Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz
Playlisting is as prevalent as ever. Curated playlists are not only a way for fans to discover new music, but they can give artists a healthy boost in streaming sales. The ubiquity of grouping music into categories makes it seem as though there are more subgenres than ever. In pop music alone, there are distinctions such as art pop, avant-pop, hyperpop, bubblegum pop, anti-pop, dark pop, dream pop, electropop, indie pop, pop punk — the list truly goes on. And now thanks to Grimes, there’s now one more subgenre: Ethereal.
After a successful year-long petition (which she had since forgotten about), Grimes was able to convince Spotify to classify the term “ethereal” as a genre and even co-curate a seven-hour long Ethereal playlist. But what exactly does ethereal mean, and why is the subgenre’s distinction important?
— ☾laire de ☾une (@Grimezsz) April 2, 2021
What does ethereal even mean?
The term ethereal is officially defined as “of or relating to the regions beyond the earth; celestial, heavenly, unworldly, spiritual.” No, that doesn’t mean ethereal music is exclusively about aliens, it’s more a description of the feeling that is captured through sound. Grimes herself defines the genre as music that is “dedicated to experimentalism with strong elements of pop and universal beauty,” which marks an important distinction. To her, ethereal is synonymous with pushing boundaries.
Along with classifying her own music as ethereal, Grimes’ Spotify co-curated Ethereal playlist features some obvious names like FKA Twigs, Arca, Sophie, Björk, Caroline Polachek, and James Blake. But the list also sees some more surprising additions like Chloe x Halle, Faye Webster, Post Malone, Don Toliver, and even one of Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory tracks.
So what does music by Arca and Post Malone have in common? On the surface, very little. But after scouring through Grimes’ playlist, the connections become clear. Each song leans heavily on the use of light, airy synths. Many of the tracks either boast high-pitch vocals or at least some form of vocal treatment, whether it be auto-tune or pitch bending. Unlike rock music, guitars are rarely heard throughout the playlist, unless it’s to add some subtle resonance.
Was Grimes the first to invent the ethereal genre?
Nope! But her definition slightly differs from how ethereal has been described in the past.
Though Grimes is now able to categorize musicians as ethereal, she wasn’t actually the first to use the word in a subgenre. In her description, Grimes notes that her idea of ethereal music must contain some “strong elements of pop,” meaning it’s pop-adjacent. Many of the artists included in her playlist have previously fallen under the umbrella of pop music. But the original use of the term doesn’t come from pop, rather it has roots in the early ‘80s post-punk movement. The term ethereal was added to the darkwave subgenre, a classification stemming from the new wave movement with a heavy emphasis on the use of synths and somber melodies.
The group often credited as popularizing the ethereal darkwave genre is Cocteau Twins. Though they are assigned to a plethora of genres, Cocteau Twins emulated the ethereal darkwave sound through fuzzy production, dreamy melodies, and heavily-distorted vocals. Their distinct sound led to a cult following and has recently resulted in a new meme format poking fun at the band’s abstruse vocals.
Cocteau Twins hive assemble pic.twitter.com/5pgZAjXxjJ
— i-D (@i_D) December 16, 2020
My friends sending me cocteau twins memes is how I know that I am loved pic.twitter.com/k33q07TW0Z
— Aevee Bee (@MammonMachine) May 5, 2020
Not only does Grimes recognize Cocteau Twins’ pioneering sound through their inclusion on her Ethereal playlist, but she was also heavily influenced by their music. In 2012, Grimes signed to 4AD, Cocteau Twins’ label which also has a reputation for discovering early new wave artists. After inking the deal, Grimes took to Twitter to share her excitement and credit Cocteau Twins for their inspiration. “just want 2 say i am so honoured to be releasing my next album with 4AD – a record label I have admired since I was 13 and first heard the cocteau twins and realized girls can make music, and goth is sick,” she wrote.
Okay, cool, but do subgenres really matter?
Grimes thinks they do, and she has a point. Creating distinct subgenres is more than just categorizing a sound, they’re a way for artists to create an identity and draw in a fanbase. Subgenres allow music to evolve and become distinct from a different time period, while still falling under an easily understandable umbrella of sound. Hyperpop, for example, draws influences from bubblegum pop of the early aughts but will inextricably be linked to the 2020s, meme culture, and the queer community.
Subgenres don’t only have philosophical value, but they also lead to revenue. Grimes’ music teeters on the threshold of a handful of genres: indie pop, dream pop, and electronic. But not having a specific home, she claims, causes her to be barred from genre-specific playlisting and roundups — which means less streams, less publicity, and therefore less money.
Grimes explained her stance back in late 2019 when she had first created a petition to officially launch the ethereal genre. “We are constantly told that Grimes doesn’t fit into any existing format or genre and therefore cannot be on playlists or radio,” she wrote. “We argue that there is a long lineage of auteur artists, often producing their own music and/or directing their own music videos. Oft with a heavy visual component and fantasy, sci fi or literary elements… often very ethereal, otherworldly and futuristic in nature.”
This is my vibe 4 this playlist pic.twitter.com/snOgRgXdBi
— ☾laire de ☾une (@Grimezsz) December 10, 2019
Grimes expanded on her vision for the ethereal genre in a recent statement, name dropping a few specific artists and calling for the category to be recognized by more playlists, radio stations, and the media at large:
“When you look at artists such as Bjork, Kate Bush, FKA Twigs, Eartheater, Yeule, Rosalía, I feel all of us are heavily influenced by sci-fi and fantasy. We often produce our own music and direct our own visuals (or are at least at the helm on such matters). I feel we are all dedicated to experimentalism but with strong elements of pop and universal beauty. I’m not rly sure how to describe it but I feel like there is a lineage of music here that I imagine I belong, too. I don’t want to speak for other artists, but I feel like there should be more playlists and radio stations dedicated to this creative realm because it seems to exist.”
Is creating a new subgenre really as easy as starting a petition?
For some artists, apparently so. But for others, not so much. Grimes’ new subgenre comes at a time when there’s already a larger conversation about the intersection of genres in popular music. Much like Grimes, several artists are trying to take their assigned genre into their own hands. Most notably is Justin Bieber, who decided to be classified as an R&B artist with his 2020 album Changes. Bieber called on several hip-hop producers to craft distinct beats and noted that he wanted the album to “embody” the R&B sound. He even pushed back on the Recording Academy for nominating him for a 2020 Grammy Award in several pop categories, stating that Changes “not being acknowledged as an R&B album [is] very strange to me.”
While Grimes and Bieber are able to shift between genres (or even create their own entirely), the same opportunity has not been afforded to Black artists. A few months before Bieber slighted the Recording Academy for calling him a pop artist, contemporary R&B musicians Teyana Taylor, Summer Walker, Kehlani, and Jhené Aiko got together for a roundtable discussion with Billboard on how R&B artists, many of whom are Black women, don’t get the commercial recognition they deserve. Aiko noted that there are many pop artists veering into the R&B genre who are still able to chart as pop and receive pop radio airplay. “Pop gets all the credit, for sure,” Walker chimed in. “We’re cute over here when they want to be in their feelings. But when it’s time to get to the money, it’s all about pop.”
Grimes successfully minting the ethereal genre proves that music is ever-evolving, so its labels must evolve as well. Empowering artists to reclaim their music’s classification can attract fanbases and revenue, but there also needs to be a concerted effort to make sure all musicians — not just pop artists — are able to have an equal say in the matter.
Some of the artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.