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Genres and Styles


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Whereas the music market in the West is stratified according to musical genres, in China these distinctions are less articulated. This doesn’t mean popular music in Chinese languages is an indifferent blurb, but that other ways of relating songs and singers to communities run through and to some extent challenge genres, all of which are imported from the West. In short, I want to warn Western readers for Eurocentrism, for assuming that Western musical genres such as punk or hip hop mean the same thing and function the same way in China as they do elsewhere.

  • Pop singers rarely record albums in a single genre, let alone base their careers on them. Wang Jing has called this the ‘chop-suey’ style (2008), comparable to Indian ‘masala’. For instance, the albums of Jay Chou are carefully planned to contain ‘slow songs’ and ‘quick songs’, and more generally to encompass a wide range of potential genres, including r&b, hip-hop, country & western, Latin and a style dubbed Chinese Wind. Although albums may be packaged around genre-related imagery, such as the cowboy on Jay Chou’s On the Run (2007), the genre in question is rarely manifest in more than two songs out of the ten an album usually contains.
  • Over 80% of the Grammy Awards are awarded in categories with genre-labels. By contrast, the Golden Melody Awards (see above) makes a major division into popular music on the one hand and traditional and art music on the other, and defines only a few awards within the traditional and art music category as motivated by genre. Most of its categories rather depend on (1) language (2) profession and (3) gender.
  • Chinese CD shops, publication and websites habitually organize (Chinese) music into the categories of (1) language-geography-ethnicity, (2) generation and (3) gender, with the third of these modified to distinguish between male singers, female singers and group or band performances. Sometimes all non-mainstream popular music is filed under the ‘band’ label, including solo albums of rock singers. This points to a final principle of organization: (4) marketability. Marketability addresses the gap I observe in the PRC between mainstream pop and the music classified as non-mainstream, alternative, small-groupish, underground and rock.
  • In short, imported genres labels interact with these four, more basic ways of differentiating music, creating a musical landscape that is in flux, as it should be.
  • We look forward to the emergence of typically Chinese genres, comparable to enka in Japan or tango in Argentine and Uruguay.


For the complete chapter please download the PDF below