5,925. According to Every Noise at Once, a site that tracks genre categories on Spotify, that’s how many distinct genres exist on the streaming service as of August 6, 2022. But is this figure truly representative? Thanks to the internet and increasingly accessible software, the music world has seen a massive upsurge in microgenres, or niche subgenres, in recent decades, with offshoots and variants seeming to spring up constantly. However, as genres become increasingly fluid and experience more overlap and crossover, the boundaries have gotten fuzzier, with the notion of the genre itself coming into question. Questions like “What constitutes a genre?”, “What are genres defined by?”, and “Should they be defined at all?” have gained salience as of late, and the five microgenres featured in this article – chillwave, vaporwave, bedroom pop, dubstep, and witch house – explore these issues, illustrating the rapid changes rocking the music landscape today.


Chillwave
Notable Example: Toro y Moi – “Blessa”

Chillwave surfaced in the late 2000s on the heels of the Great Recession, while the term itself was created by an anonymous blogger, Carles, on his quasi-satirical website Hipster Runoff in July 2009. Carles told Wired that he “tried to describe a sound for the band Washed Out. I just threw a bunch of pretty silly names on a blog post and saw which one stuck.” Described by Pitchfork‘s Philip Sherburne as nostalgic music steeped in “woozy new-wave synths, tape-warped samples, narcoleptic drum patterns, and hazy vocals hiding more than a smidgen of ennui beneath all that blissed-out reverb,” chillwave carried with it an escapist sentiment that reflected people’s eagerness to flee the financial troubles. It emanated a dreamy, warm vibe with its beachy/summery lyrics, whisking listeners away on a languorous vacation from the economic turmoil of the present. Keeping with chillwave’s regard for the past, ’80s influences are prevalent on its tracks, with Carles likening the microgenre to “something playing in the background of an old VHS cassette that you found in your attic from the late ’80s/’90s.”

However, the DIY nature of chillwave music production (using laptop software plus a bedroom recording studio) meant that a ton of people, regardless of skill or artistry, could easily bang out a number, ultimately leading to the subgenre’s premature demise in the early 2010s.


Vaporwave
Notable Example: Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe

Chillwave may have faded out in 2011, but it left behind a compelling digital footprint that spawned a host of new microgenres, among them vaporwave, a satirical subcategory in the electronic family with elevator and library music influences. Etymologically stemming from the term vaporware (hardware/software that’s been marketed to the public but not materialized), vaporwave emerged in the face of salient socioeconomic issues – consumerism, skepticism towards capitalism, globalization, etc. – and became the first movement to spend its whole life online. Remixed/slowed-down ’80s Muzak and easy-listening jazz samples, a 4K crystalline sound, and a proliferation of effects (loops, pitch shifting, cuts, etc.) are characteristic of the genre, which, much like its predecessor, was fueled by a digital DIY music scene where anonymous Internet artists used home-recording software and distributed their work on websites like Bandcamp.

Eccojams Vol. 1 by Daniel Lopatin (aka Chuck Person), a collection of chopped and screwed ’80s bops coated with loops and delay, and Far Side Virtual by James Ferraro, a 16-track set featuring computerized voices and chirpy elevator music, are considered pioneers in the vaporwave scene, but the most seminal work is arguably 2011’s Floral Shoppe from Macintosh Plus (otherwise known as Vektroid; real name Ramona Xavier). Dummy‘s Charlie Jones explained that the project is defined by “chopped, glitching and screwed adult contemporary soul alongside twinkling spa promotional tunes,” with Esquire‘s Scott Beauchamp praising how it “strikes the delicate balance between being a parody of consumerism and actually really nice music to chill to.”

Floral Shoppe Macintosh PlusNot only did Floral Shoppe sonically embody the vaporwave movement, it exemplified the visual aesthetics of the genre. Illustrating how vaporwave was as much a meme and art style as it was a music category, Floral Shoppe‘s album cover displayed a bust of Helios, Japanese characters, retro computer images, and pixelated imagery. Such graphics symbolized globalization and exhibited an infatuation with the consumerism of the eighties and nineties, highlighting the nostalgic yet futuristic vibe of vaporwave.


Bedroom Pop
Notable Example: Clairo – “Pretty Girl”

We typically categorize music by identifying distinguishable sounds, but bedroom pop isn’t subject to the sonic gatekeeping of most genres. Rather than burrowing itself into an exclusive sound package, bedroom pop is a fluid form that transcends genre boundaries, incorporating a myriad of music styles and sounds. Songs can be completely different from one another, with the artist taking the reins and charting their own path for their music.

“Anyone can make music, and I think that is the ideology behind bedroom pop,” Maia, who goes by the moniker mxmtoon, told NBC News. “Bedroom, it’s more of an idea, of a person sitting in a small space and using whatever resources you have to make songs that you’re proud of.”

Thus, the microgenre is largely shaped by the idea of DIY (do-it-yourself), with aspiring musicians transforming their bedrooms into low-budget recording studios. Like other DIY music movements, bedroom pop is heavily driven by the Internet, taking advantage of its accessible production software and recommendation algorithms. Consequently, many bedroom pop creators find success from going viral online; Beabadoobee’s debut guitar track “Coffee” has over 5 million views on YouTube, while Conan Gray’s first single “Idle Town” has notched over 20 million views. The genre, spurred by its self-driven nature and creative freedom, allows singer-songwriters to imbue their compositions with raw and authentic emotion, personal experiences, and a sense of intimacy and provides a platform for disenfranchised voices, encouraging artists to make music that reflects their individual identities.

“[Bedroom pop is] an ability to create intimacy with minimal equipment, sculpting wonky, imperfect soundscapes of gentle, dreamy ambience without tipping into elevator territory,” wrote The Forty-Five‘s Jenessa Williams. “[It’s] midwestern emo without the thrashing; Soundcloud rap without the braggadocio. Putting its makers in charge of its marketing, it allows musicians to wander through genres at will, tasked only with creating something that feels affecting and personal.”


Dubstep
Notable Example: Skream – “Midnight Request Line”

A branch of EDM, dubstep was born in small South London nightclubs at the turn of the 21st century, with the term itself emerging in 2002. Many attribute the name to Tempa Recordings founder Neil Joliffe, who, according to his colleague Martin Clark in an interview with The Verge, “used it and wrote it down first in a press release that was sent to [American music magazine] XLR8R, who then used it on the cover with Horsepower Productions in a 2002 article. And then Neil A&R’d a compilation with Hatcha called Dubstep Allstars Vol. 1, so that’s really what cemented it.”

However, there is always some gray area when pinpointing the exact origins of genres, and it may in fact have been DJ Hatcha who originally uttered the word. Regardless of the term’s birthplace, dubstep’s sound most notably emerged from dub and two-step (hence it’s name), though it also displays influences from styles like drum’n’bass and jungle. Dub stems from Jamaican reggae music of the ’70s, which featured in large part instrumental renditions of existing records, while two-step is an offshoot of UK garage and consists of alternating bass kicks and snare drums, integrating sounds from many different genres of dance music. Overall, dubstep music is defined by a brooding yet sparse quality (minor key, dissonant chords, etc.), syncopated percussion/drum textures with the snare striking on the third beat, and bass lines driven by sub-bass frequencies. The genre would later gain a global footing with the help of the Internet and bear several spin-offs of its own, including future garage and brostep.


Witch House
Notable Example: SALEM – “King Night”

Peaking in popularity for just about a year (2009-2010), Witch House may have been one of the most fleeting genres to grace the earth, but it has made an enduring impact on popular music. From Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” to Kanye West’s Yeezus and Billie Eilish’s dark aesthetic, the microgenre has floated into countless musical works, continuing to spread its black magic throughout the music scene. Inspired by chopped and screwed, shoegaze, noise, and industrial, witch house is characterized by hazy, deformed vocals (if any); foggy samples; whirring guitar, synth, and drum machine sounds; and a proliferation of effects, creating a sinister and otherworldly ambience fraught with foreboding, paranoia, and despair. It is heavy with experimentation and is accompanied by an aesthetic leaning towards the occult; visual representations of shamanism, horror themes, and witchcraft in addition to Unicode characters like crosses and triangles are often associated with the genre. Ironically, however, Travis Egedy (aka Pictureplane), who jokingly coined the term “witch house” in 2009, asserts that the genre has no defining elements and isn’t even real.

“[Witch house] doesn’t exist,” Egedy told the A.V. Club. “That’s the thing. I think that’s what people don’t understand. There is no list of rules…They asked me about witch house, and it’s like, ‘Are these kids joking?’ To limit yourself or pigeonhole yourself, to put yourself in a box, in a frame, ‘Oh, I’m witch house, therefore I have to act like this or sound like this,’ you’re really losing the point.”

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