2.3.1 “My Music Is Better than Your
2.3.2 Phases of Genre Popularity: Underground, Breakout, Crest,
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You’ve probably heard comments such as “rap isn’t
music” or “electronic music isn’t music.” Similarly, some lovers of jazz
ridicule country music. And rock fans sneer at sub-genres of rock that devalue
“the true spirit of rock.”
it’s a guy thing.
you’re a male, once puberty hits, your hormone-addled brain amplifies the
significance of the music you and your peer group identify with. That’s your music all over the radio and TV and the
Internet. Other music sucks, compared with your music.
discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, the songs you’re listening to during
emotionally significant times or events, such as falling in love for the first
time at age 13 or so, get burned into your memory. Whether your music
happens to be rock, hip-hop, jazz, country, or some emerging genre, the music of
your youth eventually becomes your life’s soundtrack, or at least a good part of
• The life soundtrack of a teen in the first decade of the 21st
Century might include the music of Eminem, the White
Stripes, Kanye West, or the Dixie Chicks (or any of hundreds
of other acts).
• In the 1990s ... maybe Nirvana, Jay-Z, or Smashing
• 1980s ... Wham!, Madonna, or AC/DC.
• 1970s ... Bee Gees, Sex Pistols, or David Bowie.
• 1960s ... The Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan.
• 1950s ... Nat King Cole, Everly Brothers, or Elvis Presley.
• 1940s ... Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra.
Every decade, countless new acts emerge, create new genres,
and attract legions of youthful diehard followers. In 2004, Rolling
Stone magazine published a list of its “50 Greatest Artists of All Time” (i.
e., popular musicians and groups).
• Who were the judges? Mainly middle-aged male music
writers and critics.
musical acts did they select? Mainly those who were big during the judges’
• What was the breakdown by sex of the acts selected? Of the
50 musicians or groups on the Rolling Stone list, 46 were male.
theory of sexual selection predicts both the preponderance of male judges and
the preponderance of male artists. As people grow up and get married, the music
of the present assumes less and less interest and importance, compared with the
music of adolescence and young adulthood. For most, by middle age, the music of
the present day—“the crappy stuff them young ‘uns are listening to”—sounds weird
and definitely inferior to all those “great wonderful songs of my youth.”
Yet new musical genres that emerge every decade or two,
seemingly like clockwork, somehow manage to stick around.
Generation after generation.
Emerging musical genres go through a characteristic series of
phases. The Gold Standard Song List
(www.GoldStandardSongList.com), if taken as a more or less
representative data sample of genre popularity, reveals a genre
popularity profile. This profile applies to most musical genres over
time (Figure 2 below).
FIGURE 2 Genre Popularity Over Time
Origins, or “Underground” Phase
• Typically, a musical genre begins as an underground
movement. This formative phase often lasts many years,
• New genres and sub-genres emerge in several ways. Among
- Musicians from outside a geographical region move in
and bring new instruments and new styles of playing,
singing, and songwriting to an established local musical
- A genius comes along and decides to shake things up
(Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan).
- New technology makes it possible to create new sounds.
• At some point the genre breaks out as a widely recognized
musical phenomenon in popular culture.
• The new style attracts the attention of masses of people,
including musicians just getting started, musicians working in
other genres, music consumers, and music business people.
• Suddenly, performers everywhere are playing in the new
style. Lots of the new music get recorded and sold. Over a
comparatively short period of time, the new genre or
sub-genre becomes all the rage.
• Inevitably, within a decade or two, the popularity of the genre
crests and starts to subside.
• Along the way, it spins off numerous sub-genres.
• The original one does not go away.
4. Mainstream Genre
with few exceptions, it remains a permanent mainstream genre, co-existing,
influencing, and being influenced by, many others. For example, when bluegrass
was “invented” in the 1930s and 40s, it did not replace traditional country
music. Neither did “new country,” a couple of generations later. When hip-hop
and electronic dance music came along, they did not replace mainstream pop or
• So many people accept and adopt the elements of the genre
that it becomes a cultural infrastructure (more on this a bit
later). It settles into the mainstream of popular culture—not as popular as it
once was, but permanently accepted and established.
• Every so often a long-established mainstream genre
experiences a period of renewed popularity ("revival") that
may extend for some years.
Gold Standard Song List
(GSSL), a sample of 5,000 songs
over 100 years, provides a visual representation of genre popularity
profiles over time (Figure 3):
FIGURE 3 Gold Standard Songs by Genre and Decade
Today, many young people, while identifying mainly with their
music (the music of their youth), like to sample music across genres
and eras. On a single iPod you might find the Clash, Beethoven,
Aretha Franklin, Eminem, Iggy Pop, Bjork, Frank Sinatra, Johnny
Cash. . . .