What is genre anymore?

About a month ago everyone seemed to get super excited about Spotify. They had released their annual dump of meta information about your listening habits, data about which they broadly keep hidden. Gone are the days where I could go into Windows Media Player and look at the play count column. As a data nerd I need these stats. I emphasise the nerd in the previous sentence. 

Normally the biggest surprise for me is the amount of time I spend listening to Spotify; 21 hrs was well spent just listening to IDLES. But this year the thing that has been caught me out about my Wrapped 2019 is genre. Spotify broke down what genres I have been listening to in 2019: Indie Rock, Art Pop, Hip Hop, Rock. All seems okay. But then there’s Chamber Psych. What the hell is Chamber Psych? And so the rabbit hole opens up. 

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Unsurprisingly genre is very important to Spotify. The better they define what genre a song is then the better they can get at recommending it to the right users. Or putting it in the right playlists. The issue is genre is such an amorphous thing. Time and place influence what Rock is. Or Pop. So Spotify set their algorithms loose. Defining what genres are by breaking them up into smaller and smaller categories, until there are thousands. Many of which sound made up or ridiculously specific. Because they are. For every genre I might recognise, there are 100s of new Spotify generated genres like Bury St. Edmunds Indie and electropowerpop.

This is important because the way we define genre is no longer in the hands of people. DJs. Journalists. Fans. People with a full emotional connection to what a song means and how it resonates in culture. Instead, an agnostic computer just classifies. Based on the information it has. Which is vast. But it’s not lived experience. 

Maybe this is a more objective way of defining these abstract concepts. Bands often hate these labels so maybe they are not needed as a reference point for us. Though each of these genres are super informative, they are so niche that they don’t necessarily mean anything to the user. Instead it’s just a reference point for the machines. So that it can keep improve your Discover Weekly. To get better at guiding us towards music it thinks we should want. Which can be great. Easy. Just keep listening to the same music without being challenged. Without expanding my horizons. 

So what is Chamber Psych then? A quick google reveals its another Spotify generated genre. A bastardisation of Chamber Pop. Psychedelia with a focus on classical instrumentation. All these genres have example playlists. This Chamber Psych list is somewhat coherent:

A lot of gentle spacey noises. But it does end up tying together songs like the dreamy ‘Modern Kosmolgy’ (Jane Weaver) with the naked aggression of ‘Paul’ (Girl Band). This seems like a misstep. 

By the end of the list, I just feel like half of it is just post-punk. So what is the point. Genre still seems like a weird beast, even when you have the listening habits of millions of people feeding into it. 

Words by Matt Paul

 

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