For the record: The era of originality

Music columnist Meghan LeVota on breaking the confines of genre labels

By Meghan LeVota | June 3, 2013

Tags: Music

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Nothing stops a dedicated music fan in his or her tracks more than the dreaded question, “What kind of music do you listen to?” If you’re anything like me (with an iTunes library that's all over the place), you’re likely to hesitantly answer, “err — everything.” Or maybe you'll give the only slightly more specific, elitist response: “alternative,” leaving the question unanswered.

What’s up with this generation? Why can’t people give a simple answer of “pop," "rock" or "country” anymore? No, people aren’t just trying to be hipster; people actually are listening to “everything.”

Thanks to technology, most Americans are now given unlimited access to most of the world’s recorded music. Music in the pre-Internet era was a remarkably different story. Aside from the record store junkies, people had a hard time listening to any music apart from that featured on highly commercialized television and radio programs.

Now, gone are the glory days of MTV music videos, and with the decline of radio, people just aren't aimlessly listening to Top 40 pop anymore. For example, 96.5 The Buzz, a popular Kansas City alternative radio station, has experienced a tremendous drop in ratings (especially during the past year), prompting remaining fans to launch a Twitter campaign through the hashtag #SaveTheBuzz.

It isn’t a surprise that these radio stations aren’t doing so hot. Why listen all day in hopes of hearing your favorite song when you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want online? Not only can we find all of our favorite music on the Internet, but applications have also made it easier to discover new or unpopular music. Many apps will even direct listeners to music similar to their individual styles.

Launched in 2000, Pandora Internet Radio jumpstarted musical style into a long road of specialization ahead. The application is a product of the Music Genome Project, which categorizes music into highly specific traits, or “genes,” that songs and artists possess and allows users to find new music through the genealogy of their favorites.

All of a sudden, individuals were getting a musical experience tailored to themselves, apart from genre. Without knowing it, people were ditching genres and listening to their favorite sub-genres.

And unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of this thing called Spotify. Spotify gives us access to unlimited free streaming of virtually every song ever recorded, ensuring that listening to music is no longer a hobby that only the wealthy can enjoy. Anyone with Internet access now has no reason not to expand his horizons to a wider musical territory. You can’t even log on Facebook without accidentally viewing your crush's study playlist, and if you’re feeling really creepy, you have the option to listen along so you can, uh, feel free to bring up those songs in casual conversation later….)

Not only is Spotify social, but it also has a radio feature similar to that of Pandora, plus applications that direct users to external websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, making finding new music as easy as pie.

So, now that an individual’s musical genes are as disparate as his biological ones, what does listening to “alternative” even mean? "Alternative" literally means “other." The question is, other than what?

This descriptor has become meaningless in the modern musical age. With access to everything, people are able to listen to highly individualized playlists, making listening a more personal and appreciative experience.

When meeting a new friend or trying to impress a romantic prospect, this timeless question will surely come up. You may think it's cliché — or you may hate those annoying and forced “get-to-know-you” inquiries — but we continue to ask about music in search of the bond that music creates.

I challenge you to embrace your inner musicality. Regardless of style, the power and beauty of music depends on passion. Dive deep into that favorite sub-genre of yours. Maybe it’s trap music that gets you going, or maybe you’re obsessed with dream pop like I am. Go be you, and don’t be afraid to listen to Johnny Cash and R. Kelly back to back.

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