The Importance of Genre in Music Illustrated as an Artist’s Palette
The topic of the importance of music genres comes up often in country music, especially over recent years (and recent days) as we’ve seen the encroachment of other genres into country music like never before. For years Saving Country Music has been forwarding the theory that all popular music in America is becoming one big mono-genre, where no matter what radio station you pull up or popular album you stream, it all pretty much sounds the same.
As the mono-genre has come to fruition, it’s very popular for music artists and fans alike to ask, “Why do we need genres?” as if it’s an outmoded system that doesn’t make sense in the modern world and should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Today, people listen to all kinds of music. They’ll listen to a hip-hop song right after a country one. We even hear artists whose music we might appreciate, not just the mainstream set, say they see the classification of music into genres as unnecessary.
On paper, there’s nothing wrong with combining two or more genres of music to create something unique. The problem is that often when this enterprise is undertaken, it’s not creating something unique, it’s meant to mimic something that is patently similar to everything else being released in popular music, making it even more uninteresting and non-creative to try and appeal to as many people as possible, regardless of what the artist may attempt to sell you. Folks will say combining influences is necessary for music to “evolve,” but that evolution regularly sounds like devolution with rehashed melodies and structures. Even more dangerous is when artists or the media wrongly classify a song in a genre when it is clearly the product of another genre, even though many times these are the same people who will preach that genres don’t matter. Breaking down genres is not enhancing the diversity of popular music, it is the death of diversity in popular music.
This issue came into clear focus recently when Beyonce was invited to perform her supposed country song “Daddy Lessons” on the 2016 CMA Awards. Many country fans had a problem with the CMA’s putting a pop star on a country presentation regardless of who that pop star was, as they have had similar problems with other pop stars on awards shows in the past. But amidst the Presidential election season, all of a sudden it became a story about how racism was driving the dissent against Beyonce on the CMA’s. Certainly a few anecdotal comments can be cited as where racism was the driving force behind the dissent, but many country music fans and artists have always been opposed to the inclusion of pop in the genre.
To try and illustrate why it is important to keep the influences of America’s founding genres pure, I’ve always used one tried and true illustration. And to prove that this illustration precedes Beyonce at the CMA Awards, instead of presenting it anew here, I’ll transcribe it from a recent podcast from Wide Open Country I participated in before the 2016 CMA Awards took place.
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“Think of genres like dialects. One way I try to illustrate it is, think about an artist’s [palette]. Think about Bob Ross standing there with his fro, and he’s got his [palette] there with the oils on it in the primary colors. Then you take those primary colors and you mix them in to make certain hues for shadows and trees. The genres of American music are like those primary colors. And then you can take those colors and mix them together, and you can do whatever you want with them. That’s art. That’s how art gets created. However, if you took all of those primary colors, all those paints, and put them in the middle of the artist’s [palette] and gobbled them up, you can never pull those primary colors back out. That mishmash is the mono-genre, which is all the genres all together. So if you need that pure white color for those wispy clouds, it’s no longer on your easel. That’s why it’s important to keep those pure influences of each of these individual American music genres autonomous. Artists can do whatever they want with those [genres, or colors], but if you start to say, ‘Blue is actually white,’ that’s where I start getting up on a soap box and preaching. Blue is not white. White is white, and blue is blue.
“With Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and a couple of these other artists, it’s all become a media narrative. Pop media loves to write the “gone country” story. Jay-Z’s gone country, Lady Gaga’s gone country. It’s very buzzy. It gets people’s attention. And so whether there’s any country validity to this music or not is irrelevant. It’s just a good narrative. It’s a good way to get people to pay attention to your song, so we’re seeing it a lot. And as you see that happen, and then people actually go listen to that song, that’s what dilutes the integrity of country music. That’s what takes that pure white color and adds a little bit of blue, and adds a little bit of red to it, until you don’t know what country music is anymore. And then you talk to people that are 16, 18, 21, and they’re like, ‘What is genre? Why do we even need genres? Why do we need these influences?’
“When country music very first started off back in the 30’s and 40’s, there was no (or very little) recorded music. The music that was played as country music, you had bands going into radio stations all around the country and playing live to those local audiences. That’s how Hank Williams started, that’s how Bill Monroe started. And then you would have broadcast shows like The Grand Ole Opry or the Ozark Jubilee. So you could go to Dallas, TX, or Shreverport, LA where the Louisiana Hayride was, or Nashville, TN, or you could go to Bakersfield, CA, and each one of these radio stations you would listen to would have a distinct dialect to it. It was all country music, but each one was a little different. Each one had a different approach to it. The ones in Appalachia were more bluegrass and old time. The ones in Texas were more Western Swing. The ones out in California were more honky tonk. And if you take it all and you put it together, you lose that distinctiveness.”
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The point of trying to preserve the autonomy and pureness of genre influences in American music has never been about attempting to limit creativity, and it certainly isn’t about racism. It has been an effort to enhance creativity and the diversity of music by preserving the tools (or influences) that music artists can work with, bestowed by the brilliant tapestry which is America’s founding music genres, similar to the basic colors on a painter’s palette they then use to blend into whatever hue they wish. The diversity of American culture is what has made it the strongest and most vibrant culture in the history of the world, and questioning the importance of genre, or misrepresenting music as a certain genre that it’s not can injure or destroy these important influences, and the distinct musical dialects that make American music so compelling to both the heart and soul of listeners.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:13 am
I’m a fan of a lot of different types of music….and a fan of those genres having their own identities. I think sometimes though it seems like the fight is about keeping pop out of country vs keeping country, country, and those two things aren’t the same. It is easy to scream about Lady Gaga and Beyonce, they’re pop artists & well established as such.
It is harder though when it’s someone that many people in country music like and respect, and when it’s people who come from a more traditional country background. To often (in my opinion) this, and many other country blogs, are quiet happy to review albums that are really more southern rock, or Americana, and treat them as part of the country genre, in a way that doesn’t happen with pop country albums.
Some recent illustrations and examples would be the difference in review of Maren Morris’ debut (which yes is mostly pop) vs Blackberry Smoke (which really is rock). The discrepancy is even more apparent when trying to untangle Americana & Country. Americana is currently recognized & should be as it’s own genre, but if we just treat it as well written country music, then it’s not it’s own genre.
If we want to keep genre’s separate we have to be as willing to say Jason Isbell isn’t country, as we are to say Beyonce isn’t country. Both are incredibly talented, and productive, and deserve to be celebrated, but that doesn’t make it country (even if Isbell does a mean Haggard cover). It can’t just be country vs pop, it has to be broader than that.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:28 am
to put it (much) more simply (& I’m sure I’m paraphrasing someone here): it is not enough to be willing to call out your enemy, you must also be wiling to call out your friend.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:59 am
The problem is when you run a site called “saving Country Music,” folks automatically think you’re saying things that you’re not. For example, in the case of both Blackberry Smoke and Jason Isbell, I never called their music country, aside from their country songs. The new Blackberry Smoke album has multiple country songs on it, but they’re still more Southern rock, and I’ve gone out of my way to say that. And Jason Isbell is a hell of a lot more country than Beyonce, even if he’s still more Americana. This isn’t always black and white. There can be shades of grey, just like when you mix white and black on the artist’s palette. The problem with Beyonce is they said “Daddy Lessons” was a country song. That is an example of calling a red color white for marketing. They didn’t say it was grey. They said it was white, and white only, when it was in face red. And if you disagree, you’re racist.
Also, if you’ll notice, I went out of my way to not say a peep about Beyonce’s performance on the CMA Awards, even though I’ve been accused of being racist for criticizing it. It doesn’t matter if it was good or bad, that was not the point. The point is it was not country while many were calling it that, and this helps erode the integrity of ALL genres, including hip-hop.
November 16, 2016 @ 12:15 pm
See this is why I used Maren as an example. I think it’s an important discussion. I think sometimes an artist becomes so polarizing (& brings so many other issues into play), that using them as an example serves to distract from the main point.
Both Maren & Blackberry smoke were listed on the country albums chart & as country in itunes. I think it’s totally ok & even necessary to say as a country album this album isn’t country, but it’s still a good album, and conversely, this album is terrible, but it is a country album.
November 16, 2016 @ 12:32 pm
Because I like numbers/think it makes things easier to see sometimes, this is where I think the divide is:
Maren’s album is 6.5-7/10 for a pop album, but maybe 2/10 as a country album
Keith is maybe 5/10 as a pop album but again only maybe 2/10 as a country album
Blackberry Smoke is 8/10 as a rock album, but prop only 3.5/10 as a country album
Jason Isbell would be 9.5/10 as an Americana album, but only 4/10 as a country album
I think we agree on the top 2, but where we disagree is how you’d rate the bottom 2 (assuming all 4 are marketed as country, BB has refused to do that with Isbell, but they have for the other 3).
November 16, 2016 @ 1:53 pm
I’d be interested to know what you thought about the performance itself? (in a vacuum, if that’s possible.)
December 9, 2016 @ 10:02 am
So I’m listening to “Daddy Lessons” and it really sounds like a country song. Given that B is a southerner who makes country music, what’s the problem? Are you only a country musician if you only make country music? If so, is Johnny Cast no longer considered a country star because of his making music of many genres?
December 9, 2016 @ 11:06 am
Johnny Cash was never nominated for hip-hop or R&B awards. From my knowledge, he was never nominated for rock awards either. Yes, he dabbled in other genres, but awards went to artists who were native to that genre, as they should. I would be just opposed if they started handing out rap and R&B awards to country artists. They don’t deserve them. Give them to the artists who’ve worked their entire lives in that discipline.
Also, just because Beyonce releases a country song (if you want to consider it that), doesn’t mean it should immediately receive Grammy recognition. There were tens of thousands of country songs released in 2016. Why is it a slight to her if she doesn’t get recognized?
December 9, 2016 @ 11:39 am
Hey Trigger, while Johnny Cash was never nominated for a hip-hop or R&B award, he did win the 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for one of his American Recordings albums. That is a lot more than “dabbling” in other genres. The other 1995 Folk Grammy went to Bob Dylan who I think we can both agree is a rock star. Now, both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash did music of a number of different genres, but does that invalidate the folk music or country music they did?
I don’t think so. I think Daddy Lessons is a powerful country song that deeply engages with country music history, tradition, and practice. It’s not for me to say who should get a Grammy, but I don’t think we should ignore B’s country music cred any more than we should ignore Johnny Cash’s.
December 9, 2016 @ 11:46 am
Oh also, Dolly Parton was nominated for the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1978, another foundational country star who has been honored for her music in other genre’s. If Johnny Cast and Dolly Parton aren’t country, who exactly is?
November 16, 2016 @ 11:41 am
Interesting article. I’m reminded of similar concepts (through different arguments) expressed here at Country Perspective:
As well as at a blog called Country Exclusive:
Personally, I love all types of music. I think genre matters though
November 16, 2016 @ 11:49 am
I love all types of music too. That’s why I don’t want them to all sound the same. Each genre of music speaks to a certain mood or frame of mind you might be in. Each one tells the story of the people who helped create it. If they all sound the same, it makes the story less interesting, and the mood that less meaningful.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:52 am
Exactly, I absolutely agree. Never said otherwise. I know I provided other links but that was more to elongate the discussion. I think there are a lot of important points here.
November 16, 2016 @ 12:13 pm
Sorry, didn’t mean to imply we were disagreeing. Just felt like elucidating on your point.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:47 am
I have no real problem with mixing genres in theory…but in practice it rarely seems to work. I remember reading an interview with DJ Shadow years ago, in which he said that – although he was a huge rock fan – he would never try to incorporate rock into his music, as mixing hip hop and rock normally ends up sounding corny. A few albums later, and he had changed his tune and was trying to collaborate with rock artists – and, surely enough, it sounded terrible.
November 16, 2016 @ 12:36 pm
This is great. And easy to understand. I’m colorblind and I got it 🙂
Seriously, Trigger, have you ever thought about writing a book, or publishing a “Best of SCM” collection or something? If you did, I’d buy it in a heartbeat, and I can’t be the only one.
November 16, 2016 @ 12:40 pm
“Think of Bob Ross standing there with his fro.”
“Alright bros, take your brushes, no Aldean hold it the other way, alright everyone, we’re going to paint some happy little old farts over here. And they’re in front of that gorgeous Ryman Auditorium, nice easy brush strokes. You can drink all you want before painting Luke, in fact why don’t we add some happy little empty cans in front of that peaceful little banjo player there?”
November 16, 2016 @ 3:12 pm
I’m so glad I don’t have to know you in real life. You would bug the crap out of me.
November 16, 2016 @ 5:15 pm
Every good comments section needs a Fuzzy TwoShirts to bug the crap out of everybody
November 16, 2016 @ 10:03 pm
I will confess to being one of those people who has a bit too much personality. and a few OCD quirks.
One of my former bosses would not wear his collar straight. A day at the terminal usually began with me fixing his collar. Then probably again before lunch.
Also I start sentences with “what’s the buzz tell me what’s a happenin” because I just really love Jesus Christ Superstar.
November 16, 2016 @ 1:15 pm
”Breaking down genres is not enhancing the diversity of popular music, it is the death of diversity in popular music”.
”I love all types of music too. That’s why I don’t want them to all sound the same”
Many ‘ artists’ just do what they do and don’t try to label it .They may THINK they are breaking new ground , they may think they have a ‘vision’ , they may even think they are involved with a genre that they are , in fact , so far removed from that its comically baffling . But the actual labeling and subsequent marketing tack is left to the ‘powers that be ‘, if you are an artist under contract , or , simply , to your fan base , as large or small as THAT may be , if you are an independent . Most artists , understandably , just want success in their chosen career regardless of how radio , labels ,producers , fans or media want to categorize their music .
As most of these artists are young and still naive about music as a business when they start out , they are often preyed upon and ‘ guided ‘ in a direction they had no say in , no knowledge of and no connection or history with . If an interested label tells a Sam Hunt he’s marketable and more likely to be successful as a ” country star ” , is he going to argue with that assessment if it makes money ? Is Maren Morris going to complain that she should be marketed as a straight up pop singer if a label makes a fortune for her promoting her as country ? Not likely .
Yes , these artist SHOULD take some of the blame for NOT being aware of what this does to diversity in music and to the watering-down of ” country music ” , in particular ,but the brunt of the blame for the pop mono- genre still lies with the unconcerned , uninformed , UN-invested ( emotionally ) and even musical ignorance of labels , radio , media and less-than-discerning listeners . These folks are ALL in the business end of the MUSIC BUSINESS and as such are concerned only with the bottom line…not with protecting the value , the inspiration , the artistry and the the traditions of DIVERSITY in genres ! If they can force it down people’s throats , or deliver what people THINK they want , whether it be good or bad for the consumer OR the product , they will . Sound familiar ? Its a lot like drug trafficking isn’t it ?
Many , many people will buy or buy into ANYTHING that is deemed popular , hip , or necessary for status or a sense of worth . I don’t have to list just how many things fall into this category . But yes , music IS high on that list as one of them and a young sales demographic unaware of this becomes very EASY prey for businesses concerned ONLY with making money . A generation of uninformed , overweight , dumbed -down consumers with no understanding or concern about these things becomes a MARKET FOR LIFE for these businesses . Diversity in music ? What the hell is that ? We sell what people are willing to buy .
Point is , we can point fingers at the artists because yes …they do have the final say in what their names and careers are attached to . But the real culprits are all of the above- mentioned entities who just DO NOT GIVE A DAMN and understand little about artistic vision , creativity and DIVERSITY in anything . They are just looking for a consumer .
November 16, 2016 @ 1:19 pm
I would be much more accepting of genre blending if the movement happened primarily in the opposite direction. Pop music is more or less just a blending of existing genres, and it follows “hot” trends. Country, rap, soul, rock, etc. should all feed into pop at varying degrees and at different times. This approach allows each separate genre to exist in its pure form, but also allow for innovators to affect the current direction of pop music.
But instead we have pop music (the product of other genres) invading and watering down other genres, and true creativity is feared and shunned.
November 16, 2016 @ 1:38 pm
Sorry ….this is the link to the Hugh Prestwood article …..my bad
November 16, 2016 @ 2:38 pm
I can’t think of any pure genres in American music. How is Hank Williams not influenced by blues and Otis Redding not influenced by country? What do you make of Ray Charles and Doug Sahm, or, for that matter, Buddy Miller? What about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner and Elvis Presley? What about Los Lobos? None of them are pure anything. All the good stuff fits together. So why try to suppress and segregate it? Let the music grow.
November 16, 2016 @ 2:58 pm
GREAT point Jim . But even following your logic there has to be a ‘ saturation point ‘ …or a line in the sand , if you will .Ensuring we have respective genres means that their character , idiosyncrasies , musical focus , styles / elements and templates will always be available to serve as inspiration for upcoming artists . I wouldn’t want my musically artistic kids or grand-kids uninspired lyrically because the only available influence for their generation is a Keith Urban song ‘ cloned’ 100s of times ( many by Keith himself ) . I want them to be inspired by the people who were inspired by the Joni Mitchells , Bob Dylans , Paul Simons , Jimmy Webbs , John Lennons ,and all who came before and inspired THEM . THIS WON”T be the case if popular music continues to be watered -down , homogenized and marketed ONLY for $$$ to the uncaring . We need to care NOW so ensure this doesn’t happen . Thus …sites like SCM .
November 16, 2016 @ 3:12 pm
“So why try to suppress and segregate it? Let the music grow.”
See, this is the lock step argument against folks who don’t want to call a pop song from Beyonce country, characterizing them as closed-minded or wanting to put all of these restrictions on musical artists when that’s not the case at all. Where in this article did I say that genres need to remain segregated? That’s the best part about the illustration of the artist’s palette, is because they start with dabs of all the primary colors, but ultimately end up with dozens of different hues as the artists blends different genres to create “art.” The point is you have to START with all of those pure influences, or the artist is limited in their capacity to create. Or as I said about the illustration, “However, if you took all of those primary colors, all those paints, and put them in the middle of the artist’s [palette] and gobbled them up, you can never pull those primary colors back out.”
Of course Hank Williams put the blues in his music. That’s what made it so great. He took hillbilly, blended it with blues, and made something nobody had heard before. But the only way it was possible for him to do that was by hearing the blues and country autonomously first. Bob Wills blended country and jazz. Sturgill Simpson blends country and psychedelic influences. But if you don’t have those pure influences to blend, you can’t create, and the only result is dull colors.
November 16, 2016 @ 5:52 pm
I think a lot of the problems we are talking about with country mixing with other genres probably has its roots in the initial explosion of Rock And Roll in the early-to-mid 1950s, where country music and all of its sub-genres (white gospel; bluegrass; Western swing, etc.) were melded with R&B music and all of its sub-genres (black gospel; rural and urban blues; jazz). Because many of the leading lights of this revolution, paramount among them Elvis Presley, were white male Southerners who might otherwise have gone the country route without the R&B influence, this was the first real threat that country music ever really had to face as a genre, but it did adjust, thrive, and evolve, and it really didn’t lose much of its purity. Whatever purity it might have lost in becoming smoother (via the Nashville Sound) it regained from a most unlikely source: the 1960s folk music revival, where many artists of that movement showed a fierce interest in authentic mountain music and bluegrass, integrating those influences with what they had learned from their own generation’s rock music, to wit Elvis and the Beatles. Two of those 1960s folk music refugees, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, who had their traditional and progressive ideas about country music, teamed up with Dolly Parton for the two landmark Trio albums, a process detailed in a recent BBC-TV special:
Up until this recent flirtation with rap and hip-hop and mixing of Southern stereotypes that has led to the Bro-Country fad and all of its offshoots, country music had evolved and thrived quite well by integrating what is artistically great about other genres. But what is being done by the Bros is NOT country music evolving or thriving, it is stagnation and commercial junk designed to appeal to (and being performed by) guys who still think they’re in a college frat party. It threatens the very essence of the genre, more so in my opinion than Beyoncé’s collaboration with the Dixie Chicks, or, decades earlier, even John Denver ever could have. And it’s being done from INSIDE the walls of Music Row. That is what I think folks should be concerned with.
November 16, 2016 @ 3:42 pm
I guess my response to that would be that the only “pure” music is the authentic “muscian made” stuff.
Like Bluegrass. it’s pure because it’s authentic and honest and comes out ofa human epxerience.
The “style” of music isn’t what needs to be pure, it’s the meaning to it and behind it.
Pop music is just generic, by formula watered down lowest comment denominator hogwash. that’s the pointk, to make as much money with the widest audience.
Bluegrass is pure not because it doesn’t derive from early blues or have similarities to early country but because it’s expressions, and its content is untainted by formulas and trends and marketing.
the pure genres are the ones that don’t get bogged down in “the politics” of it all.
November 17, 2016 @ 8:53 am
This is an important point. Let the musicians call the shots, not the marketers. Does any musician really want to play music that paves over differences and thereby makes a kind of caricature? No. Good musicians love details.
November 16, 2016 @ 5:34 pm
The Beatles, Beach Boys and Miracles made pop records. I don’t hear watered-down there.”Here, There and Everywhere,” “God Only Knows,” and “Tears of a Clown” aren’t lowest-common-denominator recordings, but they are pop. One of the most difficult things to do in music is make great pop music. I am talking about pop as a style. Melodies, hooks, choruses. As an AM radio kid in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, it’s what I gravitated to. Some amazing stuff. And though Beyonce isn’t my cup of tea, she surely has talent. I’m not hearing watered-down in her music. It might be that some folks don’t like it because they have preconceived notions as to how music should sound and what it should be influenced by. They don’t want “new” or sounds that are outside their comfort sound. This is similar to people in the ’50’s who rejected rock ‘n’ roll. Fine. Stick to your sounds, but don’t suggest something isn’t as good just because it’s different.I didn’t like adults putting down my music when I was a kid, and won’t put down this generation’s music for that reason. New stuff doesn’t have to sound like yesterday’s stuff. Nor should it.
November 17, 2016 @ 4:36 pm
The problem with the whole “new sounds” thing is that bro-country and its offspring is barely anything new. It’s generally just a really bad mix-and-match of alt rock/rap rock with southern overtones.
November 16, 2016 @ 6:40 pm
I like Kid Rock (and i hated rap music) doing Leave this Long Haired Country Boy Alone https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBi0bAJJh6k…. I think image (real and/or perceived) has an effect on how a song/music is received.
November 16, 2016 @ 8:24 pm
I am a painter.,. For a long part of my life I chose music as my primary creative medium. This is an interesting perspective comparing two forms of expression and the final result. My input is based on experience so please take it as that. There are always exceptions.
In painting though the colors used are chosen during the process and sometime before hand to achieve a singular image.
Maybe comparing the music making process to film making would be more appropriate. There are many different individuals with various skill sets creating a collective work.
An artist typically stands alone and creates a singular object. Sometimes there are schools and assistants involved but that is rare.
November 16, 2016 @ 11:13 pm
Yes, I’m sure to a professional painter, this illustration probably makes less sense. It relies on sort of an elementary understanding of painting, but I’ve used this illustration many times before and it seems to be one of the best ways to explain my genre theory.
November 17, 2016 @ 8:44 am
Trig, nice job, this is exactly right. I think there’s more to say if you take a kind of agricultural view of all this. What radio has done is exactly what happened to supermarket tomatoes, or anything else. Blending all kinds of qualities to focus-grouped brand “spec,” there’s now a monoculture. Sure, we Midwesterners can now eat “tomatoes” (if you want to call them that) in the middle of February, but why would we want to? They’re available, yay — but they suck. I can only speak personally, but I just don’t buy them. Same thing with country music. If you give me placeless, accent-less, depersonalized, homogenized, brand spec bullshit — I ain’t buying, and never will.
November 17, 2016 @ 9:48 pm
Thank you for the article, Trigger. Although simplistic, the painting analogy is easy to understand and much appreciated. No where are you saying red is a good color and blue is not; or a little red in your blue is terrible. We just need to be able to recognize and acknowledge the reds, blues, whites and other primary colors in our world. Nicely done.