Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West: what do all of these artists have in common? They are all widely regarded as “innovators” in their respective music genres.
Although they are competent musicians, what truly makes them special is the element of experimentation they incorporate into their art. In fact, their most controversial albums are the ones that will go down in history. Queen’s A Night at the Opera is the perfect example of this: in his 1976 Rolling Stone review of the album, Kris Nicholson notes the band’s “annoying weaknesses, notably a tendency toward lyrical abstraction.” But these so called “abstract lyrics” went on to propel the album further than any had gone before, taking a spot in countless “best albums of all time” lists. On top of this, it is ultimately experimentation that pushes the boundaries of genres, allowing songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, an opera ballad, to reach #1 in the “Rock” category.
It isn’t just the experimentation of genre-blending artists that makes their music so impactful. In fact, for SAS student Sanya Lokur, as well as many others, this type of music is simply more entertaining to listen to.
On top of this, Sanya expressed that it’s important that these new instrument and vocal styles should be “separate from anything the artist has ever done before.” In other words, these artists shouldn’t just experiment in terms of drawing from other genres, but they should experiment in terms of their own music, focusing on what interests them and not what makes them popular. Often, it takes an artist risking it all in order to gain even more popularity. On top of this, she went into what makes this type of music interesting to her, stating that “[her] favourite songs are the ones that experiment with instruments and vocal styles”.
Another SAS student, Quang Vo, stated, “I don’t listen to experimental music”. However, upon asking him about specific artists that aren’t necessarily considered experimental but exhibit levels of experimentation in their music, he admitted that “[he] enjoys the chill vibe of their music,” something that is attributed to the band’s use of elements of soul (the band he was referring to is Brockhampton, an “alternative hip hop” group hailing from San Marcos, Texas).
Perhaps the most extreme example of an artist experimenting is Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. This album is composed of nonexistent time signatures and off-beat drumming. Below is the first song on the album, Frownland.
Upon listening to the song for the first time, many simply forget about it. People often write this album off as garbage, but saying this ignores the true meaning behind its creation. Such an album wouldn’t have received so much attention if the artist behind it hadn’t already seen some popularity, and in fact, Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) was a revered musician. His debut album Safe as Milk was heavily influenced by the genres of blues and rock, with Captain Beefheart himself citing blues legend Howlin’ Wolf as one of his “heroes”.
As his career progressed, however, he and his band strayed away from typical blues and rock styles, paving their own path in the world of music, and even stretching the definition of music itself.
All of the examples I have presented thus far come from the relatively early stage of experimentation in music. Thus, a more modern example of this kind of genre bending is Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s collaboration on Kids See Ghosts. Both of these artists are known for constantly experimenting, with the release of new music from each artist leaving the listener questioning what each off-kilter lyric means. The album cover on West’s Ye hints at the fact that he regards his Bipolar disorder as a “superpower” (as mentioned in his song Yikes), attributing his success and experimentation to the disorder itself through the exclamation, “I hate being Bi-Polar, its awesome”.
Although artists and bands that experiment with elements from different genres are often quickly dismissed, the impact they make on music as a whole, in the long run, is more significant than those who simply release music which follows a formula. So as we enter an era of music in which experimentation is more prevalent than ever, we must support non generic music. We must not let the popularity of structure-following songs drown out the truly meaningful pieces.