I want it all (and I want it now).

La professoressa Gillian Turnbull (che, tra le altre cose, insegna Popular Music alla Ryerson University), lamenta che gli studenti del suo corso non hanno più idea di cosa sia un genere musicale. Spiega così il motivo:

At the moment, it seems there are two phenomena colluding in the erasure of genre. For one, ignorance of the context surrounding music of previous generations means that young listeners don’t understand the emergence of genres in the first place. What made blues rock different from psychedelic rock? Why did progressive country form in Austin, away from the countrypolitan scene of Nashville? When the original context of those genres is missing, a full understanding of their musical subtleties—and by extension, their social identities—vanishes too. While the young generation no longer scoffs at its parents’ music (after all, these are the parents who were listening to Black Sabbath and Blondie in their teen years), it’s more that it doesn’t particularly care about the past. Teens in the 1980s were endlessly reminded of the social importance of the ’50s and ’60s, whereas it’s less common to see the 1980s touted as important in shaping modern life and attitudes. Combine that with a growing immigrant population across North America (many of my students are first- or second-generation Canadians whose parents didn’t listen to The Clash in their youth) and music of the past—no matter how popular—is firmly locked in that past and ignored by many of the young listeners I’ve encountered.

A second and paradoxical phenomenon contributing to the disappearance of genre stems from how as a culture we document every part of the creative process, the final product, and then memorialize that product long after its release. Shows like Classic Albums and book series like Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 let us narrate and relive great moments in pop music, but they are nonetheless divorced from the essential socio-historical factors that influenced people’s preferences at the time. Young listeners’ understanding of these artists is devoid of the genre-derived—and era-specific—cultural baggage, so it’s okay to like The Sex Pistols and Yes and Donna Summer, because they are no longer markers of incompatible tastes or lifestyles.

Le nuove generazioni, tra le quali i suoi studenti, sembrano essere vittime di quello che la critica definisce in modo negativo come «nozionismo»: si conosce tutto di un artista, ma ad un livello solo biografico-aneddotico; niente contesto, niente storia.

La colpa, secondo Turnbull, è della troppa quantità di materiale che le tecnologie mettono a disposizione:

It’s possible that today’s youth carve their identities out of other matter, say technological device preferences. Meanwhile, those devices access cultural libraries that are mind-boggling in scope. If you’re not in the mood for a 1980s American Midwest romantic comedy as you browse Netflix, perhaps you could turn on a Scandinavian vampire teen slasher flick. Who can keep track of all these genres and subgenres? Why not just consume without regard for that ever-maligned culture industry tendency to pigeonhole? Maybe music gets the same treatment: I noticed recently that my sidebar recommendations on YouTube included Guns N’ Roses and The Eagles while a Prince song was playing. Of course, dismantling the balance of your previous views, related songs, and popular videos in YouTube’s algorithms is tough; the resulting recommendations often seem like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Le conseguenze non sono di quelle che fanno ben sperare nella formazione di nuove generazioni di ascoltatori:

We end up with two streams of listeners: those who treat music as an always available, superficial, but pleasant distraction, much like cat videos; and those who voraciously consume any music they can find, but without much regard for its context-sensitive associations.

L’esplorazione di nuove musiche non è necessariamente una cosa negativa, sottolinea Turbull. Il problema è che

being unable to zero in on one style of music and dig into it deeply means that music is being treated too superficially. Maybe we’re obsessed with categorization, but I think categorization matters. Genre exists for a reason: we privilege difference; it is the means for personal and collective expression. My students come to class with a catalogue of Bee Gees and The Police swirling in their brains. They have encyclopaedic knowledge of Grateful Dead bootlegs. I hope they start digging more, learning what made genres sound like they did and their practitioners and listeners act like they did. I hope these kids create new genres and music subcultures, encouraging their peers to not treat music like it’s a throwaway product waiting to be replaced, but that it tells us everything about who we are and what matters.

Se parliamo di generi, infine, conviene sempre tenere a mente la miglior definizione di genere musicale che sia mai stata data. Mi riferisco a quella del musicista, professore e musicologo Franco Fabbri, che su Musica/Realtà [n.4, 1981] scrisse che un genere musicale è

un insieme di fatti musicali, reali e possibili, il cui svolgimento è governato da un insieme definito di norme socialmente accettate.

(foto Adam Kuban via Flickr)

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