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Genre in Popular Music

The popularity of the motion picture soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? brought an extraordinary amount of attention to bluegrass, but it also drew its share of criticism from some aficionados who felt the album’s inclusion of more modern tracks misrepresented the genre. This soundtrack, these purists argued, wasn’t bluegrass, but “roots music,” a new and, indeed, more overarching category concocted by journalists and marketers. Why is it that popular music genres like these and others are so passionately contested? And how is it that these genres emerge, coalesce, change, and die out?

In Genre in Popular Music, Fabian Holt provides new understanding as to why we debate music categories, and why those terms are unstable and always shifting. To tackle the full complexity of genres in popular music, Holt embarks on a wide-ranging and ambitious collection of case studies. Here he examines not only the different reactions to O Brother, but also the impact of rock and roll’s explosion in the 1950s and 1960s on country music and jazz, and how the jazz and indie music scenes in Chicago have intermingled to expand the borders of their respective genres. Throughout, Holt finds that genres are an integral part of musical culture—fundamental both to musical practice and experience and to the social organization of musical life.

224 pages | 14 halftones, 6 musical examples, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Culture Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Music: Ethnomusicology, General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics

Sociology: Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“This work fills a void in current thought and development regarding popular American music and its influences, and it provides a unique perspective and grounded research.”

Library Journal

“This is a masterful book, a carefully argued, scrupulously researched, and elegantly written examination of the ways in which genre categories have taken shape in American popular music over the past fifty-odd years. It is a mark of Holt’s skill and imagination that he has fashioned a study that reveals both the importance of genre in shaping our understanding of popular music and why genre simultaneously confuses meaning and reception. By effectively balancing broad-based theoretical reflections with empirically grounded investigations—together with an imaginative mix of history and ethnography—Holt offers a stunning exploration of the condition of musical experience in our acutely hybridized musical world. Simply brilliant.”

Ronald Radano, University of Wisconsin–Madison, author of Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music

“Genre is the hot topic in popular music studies right now, and Fabian Holt’s book could not appear at a more critical moment, nor could it respond to that moment more forcefully. Fresh and innovative, Holt brilliantly takes readers across a multi-sited cultural landscape, gathering interviews from musicians and producers in Nashville and Chicago, radio-station owners in the rural South, and record shop clerks in the urban North, to uncover the complex role of genre in popular music.”--Philip V. Bohlman, University of Chicago, author of World Music: A Very Short Introduction

Philip V. Bohlman

“With great creativity and insight, Fabian Holt explores the concept of genre and illustrates its relevance for the politics and aesthetics of popular music. His writing is lively and accessible, and his sophisticated mix of historical and ethnographic approaches puts the complexities of American music into sharp relief and reveals the ways in which ideas of genre shape experiences of music—even, or especially, when performers and listeners cross musical boundaries.”

Harris M. Berger, Past President of the US Branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and author of Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience

"What I like best about this book is how firmly Holt insists on the importance of pop culture. He argues, quite helpfully, that pop culture ’is really one of the major domains of social life for which academia has a responsibility to act as a humane and critical voice’ . . . . I could not agree more. His wide-ranging study proves the point."

Leigh H. Edwards | Popmatters

"A serious and useful essay on popular music in the US and on some of the main genre-realted contradictions and tensions within that country’s musical communities."

Franco Fabbri | Danish Yearbook of Musicology

Table of Contents


1.    Introduction
2.    Roots and Refigurations

       Double Session I: Reactions to Rock
       A Model of Genre Transformation

3.    Country Music and the Nashville Sound
4.    Jazz and Jazz-Rock Fusion

       Double Session II: Urban Boundaries

5.    Jeff Parker and the Chicago Jazz Scene
6.    A Closer Look at Jeff Parker and His Music

7.    Music at American Borders

       Appendix: The Jeff Parker Discography

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