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From rockabilly to mathcore: exploring the cultural and linguistic blending of popular music genres

The language of music has never been more nimble. With fusion genres like nu metal, trip hop, acid jazz, and synthpop having emerged over the last thirty years or so, it’s no surprise that our music vocabulary has expanded. And since we here at the OxfordWords blog love our portmanteaus, it only seems right to explore the history and evolution of some popular music genre blends in the 20th and 21st centuries. How did we get here?

Elvis and the legacy of rockabilly

We’ve always turned to creating new names to isolate and capitalize from the particularities of a music subgenre. Such labels help foster strong fan bases of those attracted to a certain instrumental or vocal styling, as well as distinguish the subgenre from the umbrella category it has been classified under.

An early example of this is Elvis Presley—he of hip-swinging, “Hound Dog”-reinterpreting, Graceland- and Vegas-dwelling fame—and his role in pushing the rockabilly genre to national prominence in the US.  The term rockabilly has one of the more significant genesis stories, since it is so closely related to what is generally considered to be the advent of modern rock and roll. A blend of “rock ‘n’ roll” and “hillbilly”—the early 20th-century term for what is now called country music—rockabilly combines elements of both of these genres in addition to influences of rhythm and blues, and swing. While rockabilly first emerged in the 1950s from many acts in the south-eastern United States, we can trace its popularization in Elvis’s ascent to American icon status as he deftly utilized his rockabilly roots in his infamously scandalous, televised performances.

The subgenre of subgenres

What is especially fascinating about rockabilly is that it has spurred its own group of subgenres that take the “-abilly” combining form. They are mainly styles of rock music that are heavily influenced by 1970s punk rock, including the aptly named punkabilly: a blend of “punk rock” and “rockabilly”; psychobilly, a blend of “psycho” and “rockabilly” that adds heavy metal and blues to its influences, usually features an upright double bass in accompaniment, and contains imagery-laden lyrical content often perceived as being of a taboo nature; and gothabilly, which is similar in style to psychobilly but adds a moodier, gothic musical tone. There seems to be no ebbing of the emergence of even more rockabilly subgenres. Hard rock-influenced thrashabilly and trashabilly, as well as surfabilly, which blends rockabilly with elements of laidback surf music, have all continued to grow in recognition.

A combination of forms

“-abilly”, as they say, is not the only player in the game. As this post’s title and first few examples suggest, music subgenre names have been formed by all manner of combining forms and compounds. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies several other combining forms whose meanings carry an immediate association with music, including:

alterna-: “forming compounds denoting a form or genre of popular music considered unorthodox or outside of the mainstream, as alterna-funk, alterna-metal, alterna-pop”. The adjective “alt.” also performs this function, serving as shorthand for “alternative” in alt-rock and alt-country.

-core: “the second element in various compounds designating (usually more extreme or intense) subgenres of popular music, esp. punk, grunge, techno, and heavy metal”. The association to hardcore here is inherent, and subgenre names can get peculiar, like Nintendocore, which infuses videogame music with a heavy metal sound, and mathcore, which relies on counting in unusual or complex time signatures (hence “math”).

electro-: “forming nouns denoting varieties of (popular) music characterized by the use of electronically created sounds, as electro-beat, electro-funk, electro-pop”.

techno-: “prefixed to the names of styles of popular music (as techno-pop, techno-rock, techno-house, etc.) to denote music incorporating sounds generated or modified electronically, esp. using synthesizers; (in later use also) denoting variations of these styles based on or influenced by techno music”.

nu-: an alteration of new “forming the names of types of popular (esp. dance) music which revive earlier styles, typically incorporating more modern elements, as nu-disco, nu-energy, nu house, nu-soul, etc.”

Death? What death?

Just one look at the number of subgenres that have cropped up over the years should be enough to convince anyone that contrary to popular belief (or really just the fears of record execs), the music industry is far from dying.  Indeed, within the major categories of Blues, Jazz, Pop, Country, Rock, Latin, Hip Hop, Folk, Electronic, Rhythm and Blues, Asian, African, and Ska, we can find hundreds of different musical stylings, each with its own notable artists and fan base. Instead of looking at the decline in album sales and the ubiquity of the Internet as determiners of a diminished state of music today, we can more constructively consider the springing up of more and more subgenres as an indicator of a turn not to a smaller industry, but rather one that has simply become more niched.

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