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When every tune tastes like cherry

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AUGUST 21, 2017

If someone told you they liked pop music with a casual, “I like a chipper synthesized baseline, a plucky electric guitar and lyrics about adolescent life that make my heart tingle, if you please,” you would probably tell them to simmer down.

Musical genres are a protracted conception in popular culture. We categorize the music we listen to based on its genre because it alleviates the absurdity of listing all the sounds we like to hear in songs, and also because it keeps us from talking about music using only pretentious jargon.

Most people roll around a handful of common genre lollies in their mouths — jazz or rock ’n’ roll or rap or pop, like peppermint or butterscotch or cherry or grape. But of course there are extensions of any large genre marching through our consciousnesses — finding a genre tacked to another genre is like discovering a strawberry candy with chocolate on the inside. For pop, there’s: electropop, bubblegum pop, pop rock, folk pop, pop punk, indie pop, europop, space age pop, dream pop, experimental pop, sunshine pop and so on. Each of these subcategories of pop tips down the slope of a high-fructose rabbit hole of genre conglomerations, each on a Willy Wonka-esque quest to make a flavor the public hasn’t tasted yet.

While musical specialization is often layered — “indie pop” denotes a specificity that “pop” lacks — there comes a point where the addition of more flavors (more hyphenated genres) loses the capability to change the music’s taste. This is even more belabored in Franz Ferdinand’s self-declared genre of: indie rock, post-punk revival, dance-rock, dance-punk, art rock. As much as Franz Ferdinand stretches toward an elaborate sonic concoction, it cannot escape the overpowering cherry taste of indie rock — their music sounds good, very good even, just not original.

Music that blends aspects of well-known genres in alongside its revolutionary sound is not in fact new to the musical realm. Rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘60s and ‘70s pulled from a flexible count of musical influences to piece together its iconic sounds — see Grateful Dead, The Beatles, David Bowie and others.

Grateful Dead combined Phil Lesh’s classical training with Jerry Garcia’s love of bluegrass with Bill Kreutzmann’s background in jazz and R&B — the cogs behind the new sounds of the band’s “psychedelic music” (albeit in “street party” form). The final, memorable form of Grateful Dead’s music is the original sound of psychedelic rock — not the sum of the parts that contributed to it — born through its elongated threads of concert improvisations through the decades.

Music composed entirely of references, with the absence of heavy original elements or an overarching resulting original sound, produces conventional-sounding music — rehashes of what’s already been created.

In this way, it’s interesting that the momentum of musical creation is moving steadily toward the descriptor of “cross-genre.” In a sphere of music where “new” genres borrow increasingly from established sounds, where does the marker of originality lie?

There is nothing perfectly original left to create at the intersection of older sounds — or possibly anywhere, as Mark Twain believed. Or rather, in favor of avoiding drastically pessimistic hyperboles, the large number of modern attempts to brand a unique genre through genre-mixing have yielded an opposingly small number of new musical sounds.

“Unoriginal” in this case is not synonymous with “tired” — originality isn’t the only marker of “goodness” in music. It may have been at one point, but that was before so much had been made. Someone with far too much time on their hands created the website EveryNoise, which specifies 1,264 genres — very few of which are strings of musical keywords like those used by Franz Ferdinand.

There is a caveat: some mixed-genre music is so absurdly paired that its sound, while dependent on two (or more) well-established genres, is nothing like any other.

Look at Lindsey Stirling’s “Crystallize” and subsequent music videos. Blending together soft electropop synth beats and violin melodies — at times elongated, at times arpeggiated — Stirling makes her sound original, despite not creating any objectively new sounds.

Perhaps this is because electronic dance music is a relatively new independent genre and there have yet to be many mixtures built with it as an ingredient. Where the modern band Franz Ferdinand extrapolates on the genres of pop, rock and punk — genres established in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s — bands that choose to arrange sonic combinations based around EDM — adopted in the early 2000s — will inhabit that inherent newness.

So perhaps the future of unique musical creation lies in mixing the most recent genre developments instead of relying on extensions of more classic combinations. Or perhaps you believe Mark Twain — perhaps there will never be anything original.

Olivia Jerram covers music. Contact her at [email protected].

AUGUST 20, 2017

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