I originally came across this book in a bookshop, at a time when I was doing a lot of thinking about the concept of genre in popular music; I was quite excited, assuming that it was either a discussion of genre as an idea, or a broad survey of the role of genre in popular music. It is in fact, it turns out, an introductory work on popular music for an undergraduate audience, that breaks the field down into a number of genres for purposes of clarity, and to manage the potentially uncontrollable scope of the exercise. I worked this out before I got the book, but decided to get it anyway, on the grounds that it might help me to clarify my thinking at first principles level, and that it would be very interesting to see someone else’s perspective.
In terms of theoretical approach I have very few arguments with authors Stuart Borthwick and Ron Moy, and taken as a whole the book offers a good broad overview of, and introduction to the subject. The genre scheme that Popular Music Genres employs is not an attempt at a global classification or a general taxonomy, but simply a selection of well established and widely recognised fields, and as such it’s hard to argue with the choice, although it’s worth bearing in mind that the book represents a contribution to the ongoing canonisation of popular music, and as such its focus is necessarily an ideological construct.
There are strong chapters on soul, funk, psychedelia, prog and (especially) jungle. Other chapters make interesting reading, and I certainly learned a few things; the treatments of reggae and synth pop, though flawed, offer some cogent analysis and interesting perspectives. Elsewhere I found quite a lot to disagree with, although they saved their worst effort for the chapter on metal…
Where the piece on jungle offered a concise descriptive assessment of the musical characteristics of a range of sub-genres, the chapter on metal more or less ignored sub-genre, where to my mind it’s the continually branching network of diverging and re-joining creative practices that have given the genre its longevity. The history of metal is the history of a mainstream constantly reshaped by its underground; the intertwined, mutually dependent, mutually antagonistic threads of the extreme and the commercial have given the genre not only a creative vitality, but a strong historical narrative of which its fans are fully aware. Extreme metal has repeatedly redefined what is considered normal for heavy rock music, but Moy and Borthwick fail signally to articulate this dialectic. Their assessment of metal seems sadly ill-informed, giving, for example, Rammstein as a generic exemplar of European metal, when this is a band whose sound, along with the whole industrial influenced Neue Deutsche Härte scene, represented a radical break with a long established European metal tradition.
These criticisms (which are major) notwithstanding, the book is a good read, and an informative one, and for someone looking for an overview to help them make sense of the fragmentary view most popular music fans acquire by following their interests, I’d recommend it.