tok, brand partnerships, or even by forming crews like YBN or A$AP mob (I will discuss the concept of crews more in a future article).
Still, there is a massive opportunity for someone to build tools that help artists tell their stories. I believe that in the next few years, as the streaming space becomes more competitive, the table stakes will be raised regarding who can provide more useful culture building tools for artists.