Monday, 20 September 2010

All Genres Are Generic (But Some Are More Generic Than Others)

I have lost count of the number of reviews that have spoken of the new Pipettes album in terms along the lines of, "they have moved away from the individual sixties garage aesthetic of their first album to a more generic disco-with-synths sound". How can so many apparently intelligent music fans and critics write such a sentence without being immediately struck by its oxymoronic nature? How can one genre (eg sixties garage, or more properly, late fifties girl group pop) be more "individual" and thus less "generic" than another genre (disco, or synth pop)? Each are quite clearly just as bound by certain standard forms and conventions, each have their iconic signatures, stand-out classics and run of the mill standards, each have been through their various revivals and retrenchments and different points in history. So why might we think of one genre as being more generic than another?

Might it perhaps have something to do with the history of these respective genres? Each began representing a particularistic subset of the general public and later expanded to address a universal subject. However, whereas the particular audience of girl group pop was, specifically, the teenager, the subject of disco was, for the most part, gay and frequently black or hispanic. Whereas the specific concrete teenagers addressed by girl group pop in the late fifties and early sixties, what we now refer to as the Baby Boomer generation, have since grown-up to become the dominant class in the western world, taking their shared values with them; gays, blacks and hispanic remain, for the most part, marginalised communities. In the 70s and 80s, as critics from Robert Christgau to Ben Myers have pointed out, the anti-disco backlash ("disco sucks" and all that) was explicitly homophobic and frequently racist, and the taint of homophobia has never quite left disco's deriders alone.

To return briefly to these criticisms of The Pipettes' disco turn, another old saw frequently trotted out as truism is that the move towards "disco-with-synths" inevitably indicates some intention to market the group more towards "13 year old girls". As though the girl groups of the fifties and sixties would never have stooped so low as to appeal to young teenage girls. Actually, disco may have been the first proper 'pop' genre (in terms of a perhaps slightly spurious opposition to 'rock' genres) that came from an adult subculture as opposed to a teenage one, and if disco now appeals equally to "13 year old girls" this is surely only a mark of its success in establishing a hegemonic claim to the universality of 'pop'. So, from whence this accusation that the audience of disco today must inevitably, by definition, be teenage girls? Might there perhaps be a whiff of the suspicion that those male adult fans of the genre have something somehow weak and effeminate about them, ie precisely the charge of the old macho disco sucks brigade?

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