The disintegration of genres

Also posted at Culture Digitally.

In a recent (25 Feb) post at the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan assembles some ideas on the demise of genre. He cites Laura Miller’s piece on the “death of chic lit” in which she avers:

What kills a genre isn’t always clear.

Miller notes two aspects of the disintegration of genre: (1) First is audience drift. Fans of the western novel turned to urban crime fiction sometime in the 1970s, according to Miller. Fans of the “stewardess memoir” (“coffee, tea or me?”) turned to porn. This is sometimes caused by: (2) Subgenre proliferation: Successful styles spawn successful variations:

“The cozy mystery, perfected by Agatha Christie with her Miss Marple stories, has spawned a dizzying assortment of variations based on homey hobbies. There are baking mysteries, gardening mysteries and knitting mysteries. Paranormal romance — a hugely popular fusion of fantasy/horror, romance and (often) detective fiction — has cycled through creatures ranging from the predominant vampires to werewolves, fairies, demons, djinn and even dragons as the heroine’s love interest.”

In Banding Together, I am also interested in the disintegration of genre, although I define genre as a kind or form of community, not an aesthetic attribute. In other words, I would think of multiple “chick lit” communities taking shape over time, contending with one another for dominance. I would imagine the following: at first, the community of chick lit writers and readers is quite small, and they may not even think of themselves as a group. Over time, new authors and audience members emerge, and the group (“chick lit”) is thus larger in size and social significance; eventually that group is joined by a global group of consumers and professional producers, and they enjoy a popular style called “chick lit” that anyone could find by asking a store clerk to show it to you. It is after the rise of this industry-based genre that we arrive at Miller’s question: what happens next, and is it fair to describe what happens next as “death?”

The conventional way to answer these questions is to look to the content of the works–are protagonists in new books more likely to be werewolves instead of vampires?–but that can quickly drive you crazy. The conversation quickly turns into a discussion of how much and what kind of “new” is enough to demarcate a new style. (Aren’t werewolves sort of like vampires, in that they are fantasy creatures associated with eastern European folktales? ) As you can imagine, most of the debates founder on the shoals of this problem.

But I have argued that looking at community structures–who shares what with whom?–can do a better job helping us to distinguish new from old; minor deviations from major ones. Old timers (the chic lit writers who have the longest track record) and the avant-garde overlap for only an instant and they’re doing different work with different collaborators. Traditionalists (the old timers) are deeply committed to preserving music that has already been written, recorded and performed, and they in idolizing the performers associated with the style in its earliest moments. Avant-garde genre members want to learn from the traditionalists, but devote the majority of their time and attention to innovation.

To illustrate the differences, let’s use the example of bluegrass music in the early 1970s. For decades, the style was dominated by the charismatic authority of Bill Monroe, his side performers, and the groups they formed after they left Monroe’s crew. By the 1970s, a younger generation of performers sought to learn from Monroe, in order to create new music, influenced by but not confined to the bluegrass style. In the book, I discuss the band New Grass Revival, which formed in the early 1970s and whose first album (“New Shades of Grass”) featured covers of bluegrass songs, but also hillbilly songs (e.g., Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire”) and was released on Starday Records, a label that had a big stake in the bluegrass market, but also released rockabilly, country, gospel and sacred music. The album used bluegrass instrumentation and arrangements, but also included long improvisational solos and electronic pickups (more common to rock and jazz). If we looked at New Grass musically, we would see their largest influence (in the group’s name, even!) was bluegrass. If we look at the group’s musical community–the bands they played with, talked to, shared audience members with, the record labels they worked for–we’d see they were clearly working in a new genre, an avant-garde genre–and their peers were groups like Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead and the Byrds.

Needless to say, the New Grass Revival didn’t put bluegrass musicians out of business. They might have looked even more “old fashioned” to outsiders, now that a new style of progressive bluegrass was widely recognized, but dead they weren’t. If we define creative death by the inability of performers within a style to find work, there’s not much death in popular music and what exists isn’t discriminating based on style (but instead, on lifestyle). If we define creative death by some kind of substantive measure of innovation (and we can agree on that measure), then the characteristic state of all fields is constant, unceasing death, and we’re better off for it.

So “audience drift” isn’t properly drift at all, but something more like “succession,” as groups with variable but linked tastes occupy the public attention. And “subgenre proliferation” is incoherent because it relies on establishing substantive differences between works and groups as if they were natural boundaries. Instead, we have the proliferation of groups and their claims-making, the latter of which is sometimes successful in making persuasive arguments about aesthetic patterns.

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