One of the overarching arguments of Elijah Wald’s influential, broad-scale pop music history treatise How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll is that the advent of the long-playing record and the intellectualization of rock music in the mid-’60s forced music to become more and more divided along genre lines. Previous to that time, genres were more fluid; artists and music fans talked about them in a completely different way, or just didn’t. Wald recalls, among so many other forgotten anomalies, Louie Armstrong playing opera arias in his early public performances; the young Frank Sinatra begrudgingly singing Leadbelly; the Beatles themselves playing every type of music they could in Hamburg brothels before making it big.
Our sense of where one “genre” ends and another begins, Wald argues, is time-contingent: a product of our cultural moment. Maybe you don’t think the Beatles are to blame for popular music becoming organized along the lines of arbitrary, often racist terminology (how many different phyla of African-American music have been loosely bracketed into the “soul” category?) devised by label A&Rs, promoters, record store clerks, etc. But surely most would agree that genre tags are often poisonous, or at the very least, misleading.
To organize a would-be objective “geneaology” of music, therefore, seems at least a joyless task, if not a highly embarrassing one. Yet this is what the new, infographic-heavy website Musicmap, the brainchild of Kwinten Crauwels — a Belgian architect — attempts to do.
The site is, mostly, a mess of graphs (the main page, a bar graph of “super-genres,” is referred to as the “Carta”), flowcharts, and pop ups describing its categories and their particular importance — a nightmare of #musical thinking of the streaming age.
The Musicmap braintrust seems to believe that music, like bugs or mold, needs to be classified in a hard and fast way. Crauwels’s rhetoric in his “Introduction” and “Abstract” sections implies that there is a perfect end point to Musicmap’s project: This is just the “1.0” version. In the “Purpose” section, he writes that the site is aiming to “achieve [sic] near perfect overview of all popular music genres.” He also hopes that the site will promote “discovery” for music fans.
Yet for some reason, the site’s chosen unit of measurement is “genre”: ever-shifting, always contradictory. Sometimes the terms are unrecognizable, or effectively made-up (see bottom right):
Why certain points are connected with others is often unclear, even though the following Borges-ian key is supposed to illuminate why and how:
Musicmap’s blurbs, as well as the categorizations, often belie the preferences of the team of buddies behind the project. It’s not that this is stated, but the constant gesturing towards commonly accepted fact reveals a myopic viewpoint. “Gospel,” for instance, is organized into five blocks (including just “modern”), while electronic music is a dense forest, even on the “super-genre” level.
Gospel, some might argue, means at least as many different things as “downtempo,” since it’s a catch-all for a long history of religious music in America, dating back to the 19th century and slavery-era spirituals. “Spirituals” would be an example of “folk music,” of course, which is a separate bubble floating off in space to the left of the “Carta.” It doesn’t overlap with gospel, but instead with “utility music,” a term no one has ever used in the way Crauwels is using it, which includes “vaudeville,” some of the most popular music of the beginning of the twentieth century.
The most astounding part about Musicmap, however, is how little specific artists are mentioned in the descriptions when you click through the genres on its main page. They are relegated to 9-song YouTube playlists (Spotify “Coming Soon…”) which you can expand out from the genre description tabs.
In any creditable, comprehensive historical text, detailed case studies are essential. For instance, Beethoven — one of music’s most important figures period — is a much bigger and multivalent figure than “Romantic music.” He wrote many works that point more toward “Classical music” traditions, and his methods as a composer were important for many different reasons.
But there is no room for pull-out examples on Musicmap (more flowcharts, please!) For something aiming to be detail-oriented, Musicmap still manages to be consistently vague.
Any succinct history is obviously incomplete, but the best ones demonstrate that they are aware of this fact. It’s hard to imagine how Musicmap — which seems to bask in its own complexity, and the fact that it looks like a hologram projected into the air by some starship’s tech expert in a budget sci-fi movie — helps to advance or promote any kind of valuable cumulative understanding. Can you imagine even aliens from another planet coming to a depopulated earth eons from now and deciphering this thing, or giving any kind of a fuck? Looking at this thing would be enough to make anyone think music is terrible.