I have never been one to look into the classification of music into concrete genres too much. In my opinion, music genres are often subjective to the listener, especially those that depend heavily on how the listener perceives a sound, instead of identifiable indicators like time period or lyrical context. Despite this, though, I’ve found a fascination with the genres of Avant-Pop and Art-Pop within the last year. These genres are ones that fall into that “subjective category;” people have differing opinions on what artists and albums fit into the genres, as well as if they are truly identifiable genres at all. Either way, they sure are stimulating and fascinating to delve into.
Defining Art-Pop and Avant-Pop can be a bit complicated. From my understanding, Art-Pop as a style can stretch past musical context and be used to describe any form of art in which the artist synthesizes experimental technique from “art school practices” into their work, while still staying in a “pop” context. Confusing, right? Avant-Pop is a bit easier to understand, and I’d say it could be placed as a subcategory of Art-Pop, which acts as more of an umbrella term. Again, from my interpretation, Avant-Pop is music that remains immediately accessible to listeners the way that Pop music does, while integrating novel and experimental artistic “visions” into the sound. Basically, it’s pop music that’s weird, new, different, and little wacky, for lack of better words.
Art-Pop/Avant-Pop seems to have developed and grown in waves across decades, starting with 1970s artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno, who integrated their studies in art school into their music. A new wave of melodramatic Art-Pop was introduced in the 1980s, mostly by the amazing Kate Bush, who greatly inspired many pop artists to come. The 1990s were a breeding ground for many iconic Art-Pop/Avant-Pop artists, such as Björk, who emphasized a use of electronics and a heavily digital sound in her work, and Fiona Apple, who challenges the norms of pop culture completely, incorporating raw and sometimes disturbing lyrics and sounds into music that still finds a way to appeal to a “pop audience.” Finally, we make it to contemporary 2000s Art-Pop/Avant-Pop artists, like Laurie Anderson, who connected the realm of Avant-Pop to performance and soundscape art, Yoko Ono, who, after breaking away from a more traditional and “sweet” vocal style while partnered with John Lennon, created an unpredictable yet identifiable (and sometimes shocking) sound. Also coming forth more towards the latter half of the 2000s and throughout the 2010s were artists like Charli XCX, who strides confidently into the realm of Hyper-Pop and provides listeners with “pop music for the self-aware,” as well as Janelle Monae and FKA Twigs, who mesh sounds of contemporary R&B and avante-garde-experimentalism into their music seamlessly.
This is a pretty in-depth list of artists, but there are many more where they come from. The beauty of Art-Pop and Avant-Pop is that although all of the artists previously mentioned fall into the genres, they are all so vastly different in sound, style, and musical production. Delving into Art-Pop/Avant-Pop isn’t like delving into more cohesive genres, like Punk-Rock or Country, where you’ll (for the most part) find music of similar sound and structure. No, it’s more like walking into a museum and digesting each piece of art separately; they are all so different, yet all still so mesmerizing.
I thought I’d wrap up this piece with some recommendations of my favorite Art-Pop/Avant-Pop albums, in case you want to give the genre a try for yourself: “Artangels” by Grimes, “The Idler Wheel…” by Fiona Apple, “SAWAYAMA” by Rina Sawayama, “The Kick Inside” by Kate Bush, “Yes, I’m A Witch” by Yoko Ono, and “Vespertine” by Björk. I am so excited to continue discovering new music within these genres, and I hope that after reading this, you are too!