Are Artist Collaborations Making Genres Obsolete?
How music’s biggest stars defy categorization — and challenge the industry to keep up
By Steven J. Horowitz
Next year could mark a memorable shift for the GRAMMY Awards. As the Dec. 7 announcement for the ceremony’s nominations loom closer, it’s increasingly evident that the notion of genres and the categories in which an artist can be placed are quickly becoming less certain. Chalk it up to the fact that cross-genre pollination and musical experimentation have become de facto in the music community; artists are pushing beyond their comfort zones and, in the case of the GRAMMYs, into new territories.
With the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards, a spate of artists are in the running to touch down in uncharted areas: Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart may land nods in rap categories for their features on singles by Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, respectively; Mark Ronson could end up in both pop and R&B categories for “Uptown Funk,” his inescapable smash featuring Bruno Mars, a singer/songwriter who also defies categorization; The Weeknd, whose single “The Hills” topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Adult Top 40, Rhythmic Songs, and Dance/Mix Show Airplay charts straddles the line between a litany of genres, and could put him in R&B and pop categories; Diplo and Skrillex may appear in dance and pop categories for their Skrillex And Diplo Present Jack Ü album, collaborating with the likes of Justin Bieber and Missy Elliott. The same can be said of artists like Tyler, The Creator, Mary J. Blige, Azealia Banks, FKA Twigs, and Disclosure. They’re all artists associated with one genre who could easily qualify for a GRAMMY nomination in another.
“A platform is really arbitrary when it comes to an artist,” Skrillex recently said of being identified as a particular type of musician based on how they create. “An artist creates songs and timeless moments that are reflections that impact culture, and you can do that in any way — with guitars, ukulele, a computer.”
The increasing fluidity of genres is perhaps something that’s naturally developed as a response to the rigidity that comes with categorization. Genres exist because consumers find comfort in categorization, as do institutions like radio, magazines, and the record industry at large, who consistently define specific groupings of music. As often as someone says they’re a fan of “pop” or “rock,” they’re subscribing to terms of an agreed upon lexicon, a language that compacts art into boxes, an invisible hand that can, in turn, limit listeners without their realization.
On the industry side, it creates a level playing field that organizes artists at retail, labels, and media. But where it could be construed as a detriment is at the artistic level. The notion of genres can be intrinsically restricting, placing constraints on an artist who is in turn confined to certain song structures, lyrical tropes, and visual representations of their art.
As a result, some musicians ignore the labels placed on their music. “I made a new genre: There’s a genre called Kanye West now,” the rapper told Power 92.3 in late 2013. “They don’t even know what type of music that is. You can’t even put it in rap no more.” Erykah Badu recently made a similar statement about Drake, whose singsong hit “Hotline Bling” appeared on Adult Top 40, Dance, and R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts.
As a concept, genres can inhibit, more than proffer, change. And yet, there are certain benefits to valuing music categorically: as easily identifiable signifiers for consumers, as a way to organize across industries, and to stir a sense of competitive spirit among artists who view creativity as a match of wits.
The Recording Academy’s voting members, which have determined GRAMMY Award nominees and winners since its 1958 inception, has aided in the compartmentalization of music, splintering artists into categories including rock, electronic, pop, rap, soul, and beyond, trickling down to smaller subsets like American Roots and World. Its determinations award excellence in a particular field or musical genre, save for its broader honors like Album Of The Year, Record Of The Year, and Song Of The Year, which acknowledge artists beyond the categorical constraints.
With the growth of streaming services, plus the flexibility to release music as a song, EP, or album without limitations, artistry and creativity have flourished.
The trend carries over to the GRAMMYs. Artists are operating outside of the genres to which they’ve been pegged, collaborating with peers across genre lines (which is nothing new, but is stretching far beyond the norm), and altering the DNA of the genres to which they’d originally been ascribed. In 2014, Daft Punk won Record Of The Year for “Get Lucky,” a disco-brushed track that brought together Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams. This past year, the Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be,” a mainstream hit on pop radio, was awarded Best Dance Recording.
While the blending of genres is becoming increasingly visible, like Justin Timberlake dueting with Chris Stapleton at the CMAs or Kendrick Lamar performing with Imagine Dragons at the 56th GRAMMY Awards in 2014, it’s more apparent when examining particular artists, like Taylor Swift, who released her first pop album after years of dominating the charts as a country artist. In 2012, her single “I Knew You Were Trouble” cut pop hooks with dubstep breakdowns. It was a taste of what was to come for Swift, who expunged country from her sound in her pop emergence 1989 (covered in full by rock singer/songwriter Ryan Adams), collaborated with rapper Kendrick Lamar, and performed live on stage with Fetty Wap, Walk The Moon, Alanis Morissette, John Legend, and Steven Tyler. “As far as my musical direction goes, I would always like to keep people on their toes in that regard,” she told CBS This Morning. “I think that’s the best way to be exciting.”
This isn’t a shock. The very nature of art is to adapt from where it came, to modify the expectations set upon it, and redefine its shape and textures. Music is an industry of creative growth, and various cultures and genius minds have helped expand GRAMMY categories from 28 to its current 83. And as the decades have worn, the categories have been challenged by innovation in the genres themselves. More recently, the distinction of artists fitting into a specific musical field or genre isn’t as clear-cut. Victors in the Best Dance Recording category, for example, have included conventional dance artists like Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, and Dirty Vegas, as well as more conventional pop artists like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake. (Perhaps prompting the GRAMMYs to create the Dance Field in 2002). The award for Best Alternative Music Album is just as varied, with winners spanning from Nirvana and U2 to Gnarls Barkley, St. Vincent, and Gotye. Voting in that category this year, Academy members faced an even more eclectic group — from Tyler, The Creator to Alabama Shakes, whose Sound And Color advanced the southern band’s “blues-rock” sound by incorporating musical influences ranging from punk to R&B to psychedelic rock.
Pundits have long criticized the awards process for being confounding and opaque, but perhaps that’s because the categories and fields in which nominations land aren’t as self-evident. The genres themselves no longer hold the rigidity they once did. Some artists naturally fall out of line with what’s expected; others purposefully buck those expectations.
Because of it, music will always shift shapes — only now, it’s increasingly less predictable. It’s EDM crashing pop’s party, rap breaking through to country. Or it’s something that defies categorization altogether, breaking off segments of certain genres to create something entirely new. That gradual erasure and reformation of genres is what makes music one of the most innovative art forms, an exciting outlet that, as decades pass, continues to disrupt limitations beyond its own comfort zone.
A Cross-Genre Playlist
Major Lazer, “Nightriders”
Kanye West Ft. Paul McCartney, “Only One”
Audien Ft. Lady Antebellum, “Something Better”
Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand, “Enough Is Enough”