When I say rock band, (not the serial video game title) you say what? Guitar, bass, drum kit, vocalist? Possibly second guitar?
When I say power metal band, you say? Same as the above but with double kick drum pedals, lots of power chords and a signature vocalist with specific lyrical agendas?
When I say bluegrass, you say…okay well, you get the idea.
It’s no secret that there are some very integral pieces of group ensembles that help define them and place them squarely within certain style veins –just pick up any music history textbook and start reading through the decades. When some sound combinations were new, once a sound style trend caught on, that’s what helped established the associations –individual and blended – that we still carry in the present, as is evident by my above written loose examples. At the same time, here it is 2013 and the firmness of these instrument arrangement walls has definitely waned, as there are many groups that mix the “expected” instruments with some unexpected, given the genre classifications of said groups. Furthermore, many of such groups also have managed to gain traction in the mainstream; the public not veering away when they hear a sound that defies the middle of the musical bell curve but instead throws listeners for one.
A few current groups or artists to make point:
While it’s not uncommon for artists to feel inclined to temporarily (sometimes turning permanently) experiment by putting one or both feet firmly into a style that fans and A&R alike will see as an degree of genre and arrangement departure, from the get-go, these groups, as well as many others, have held up a fraction of visible differentiation with their instrumentation. The story of how Florence + the Machine decided to make a harp a regular portion of the group’s sound is one such story of very charming and free-thinking proportions.
The fact that I am providing examples that appear to point toward “Yes” as the answer to this post’s titular question makes it seem as though I had no reason to ask it in the first place. However, what causes a bit of a snag in the whole idea of “public acceptance toward non-traditional band formations, is the fact that despite these groups being out, active and mainstream, there is still such an avoidance of some styles, presumably just because some people °Don’t like _____________.”
When someone declares that they like “everything but” something, I’m usually inclined to believe they phrase their tastes this way because either they have never heard something and go by the long-standing societal traditions (rock bands=this, folk bands=that) and just avoid altogether based on some element therein, or, because they have had a very limited number of experiences hearing X-style and those experiences were all one way, which subsequently makes the person perceive the rest of a genre similarly; thanks in part to the availability and heuristic phenomenon. (something I briefly explored a few years back in this piece on Top 40 radio)
Occasionally, exposure to demonstrate the contrary or just plain first exposure period, can dissolve these feelings of distaste. What is so confounding is when nothing changes about a person’s perceptions over a label but there they go, flipping on their i-device full of ripped tracks that are currently being played to death on the radio and some of those songs contain elements integral to the very types of groups this person is adamantly avoiding. This being even worse if part of the avoidance comes from sub-cultural contexts like, “I just can’t stand, you know, country-country, but like, Carrie Underwood is okay.”
This is such a problem for me because what the issue actually is, is that some of the population just can’t seem to articulate why they wouldn’t like something or why it isn’t “the kind of stuff you would hear on mainstream radio.” Traditional, very deep-rooted, purist country/folk/bluegrass can include things like Dobro, fiddle, harmonica, banjo…tell people you play a banjo and their minds probably don’t go right to the idea of main stage headlining. Take an about face and look at Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers and Phillip Phillips: both radio hits, selling records online and in stores, largely placed with various sync opportunities and guess what? They all embrace some combination of either the banjo, the twang, the and a generally less edgy side of music but they are popular. Not “pop” but popular. Suddenly it’s not weird to pull out a banjo or to pair it with a drum kit and toss it to a radio stations for potential inclusion in their regular playlist.
So does this mean that if we introduce non-traditional elements into a mainstream setting in piecemeal, that they can be more easily absorbed by the general public and that this is exactly what has happened with some instruments? Brent Kutzle with his cello, Sara Bareilles with her piano and backing horn section, The Lumineers with their foot stomping, hand clapping and tambourine smacking? The fact that these groups and their associated radio/mainstream hits have managed to at least crack the barrier between genres makes me wonder why other aspects of genres are still having such a hard time being mentally released and why, while “purity of genre” still exists, more of the public does not embrace wider exploration of styles.
I’m sure most fans of the groups I’ve mentioned here will say they just like the music, the music is just good and it doesn’t matter to them if an oddball instrument(s) of sorts is hanging around, etc. This makes me believe it might very well be the sub-cultural, non-musical components of a genre, not necessarily the sounds of a style itself, that are what keep genres alive and more separate than they would be if the sub-cultural angles weren’t perpetuated. Genres might help keep artists becoming indistinguishable from one another but would listeners maybe have less knee-jerk reactions about pursuing a wider net of groups if all bands were forced to wear plain, uniform clothing and all dress and perform the same way? (meaning no external theatrics, aesthetically all looking the same; not meaning singing exactly the same.)
(Any psych majors in the room?)
How do you artists out there approach the topic of instrumentation and staying within (or breaking out of) a style’s historically formed box?
This also raises the question of why we become fans of artists or bands in the first place and how we are affected when change takes place –whether in arrangement (and subsequently perceived genre) look or vocal sound.
…That’s contemplation for another day though!