As long as there’s been music, there’s been jackasses who are picky about it (hiya!), and as long as there has been music, there have been people fighting over labeling it, and which way is the “correct” way. I am, of course, talking about genres.
On the first level, genres are easy as shit. Rock, Metal, Punk, Hip-Hop, R&B, Rap, Pop, Jazz, Country, Classical…in most places there’s not a lot of room for misinterpretation. Sometimes there’s cross-over and you get things like pop-country, or rap-rock, but even then things are pretty clear. I mean, let’s face it, no one is going to call The Ramones metal or think that Jay-Z is R&B.
Then you get to sub-genres, and things started devolving pretty quickly. I think the main problem with sub-genres is how freaking many of them there are, how specific some of them can get, and the, let’s be honest, arbitrary traits assigned to them. Look at grunge, for example. The sub-genre’s defined by a location, a time, an aesthetic, and then finally sonic similarities. Are Stone Temple Pilots grunge? Sure, they sound like Pearl Jam (boy, do they ever), but they aren’t from Seattle, which as silly as it sounds, is used as a legitimate reason for snobs to call them the more general “alt-rock” than grunge.
To look at the confusion of sub-genres a different way, you can see how a band can fall into a whole bunch of categories depending on how you want to classify them. For this example, I’m going to use Belle and Sebastian. What banner are they going to be found under at FYE? Pop/Rock. What would you call them to your friend’s dad? Alternative. What do you call them to a friend who knows a little about music? Indie. What if they know a little more? Indie pop. And at the very core? Twee. So just in one band, there’s five levels on which you can classify them.
And those levels are another headache for sub-genres because then it basically comes down to how big of a prick you want to be about it. Do you want a broad-spectrum classification, or something very niche? For ease of organization (and your own ego), being super-specific might be useful, but then what if down the road you can’t remember what genre you put Interpol under? “Oh shit! Are they under rock? No…Alternative rock? Fuck, that’s a bunch of 90s bands! Indie? Nope, not there! Oh, ok, it’s under post-punk revival, whew”. Reminds me, what the fuck is post-punk?
Which brings me to the final wall banger with sub-genres: there’s no universal system for them, meaning that they aren’t always the best way to communicate. I can tell one of my best friends that Loveless by My Bloody Valentine is the best shoegaze album that will ever exist, but if she doesn’t know what shoegaze is, then the whole thing is lost on her. And thanks to the nebulous, arbitrary, and occasionally redundant nature of conflicting subgenres, fans of one might be hostile towards those of another (direct quote from Last.fm’s page on post-punk revival: “Powerword: Indie rock. You guys are listening to indie rock, because assholes complain that indie is not a genre of music”).
At the end of the day, it’s all about compromise and finding that happy middle. Sure, there’s a lot of subgenres and they can be awfully specific, but for me the objective is to find that sweet spot between giving people a good idea about what they’re listening to while not relying on too much in the way of music knowledge.
Or hell, just call it “good music” and “bad music”, either way.
Might be going off on a tangent here, but I think labels in general (genres included, of course) are sort of a necessary evil. When I discover a new band who’s sound I really like and that I haven’t really heard before, the first thing I do is to check out what genres they may be listed under. It’s a pretty quick and easy way for newbs to a certain sound to find more music that sounds like what they want to hear. Sure, one could say, “Oh, thus guy is very much influenced by Sufjan Stevens but with more of an Iron & Wine feel…” and so on. But it’s easier to say, “He’s indie folk.”
As arrogant as some may be about sub-genres (and I agree that people far too often get way caught up with these things), I think they serve a useful purpose when done right. Although I guess I’m sort of rehashing what you said in that last paragraph.
Oh yeah, I’m not against genres at all (as evidenced by the last paragraph). I’m just saying that there’s a lot of room for error and frustration. As a whole, they probably do more good than bad.
It might be worth noting that genres, in general, were more or less constructed by the music industry, not necessarily by the people who were listening to the music. Granted, everyone uses labels, but the reason the labels we have are so wide spread is because the music industry needed an easy way to sell music in the stores. Taking a look at the history of what is now called ‘blues’ is a great example of this. It used to be called many different things, including R&B and Black Pop, depending on how far back you go. Who knows, maybe is thirty years, we’ll have a distinct ‘classic pop’ genre so that artists like Lady Gaga who seem intent on reviving the 80’s will have their very own genre.
I notice blues isn’t listed in your list of initial genres, by the way – would you consider it distinct or perhaps a subsection of Rock or R&B? Perhaps related to country (at least the older, folkier stuff)?
“Blues” isn’t in the initial genre-roulette simply because it slipped my mind when I was writing this. I consider it it’s own genre, hands down.
But your question got me thinking about how genres have evolved, even in the past few decades. I mean, I listed metal and punk as their own genres instead of subsections of rock. 30 years ago, I doubt that would have happened.
Nice to see that you and Ty (and hell, people at all) are reading, though.