The tension between format and genre, pop plasticity on the one hand and rock, soul, country or hip-hop claims of sonic identity on the other, has animated much of the debate around American popular music since the counterculture and Black Power era, as demonstrated by such recent terms as “rockism” and “poptimism.” This chapter theorizes that formats, which structure and target cultural eclecticism, have a long history, rooted in blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville, and traditional show business, but also meet the needs of groups left marginalized by all that genre certainty. If genres turn on the folkloric impulse to identify authentic expression, formats allow space for emergent and hybrid voices. Top 40 formats created a commercialized pluralism whose critics were often compromised by their own privilege – racial, gender, class, regional, genre-based, etc. We need musical histories that explore the tension between the logic of formats and the counterlogic of genre. The pay-off will be a new understanding of the centers of American music as being as innovative and complex as the margins.
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