OPINION: Stereotypes of music genres are harmful

An image of a man listening to music over headphones.
(Megan Li • The Student Life)

“But isn’t rap really shallow? What can I get out of listening to the music of someone like Drake and Kanye?”

That was my friend’s response when I recommended that he explore rap music. He had been a classical buff his entire life and thought very highly of instrumental music. His response revealed something very troubling to me: His preconceived notions of rap prevented him from interacting with an entire genre of music and being exposed to the unique messages that rap artists deliver. 

Generalizations about music genres are prevalent among listeners, affecting their opinions about specific categories. Examples from my personal experiences include “pop is for teen girls,” “hip hop is for young people” and “country is for white Americans.”

While most people would not say these phrases or even consciously believe in these stereotypes, they often unconsciously perpetuate them when they remain close-minded about their own and others’ music preferences. The existence of these stereotypes stifles the diversity within music and limits its unique ability to convey messages to the public.

Stereotypes surrounding music genres lead to two phenomena — only certain people who fit the description of the appropriate audience can have conversations about music and those who don’t are excluded. 

For instance, as much as I would like to discuss Taylor Swift’s messages about feminism with others, it is hard for me to engage in a serious discussion because men are typically not expected to be the audience of such music. 

Listeners of different backgrounds will have different interpretations of music that ultimately enrich the discussions surrounding a genre. Lyrical music generally includes some form of message — ranging from discussions about mental health to the handling of commercial fame — that originates from the artist’s own experiences. 

However, when stereotypes prevent people from listening to different types of music and bringing their own perspectives to the messages of the artists, the conversations surrounding the genre become diluted to include only the voices of those with similar views and experiences, morphing the genre into something exclusive.

For instance, country is generally considered to be a “white” genre. Although country music originated from the experiences of African American artists in the Southern United States, it was first branded as “hillbilly music” and sold to white Americans in the 1920s. Since then, the genre has been synonymous with rural experiences of white rural Americans from the Appalachian region. The result of this generalization led to an exclusion of African American artists and their music because they did not conform to the stereotype.

The problem is not that music genres have identities. Rather, it is the exclusivity of the stereotypes that goes against the purpose of music itself. Because of these stereotypes, certain artists and their music are defined by factors out of their control and are prevented from sharing their experiences.

Further, genre stereotypes reduce the ability of music to convey social and political messages. Music has a unique power for social commentary because it is easily accessed by everyone, with little barrier of language. Additionally, music effectively reveals personal experiences of artists by evoking emotions in listeners that cannot be replicated by words or numbers in written form.

Take rap as an example. There is a stereotype of violence, materialism and misogyny surrounding the genre, which turns a lot of the older generation and people who think that rap is little more than rhymes away from it. However, while certain songs fit these generalizations, there also exist artists like Kendrick Lamar, who delivers a profound story of Black struggle in capitalist America through his album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Kanye West, who exposes the dark side of celebrity fame in “My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy.”

The population that most needs to hear the messages from artists like Lamar and West — older white Americans and those who don’t know how to empathize with the experiences of African Americans — avoid the genre due to the generalizations surrounding it, reducing the social impact of the albums. These messages could not be found in reports by the New York Times or on news channels but only through the raw voices of the rappers themselves. 

It is not that they do not want to or that rap is objectively bad music. Rather, it is the preconceived notions about rap overall that prevent people from venturing into a new musical style and hearing the unique messages that come from its artists.

I am not here to convince you to like all musical genres, nor do I hope that you will have no preferences when it comes to music. Rather, it is important for us to reflect on and identify what stereotypes currently exist and their impact on listeners. Then, after we recognize our conscious or subconscious prejudices, we can begin to break them down. 

When you see a new playlist suggestion on Spotify, click on it, regardless of what your opinions are of that genre — because the reality will probably surprise you. When your friend is listening to a new style of music that seems uncharacteristic of them, do not ridicule them; instead, ask what they like about that genre. It is not an easy task to dissolve the generalizations surrounding music, but it begins with our individual actions.

Music is an irreplaceable aspect of many people’s lives. However, if we do not recognize the harmful stereotypes within music, music loses its potential as a force of influence in our society.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. He learned how to juggle during quarantine.

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