Dec. 22 2009 07:08 PM

How 2009 may have signaled the death of subgenre


Animal Collective

In a short opinion piece titled “The Death of Uncool” in the December edition of Prospect magazine, producer / musician Brian Eno discusses the rapid increase of new musical genres.

“We're living in a stylistic tropics,” he writes. “There's a whole generation of people able to access almost anything from almost anywhere, and they don't have the same localized stylistic sense that my generation grew up with. The idea that something is uncool because it's old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.”

Never has this been more evident in contemporary music than in 2009, a time when mega-selling squares like Hall & Oates have influenced young indie bands as much as Pavement or Guided By Voices.

Naturally, music writers a long time ago ran out of creative catch-alls that apply to the massive cross-pollination taking place, instead using hybrids and hyphens to describe what are essentially just slight deviations from pop. For years now, instead of “rock” or “pop,” we've gotten “post-rock” or “dream-pop.” From the looks of it, there's nowhere left to go but back to basics.

Leave it up to the writers at to take their own cringe-worthy stabs at naming nascent trends. The made-up words “chillwave,” “glo-fi” and “dreambeat” began appearing in their reviews early this summer to describe the home-recorded, warped electronics of projects like Washed Out, Neon Indian and Memory Tapes.

There's nothing wrong with trying to come up with new genres, but terms like “glo-fi” (“lo-fi” already being beaten to death) reflects the need for writers to categorize music immediately after it's entered the public consciousness.

It's unnecessary, because, as Eno notes, “It's all alive, all ‘now,' in an ever-expanding present.” More than ever, the state of new music is in constant flux, which makes trying to neatly define it an exercise in futility.

But it's not for lack of trying. Another—and more thoughtful—example came courtesy of critic David Keenan, who coined the term “Hypnagogic pop” in the August '09 issue of The Wire to describe the hazy noodlings of American underground artists The Skaters, Emeralds, Zola Jesus, Pocahaunted, Ducktails, Ariel Pink and others. These artists are more established than those lumped together by Pitchfork, but they're nevertheless subject to a similar, if less dubious, attempt to be pigeonholed.

Meanwhile, anyone who claims to know the definition of “hypnagogic” prior to looking it up in the dictionary is either a college professor or a liar. (Note: It means “of, relating to or occurring in the period of drowsiness immediately preceding sleep,” according to Merriam-Webster.)

And while “hypnagogic” may conjure the right tone for the half-remembered / half-imagined '80s trash-culture evoked in some of this music, it's also just a more academic way of saying “drowsy” or “groggy.” Keenan's article—while imaginative and well-written—conveniently ignores the fact that pop music has always used nostalgia as a way to engage its audience.

On the other hand, it just takes one album (or band) confounding enough to transcend labels. This year's most universally acclaimed album, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a perfect example. Merging cavernous dub echo, the pulse of minimal techno and Technicolor melodies over an endless wash of ambient noise, it's been praised because of its lack of precedents, leaving most critics and other listeners in a joyful stupor.

But even in light of its effortless ability to combine such different styles, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a pop album, plain and simple. It certainly contains elements that could qualify it as “chillwave” or “hypnagogic,” but critics know better than to categorize Animal Collective by now, as each of their albums emphasize different aspects of a signature sound.

At different points throughout its career, the band has been labeled as “noise,” “folk,” “electronic,” “experimental” and many other genres, but Animal Collective continue to defy categorization through exploration of old and foreign styles, much in the way Eno observes. Funny enough, AC's latest single, “What Would I Want? Sky,” features the first-ever authorized Grateful Dead sample, perhaps the ultimate “uncool” band of its generation.

It serves as proof that maybe we're better served by resisting our urge to find descriptors for every single subgenre and just enjoy new permutations on more simplistic terms. As Eno says, “As people become more comfortable with drawing their culture from a rich range of sources—cherry-picking whatever makes sense to them—it becomes more natural to do the same thing with their social, political and other cultural ideas.”

Amen to that.    

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