I once took a college course entitled Music Appreciation. Quite honestly, it should have just been called Music History as we learned little about what makes “the greats” so great and more about where composers were born and when. While it was quite disappointing in that regard, I did gain the understanding of differences between orchestral compositions and how to fit them into nice niches of “baroque” or “classical.” That knowledge has served me… well, absolutely no use in the real world. Neither has knowing that any particular composer was born in Austria and later moved to France. The moral of the story is, when attending community colleges or tech schools, stick to the mainstream gen ed courses. Art isn’t their forte.
Years later, I started writing for a metal review website. While I wasn’t familiar with many of the folks who happened to be old friends, I certainly wasn’t the new face, either. I’m used to being the Token Female (TM) around these types of places, but this was a tougher crowd; while my knowledge base was broad, these folks had long since chosen their tiny niches in which all which they hold precious resided. In fact, some of these folks had created entirely new genres to describe their beloveds and would whip out a shotgun in anger at those who disagreed with their assessments. Others would take standard tags like “metal” and claim only four bands fit the label, and everything else “sucks.” The moral of the story is, when speaking with devoted metalheads about music as art, change the subject. Art isn’t their forte, either.
One learns how to catalog fiction books alphabetically and non-fiction books using the Dewey Decimal System, aside from biographies which are alphabetized by the subject’s name. Art, as in paintings and sculptures and the like, is probably next in line in regards to rigid categorization. Folks don’t sit and argue in front of a Renoir as to whether or not it’s an impressionist painting. Most films clearly fit into some type of basic genre. And while popular music prior to 1900 is similarly neatly tucked into nice cubbyholes, it’s not long after that point that everything went haywire. It’s heard all of the time — “music is art, it shouldn’t be labeled.” However, music seems to be the only art form whose categorization is in complete chaos.
There was a time when I, too, objected to the notion that all of the music I loved could be slapped with a tag and stuck in a drawer with other artists that I may or may not like. After all, I certainly know plenty of Belle & Sebastian fans who would squirm at the thought of The Cardigans being tossed into the same category; alas, fans of both bands could claim to be into “twee pop.” This doesn’t mean that a fan of “twee pop” is a fan of both bands, of course. It’s the implication that because someone says they love “kraut rock” that the listener might automatically assume they’re into Kraftwerk when really they’re a Tangerine Dream sort.
What drives the hatred of labels? Are there actual nuances that need further classification? Really, it seems to be more of the audience’s decision. Looking at country music, which has existed much longer than the influx of rock and roll, there are approximately 1/4 the number of named primary genres. Hip hop, while having been on the scene truly only since the 1970s, isn’t easily classified into many more than 20 categories. Yet, take the alternative/indie scene, which is even newer, and try talking to those folks about genre. Have one of them explain to you what the differences are between “shoegaze” and “dream pop,” and why everything isn’t “emo.” Your ears may just begin squirting blood.
Don’t get me wrong, indie folks; you’re not alone. My aforementioned metal folks are just as much to blame. Most of the community itself can only loosely explain why one band should be called “goth metal” while another is “doom metal.” Toss in “symphonic black” and “sludge” as labels and you can quite easily get an entire group of metal geeks in an argument that ends in the bloodbath of some very angry viking warriors. Yet, it’s these fans that create these labels in earnest, usually to break their favorite band away from others who have many similarities yet the listener doesn’t want the stigma of being associated with the other bands.
A kneejerk reaction to all of this madness — yet painfully true — is the simple fact that many of these complex and hilarious mini-genres exist only due to the insecurity of the geeky music fanbase. Look at interviews with Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, who insists that nobody who liked Skid Row would ever listen to or go see Poison. Yes, there were plenty of differences between the two bands; however, find one credible source who doesn’t list them both as “hair metal.” The reality of the situation is that Mr. Bach can’t deal with the fact that his hits came about at the time of other bands making similar cock-rock anthems and gooey ballads while destroying the ozone with hair spray and losing circulation in leather pants. There are no pardons being given here for punk, either. Punk music is distinct in itself, yet punk fans will easily break down their beloved genre into no less than 15 distinct categories and tell you which is “real” punk.
However, turn an eye to the world of pop. How many different types of pop can you name? Oh, get dirty into the ’60s and you can pick out the bubblegum and the teen idol stuff, but beyond that? Pop has almost always just been pop, mildly divided due to general shifts in technology and tastes over time. Mainstream rock isn’t much different; listen to any radio station called “classic rock” and you will soon discover that rock today still holds many elements of years past. Some of it is more bluesy, some of it more artsy, some is psychedelic, and some is just made to RAWK. While one may argue that pop and mainstream rock is more homogenized for a non-discriminating audience, it’s clear that even with time, there aren’t that many niches for a pop band.
With this thought in mind, we have “pop” and “rock” as broad categories with little breakdown. We have “country” and “hip-hop” with some major pigeonholes. Then, we have the “alternative/indie” and the “hard rock/metal” nerds who argue themselves blue in the face with 1400 classifications so nitpicky that the fans themselves who created them could blow out their voice boxes from so much arguing as to how one band is not like another.
All of this reminds me of my school days, learning about how we, as people, need to stop looking at what makes us all different and instead focus on what makes us the same. I may be a honky white girl from Iowa and you may be 50 Cent, but we’re both people who dig music. So you like Coal Chamber and Mushroomhead while I am digging The Project Hate and The Gathering; last I heard, this means we both like metal, right? So what if some 14-year-old kid thinks Good Charlotte is the greatest punk band ever and has no idea what that letter “A” with a circle around it means. Is it fair to cast this prepubescent out of the punk elite? Were you born with Sid Vicious surgically embedded in your ass? Perhaps this may seem like a bit of a tangent, but truly, in discriminating music based on a genre classification, we’re losing sight of the purpose of classifying anything: to make things simple.
So on one hand, all of these endless categorizations of rather simplistic genres obviously gets ridiculous for no truly good reason. On the other hand, how does one explain the difference in sound between Sonic Youth and Weezer without getting technical? Hell, how does one explain why No Doubt can be called ska without sounding anything at all like Madness? Perhaps the insane quantity of labels exists because music gets so diverse that we can’t just throw it all into the same bucket like we do with Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez.
One may be tempted to call genre classification a “necessary evil” in the long run, the only alternative to sitting down and listening to 10 different bands, comparing and contrasting. It’s certainly made life easier for not just historians but also for folks who say, “I heard the new Bowling For Soup song and I like it. I want to hear other bands like Bowling For Soup. Point me in the right direction.”
For all of the arguments a descriptor may cause, there are a hundred reasons why genre tags exist. And while some of these tags might have grown a bit out of control to say the very least, it helps considerably when looking for new music and tracing back the roots of the bands you adore. Yes, they can be maddening, and arguments may mount as to what “stoner metal” actually means and people might get tossed off of one another’s buddy lists over the whole ordeal. While it’s sad that the music community can’t agree to take the same approach as the art world or at least act maturely about the entire subject, one thing is certain: you probably wouldn’t be listening to the bands you love now if it weren’t for genre classifications. And tomorrow, you probably won’t find the next band that you will adore without it being shoved into a category that will lead you to it.
Accept genre classification. Love it. Study it, learn from it; don’t be offended when your band gets categorized with one you don’t like, and don’t discriminate because of it, either. Feel free to kick the next person who comes along and ruins the good spirit in which they are intended. Labels can be your friend.
Reading too many books in the 781.6 range,