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On Genre Tourism

2nd of July, 2022

I love this image. It’s an astonishing photograph and I wish I could enjoy seeing it whenever it pops up on the internet. Unfortunately, I am usually unable to enjoy seeing it because it has become a template image for a meme I hate.

Genre tourism is the practice of diving into as many different genres as one can possibly find in order to sample some small part of the widest possible range of music. It is not a bad thing to dive into music like this, but when genre tourism becomes the primary mode of one’s engagement with music, it represents the logical end point of the alienated and individualist superficiality that so often plagues online music fandom. The people who made these memes attach a moral importance to the act of enjoying something that isn’t popular. The genre tourist substitutes the oppressive tunnel vision of obsessive individual band fandom for the post-ironic superficiality of eclecticism for its own sake.

The methods that the genre tourist uses to discover music are often algorithmically driven. An algorithm that is more flexible or better personally tailored to individual needs is something that would be good for music listeners, and as machine learning advances at an incredible pace we are likely to see better and better individually tailored playlists. I don’t suggest this would necessarily be a bad thing, but I think it is likely to reinforce the bad habits of the people who rely on these channels for discovery. Unlike other more inherently social methods of discovering music, algorithmic discovery encourages superficial engagement with the culture and history of genres and scenes, curating an audience whose engagement with music has no cultural, social, or spiritual component and consists only of a customer / product relationship.

The division of music according to genre often appears arbitrary and pointless—the practice is often distrusted by music listeners and musicians alike. Sometimes genre sceptics accuse genre of being “meaningless” or “useless”, and these terms are often used interchangeably. Asking if there is a purpose for the convention of musical genre depends on how one understands genre and for whom purpose is for. For listeners, the purpose of genre might be a tool of classification which enables discovery. For musicians, it might be a framework around which convention can be organised. Genre sceptics might argue that for listeners this encourages complacency and discourages eclecticism, and for musicians this encourages conformity and discourages innovation. I’m not convinced of the psychological plausibility of either of these arguments. Awareness of the formal conventions of one’s genre are always of crucial importance in the making of good music. For dance music, in particular, DJs require an intimate knowledge of the dynamics and variations of their genre to produce a stylistic continuity. Even when a DJ chooses to mix styles and sounds together in an effort to break this continuity, the DJ must understand how their listener tacitly conceptualises these various styles in order for their subversion to be compelling.

Alienation in Marxism refers to the condition of a worker who is disconnected from the use-values of the results of their labour. This assumes that because the value of labour is in its social necessity, the natural relationship between a worker and their labour is not that of a seller and a commodity, but of a symbiotic social machinery. It rejects the picture of social fabric as a posterior sort of thing, which forms between disconnected particles once labour has been performed, but instead recognises that labour is itself an expression of sociality. Alienation is then an affectation of the mechanism of wage labour, where the workers are divided from their efforts by the commoditisation of their time.

Among lists of favourite albums—and it usually is exclusively albums—we expect to find spiritual jazz, post industrial, sound collage, noise rock, J-pop, spectralism, and industrial techno. This industrial techno appears disconnected and alienated. In the marketplace that is a list of favourite albums, these industrial techno tracks appear among a party of alien intellectuals. They accrue their own sort of meaning—an assemblage like that is bound to—but it is an assemblage that communicates this meaning by a series of discrete lexemes, incapable of expressing the genuine symbiosis of culture and style that the music ought, by its own essence as a social necessity, to express by default. Industrial techno tracks, anonymous among others like it, communicate via a sonic continuity: the music appears commensurable with others of its type, and the resulting radical flux of the DJ mix appears to be the necessary result. This radical flux is impossible for the genre tourist to appreciate, just as the spirituality of labour cannot be understood by alienated workers.

What strikes me about the two parties in the orangutan meme, the naive listener who does not appreciate their lack of perspective and the mean spirited genre tourist who delights in revealing the extent of that lack of perspective by subjecting them to something that they would find unpleasant, is that both parties have the same aesthetic philosophy. What separates them is their degree of music knowledge, and spite. Both parties regard listening to music primarily as an entertainment form, and are uncritical of the structures that inform and define their modes of musical discovery. Discovery to both parties is not a dialogue between listener and culture, but a kind of stamp collecting exercise. The genre tourist has stumbled on better methods of finding new stamps, and so knows about more obscure genres, but their engagement is still that of consumption rather than dialogue.

Rejecting the philosophy of ‘music as object’ means that we stop thinking of music discovery as the aural equivalent of hunting for pretty jewels to line our nests with. It means rejecting the notion that the purpose of music is to serve as an entertainment form, both in its totality as an abstract artform and in its specific instantiations as concrete ‘records’. It means engaging with music on the social terms that it deserves: embracing music as community expression over individual expression, or as social critique over reinforcement of ideology. It means recognising the responsibility we have to not divorce music from the material, cultural, and historical bases which have informed and guided its creation.

It is no accident that the most dedicated and attentive listeners tend to gravitate towards music which implies something greater and more general about its surrounding scene and historical context than it does about its own unprecedented specificity. That is, music that works as a machine among machines, music as rhizome. When Antonio da Correggio, standing before a masterpiece by Raphael, cried out “I, too, am a painter!”, it was not a boast, but an acknowledgment of his responsibility to his forebears and to his artform. It was in a spirit of self-sacrifice: a recognition that great beauty does not diminish ones own work, or the space of possibility one has to equal it. Great art is a means of recognising that we work in a social continuity with the people who came before, which in turn comes with the responsibility of understanding and relating to that work not as parasites, but as human beings.

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brain of the living.”
—Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Further Reading:

Observations on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon
Kanye West's Donda: Recursion and Legacy
Gamelan Hutan: Some Ideas About Conceptual Dance Music