In the brave new world of endless choice there is an eclectic range of music now available at the touch of a button
“Er, what kind of music do you usually have here?” Dan Ayckroyd’s character asks the woman behind the bar in the film The Blues Brothers. Her answer is unequivocal: “Oh, we got both kinds – we got country and western.” Outside the Deep South setting of Bob’s Country Bar, though, the answer is getting more and more complicated.
At a push, most people could probably name about a dozen musical genres. As the person responsible for putting classifications above the album reviews for The Independent on Sunday, I generally attempt to restrict things to 10: pop, rock, soul, funk, jazz, blues, folk, electronica, world and classical. It is not always easy. Just last week, the Canadian singer Claire Elise Boucher, who records as Grimes, released her latest album, Art Angels. Boucher’s Wikipedia entry suggests that her music is “synth pop/dream pop/experimental/art pop/electronic”. For the simple reason of limited space, a national newspaper would probably choose to settle on filing Art Angels under the catch-all banner of “pop”. Needless to say, Grimes’ music does not share much common ground with One Direction.
The world of the internet offers no such restrictions and, as if to prove it, last week the music streaming service Spotify published a list of the 50 most obscure genres it recognises from the 1,371 it currently uses to classify its music. There were many raised eyebrows. Surely this was the perfect manifestation of what, in 2004, the American psychologist Barry Schwartz termed “the paradox of choice”. Citing a study that, in simple terms, showed that the greater number of jars of jam there were on the supermarket shelf, the less likely a customer was to buy one, Schwartz concluded that choice was demotivating. Essentially, we were all being overwhelmed by our freedom as consumers.
In 2011, the Slovakian sociologist Renata Salecl took the idea even further. In The Tyranny of Choice, she argued that the sheer weight of options was actually making us anxious and ill. The work of both Schwartz and Salecl remains respected and influential and, for individuals, they may well have a point.
For a business such as Spotify, however, it is far more illuminating to look at the 2006 book The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. Anderson, a British-born Economist writer who went on to become the US editor-in-chief of Wired, had observed the success of people such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon, and was quick to cotton on to the fact that the internet did not share the limited shelf space of traditional retail outlets.
Further to that, Anderson noticed that increasingly many of the more interesting opportunities for consumers and businesses lay at the furthest reaches of the virtual aisles. “The paradox of choice,” he wrote, “turned out to be more about the poverty of help in making that choice than a rejection of plenty. Order it wrong and choice is oppressive; order it right and it’s liberating.”
Which brings us back to Spotify’s 1,371 genres of music. Of course there is an argument to be made that, for example, rap and hip hop (which feature in 54 classifications) might just as easily be filed away under the single banner of “hip hop”. But to do so would ruin the fun of discovering “chip hop”, a niche genre with the defining feature that its performers choose to display their flow over music inspired by old-school computer games.
As Anderson put it: “Culture has shifted from following the crowd up to the top of the charts to finding your own style and exploring far out beyond the broadcast mainstream.” Even as old-school a media mogul as Rupert Murdoch realised the potential of the outer reaches of culture, when, in a 2005 speech, he told his audience: “Young people don’t want to rely on a God-like figure from above to tell them what’s important. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.”
In short, then, anyone who likes to describe their musical taste as eclectic should embrace the fact that genres such as “catstep”, “black sludge”, “drone folk”, “skweee” and “vegan straight edge” exist. They should rejoice that someone, somewhere, likes to wind down to “vaporwave” (manipulated muzak) or “solipsynthm” (laptop experimentation). And though they may not like to move it to “brostep” (Americanised dubstep) or indeed to “beatdown” (screaming punk), they can treasure their little corner of “crustpunk”, “deep discofox” or “fidgetstyle”.
These might not be your particular thing (is “wrestling”, the sound of wrestling stars, anybody’s thing?) but in the brave new world of endless choice they are, at the very least, all available at the touch of a button. And with radio stations frequently operating playlists that see the same 30 songs played over and over, that’s got to be a good thing for anyone who likes to believe that music is a universe to be explored and not a planet to settle on.
Ten obscure spotify genres explored
“Nerdcore could rise up / It could get elevated,” MC Frontalot raps/sings on “Nerdcore Rising”. But what exactly is nerdcore? Well, guess what? It is rap music for people who you might not instantly expect to like or perform hip hop: namely nerds. And according to MC Frontalot, “those tough rappers hate it”. Typical lyric: “We bust more rhymes than Theodor Geisel [Dr Seuss]”. Genuinely amusing.
It should, of course, be rendered in lowercase and is a musical genre so minimal and ambient as to make drone folk sound like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “Chasm Chant” by Jacob Kirkegaard is best described as what it might sound like if you took a microphone underwater with you and went swimming with whales and dolphins. Possibly soothing to newborn babies, to anyone looking for a middle eight it is strange and potentially disturbing.
Self-explanatory, this one, but you still want some sort of elaboration, don’t you? It is, as you might suspect, just like traditional folk music but without any of those troubling concerns for range or melody you might associate with that genre. “Oh, Drone”, by an act called Tender Mercy, largely chooses a note or three and sticks to them throughout. The vocals, similarly, do as little as possible. You might describe it as enchanting, if only you could stay awake.
Stomp and flutter
It would be difficult to better Spotify’s own description of this one: “Like stomp and holler, but with airy fluttering instead of earthly hollering”. What, you need more than that? Oh, all right then. I listen to “Monterey” by the Milk Carton Kids on your behalf. Confusingly, it is a gentle and rather lovely lullaby-ish slice of folk-country. Not what I’d expected at all. I might just be a stomp and flutter man. Who knew?
Vegan straight edge
You are a non-meat-eating Christian who eschews all drugs and alcohol and are very possibly saving yourself sexually for marriage. How best then to release all that pent-up angst and frustration? Step this way for some vegan straight edge, a hardcore punk genre which, if A Collectiv are anything to go by, is really only suitable for the above-mentioned demographic.
Ah, that’s more like it. Vintage swoon is the place to find oldies but not quite goldies. If Quentin Tarantino were looking for soundtrack inspiration, he could do worse than start here. Most vintage swoon artists are missing one thing that might have taken them to the next level. For Ginny Zee, it’s the slightly useless lyrics to the chorus of her 1962 miss “Bobby Baby” that hold her back: “Bobby, oh Bobby/ B-O-B-B-Y”, while a name change might just have done the trick for Rusty Curry.
To make things simple, the band Starve, from Utrecht in the Netherlands, have a song named after the genre they exist in. To the uneducated ear, “Black Sludge” sounds much like any of the heaviest of heavy metal – drums that sound as if they are being hit with hammers, guitars turned up to 11. The lyrics are mainly delivered in what can best be described as a guttural howl and I find myself worrying too much about potential damage to the singer’s vocal cords to fully enjoy his efforts.
I choose the first track on Spotify’s “Sound of Catstep” playlist, which is “Lights” by an act called Klaypex. At first, it sounds much like any of the electronic pop that features prominently in the charts, but then the synth sounds get heavier and the beat becomes more insistent. The vocals, which sound strangely foreign for a band based in California, are heavily treated and make the singer sound like a robot. On further investigation, this does not seem to characterise the genre.
Spotify suggests I check out the band Voodoo Swing, from Phoenix, Arizona, so I obey and listen to their 2013 album Fast Cars, Guitars, Tattoos and Scars. It sounds precisely as you would expect a band of that name and an album of that title to sound – like rockabilly music played with a little more purpose. Helpfully, the album’s opening track, “Down at the Oak”, contains the lyric “Well it’s a hard rock music played with a hillbilly beat”. The precise meaning of the word “deep” in Spotify’s classification continues to elude me.
Searching for something familiar to cling on to, for its title alone I select “We Could be Skweeeroes” by Euro Johannes to represent this category. Skweee originates in Sweden and Finland and features simple synth melodies underscored by the sort of funky thumb-slapping bass you thought went out of fashion with Level 42. Apparently, the name was created by an electronic musician called Daniel Savio, who wanted something to capture the fact that he was trying to squeeze interesting sounds out of vintage sythesisers. Job done.
Thanks to the Independent