Old Town Road by Lil Nas X has been described as trap, rap, and country — even though it was removed from the Billboard country charts for not being "country" enough. The song features elements from all of these genres, but it would be equally correct to say that Old Town Road isn’t any genre at all.
Lil Nas X is a Gen Z artist, and Gen Z aren’t interested in labels. The idea that gender and sexuality are fluid — if not accepted by all — has firmly entered public discourse. But just as we move away from traditional boundaries of gender, Gen Z are also tearing down musical boundaries, instead embracing sounds that are fluid and difficult to categorise.
Of course, Gen Z aren’t the first generation to play around with genre. Millennial artists have jumped between genres in the past, but their sounds remained marketably mainstream. But they still belonged to traditional genre categories, even when they were transitioning from one sound to another. Taylor Swift’s switch from country to pop, for instance, was a jump between two long-established, clearly defined sounds, so it can hardly be considered particularly transgressive. It wasn’t difficult to pin down which genre she belonged to, even if the genre changed between albums.
Now, however, younger Gen Z artists are foregoing traditional genre categorisations altogether. But why?
It's impossible to discuss this new, hybridised sound without also discussing the stratospheric rise of streaming services, which has completely transformed how we consume music. On platforms like Spotify we're now longer beholden to specific albums or specific genres; we pick and choose our favourite songs to add to playlists instead. And importantly, those playlists are diverse. According to a report last year conducted by Sweety High, a Gen Z girls media company, almost 97 percent of Gen Z women listen to “at least five musical genres on a regular basis.” Clearly musical tastes are becoming more varied, which also impacts music-making. Blending different sounds becomes more likely when the music-makers themselves are constantly listening to varied genres.
Streaming services are important too because of the way they organise the music on their platforms. Although Spotify organises based on genre, it uses more fluid music categorisations as well, allowing for playlists that communicate mood ("Down in the Dumps") or activity ("Dinner with Friends"). Unsurprisingly, these playlists are a smorgasbord of genre. A song on the “Creamy” Spotify playlist -- yes, that's a real title -- doesn’t have to be strictly future bass, for instance, or interpretive dance music, or bedroom indie: it can incorporate elements from all of these genres. Gen Z has grown up with Spotify and these looser categorisations, and relying on a streaming service that is as equally interested in mood or setting as it is in genre has impacted how we view music. So it makes sense that now Gen Zers are making music, they’re creating songs that defy genre, and using social media to publicise their music.
If you're part of Generation Z you use social media more than any generation before you, making you fluent in viral content, and adept at using social platforms to grow a following. Lil Nas X, for example, ran a Twitter account that was popular even before he blew up with Old Town Road, and used TikTok to launch his song. Old Town Road was used as background music for a video saga about two teens falling in love, and quickly went viral on the platform. Part of the song’s appeal also stems from its timeliness, of course. Right now, the Yeehaw Agenda, a meme-turned-movement, has gotten serious traction on social media, with Old Town Road as its unofficial anthem. Clearly, Lil Nas X has an eye for virality and is well-versed in social media. When the time came to share his music, it was easier for him to navigate online platforms. “the rumours are true i am a marketing genius”, he recently tweeted.
Social media is also an important platform for Billie Eilish. In a 2017 interview with Harper's Bazaar, she said, “I'm grateful for [social media] because I'm nothing without it”. She uses it to interact with fans, debut music videos, and publicise tours. For Gen Zers like Lil Nas X and Eilish, social platforms impact the way they view music-making. Online, you can find people who share the same tastes and viewpoints as you, which, on one hand, can be comforting. On the other hand, it can make you feel indistinguishable from others. Carving out your own space — both as a social media figure and as a musician — becomes important. Hybridising genres and crafting an unconventional sound is one way to create a unique musical identity.
And as social media has allowed increased exposure to diverse new music, non-English language songs have become more popular than ever before. Spanish-language artists like Rosalía and Bad Bunny are playing Coachella this year, and K-Pop groups like BLACKPINK and BTS have garnered an international following. Gen Z listeners have globalised playlists and are digesting sounds from a variety of countries. This means that, when it comes to making music, Gen Z is comfortable blending various geographical sounds into their songs, mish-mashing them the same way they would traditional genre boundaries. R.I.P., a recent release by 23-year-old singer Sofia Reyes, is a perfect example of this trend. Pandora Music broke down the song into eight different genres; each genre is no more than 16% of the song, and encompasses Caribbean, Afro-Latin, and Latin influences. The multiple geographical genres in R.I.P. point to how Gen Z artists are reflecting a globalised world in their music.
Importantly, Gen Zers have also grown up with apps and platforms that make music creation and distribution much easier. Sound-making software is no longer just available to established figures in the industry. There are beat-making apps that anybody can download. And, once you’ve created a song, you can easily upload it to SoundCloud—which is exactly what Billie Eilish did. Billie started making genre-defying music with her brother at the age of 13. In 2015, she uploaded her track ocean eyes to SoundCloud with a free download link. The song gained traction within a few hours. Hillydilly, a music discovery website, uploaded the song onto their site so that, in Eilish’s words, “it just got bigger and bigger”.
Eilish’s rise proves that making and sharing music isn’t reliant on industry contacts. That’s not to say music isn’t still heavily industrialised — it is. But now, it’s possible to grow a fanbase if you have talent, a computer and a SoundCloud account.
The facilitation of the music-making process also means that, since you’re not beholden to industry executives, there’s no reason to stick to prescribed genres. As long as your sound is interesting, the industry will come to you. 23-year-old Dominic Fike, for example, was signed for $4 million on the strength of the music he’d made as an independent artist while on house arrest. He posted his six-song demo EP on the internet, sparking a bidding war between executives. Fike’s sound is a blend of guitar music, bedroom indie, and hip-hop, making him a prime example of Gen Z’s appetite for mashing different genres together.
Streaming services, social media, and increased accessibility to music-making all not only contributes to a culture in which Gen Z rejects traditional music genres. It also impacts the way they measure success. New stars and listeners care less about charts and sales than previous generations because the music they’re listening to doesn’t fit neatly into categories. The Old Town Road controversy has not only sparked conversations around genre, it’s also forced us to ask whether the Billboard charts are relevant anymore.
So, does all this mean that we’re moving into a post-genre music world? Will we eventually be genre-less, and discuss songs simply as ‘songs’ rather than as ‘country songs’ or ‘pop songs’?
In an interview with Billboard — the company who publish the genre-based music charts—Eilish said, “I hate the idea of genres. I don’t think a song should be put in a category”. As Gen Z artists like Eilish continue to make unclassifiable hits, it’s easy to speculate that we’re moving steadily away from the rigidity of genre. It’s very possible that, in a decade’s time, genre will become a meaningless category. Gen Z artists are clearly moving in that direction — and maybe it’s time for the music industry to follow their lead.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.