Musing On Genres

The following was provoked by the announcement regarding the 2002 sales for the U.S. recording industry. Apparently, there was an overall drop in CD sales of about 9%. In 2001, there were 712 million sold. In 2002, the number was down to 649.5 million. A million here, a million there, and before you know it, it adds up to some real money. However, not all types of music took a tumble (e.g., R&B is said to have fallen 15%). Country (did you ever notice that the “& Western” is now always dropped) was up 12%. Presumably, those who are proponents of the former genre are unhappy and those who are supporters of the other nod knowingly. But what does any of us really know about the Other?

There is something in us that likes lists and categories, places where we can keep things separated and segmented, perhaps for easy retrieval or because we want to make judgments or characterizations. This happens a lot in music, more evidentially than in other things we relate to. Categories proliferate. Some of these categories give way to Darwinism. Others hang on yet come to include things that would have once been unimaginable within them: the categories morph.

These lists, or at least the labels that adhere to them, provide subjective-but-shared definitions of what counts and what doesn’t. And often, those who share these definitions have a tendency to defend those objects (e.g., bands) that fall within the boundaries of those categories against others, as though those other objects simply inferior for not belonging to the categories of interests or, even more heinous, for pretending to be a part of the categories. Somehow, it is all about preserving the sanctity of the List.

So what is the effect? Nothing less than the diminution of experience. Although many people (undoubtedly many who read this site) would argue that they are sufficiently “open minded” such that they are ready, willing and able to listen to all types of music. In point of fact, they are probably still restrictive so far as what they actually hear. Just as we look at things all the time, we don’t see everything, as we tend to filter out a lot of the input (otherwise, there’d be a whole lot of fused synapses). One of the things that genres, and subsets within those genres, do is to provide a winnowing mechanism, something that, through the boundaries of the list, makes selection of what is pertinent to us much easier.

Consider: Our broadmindedness notwithstanding, the slogan for GloNo speaks of how “rock and roll” can be life changing, not Music (writ large).

There is much we can learn. Much we can understand. But we generally choose not to. Perhaps this is not a conscious effort. Perhaps it is some sort of internal defense mechanism. We can’t, say, defend all music, so we make our lists and set up our categories, and turn up our noses (or plug up our ears) toward others. And we are probably somewhat the lesser for that.

8 thoughts on “Musing On Genres”

  1. Hey guys – long-time reader, first-time commenter. (applause)

    I found it serendipitous (?) that Stephen chose to write on this subject as it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately as well. I agree whole-mindedly with the article and wanted to offer up an addendum. Not sure if I can offer an addendum to something I didn’t write in the first place, but I’m gonna give it a go.

    The music you choose to listen to and love becomes a part of your identity. Say you’re into death metal – just say you are, ok – it becomes nearly impossible to listen to, say, Leann Rimes. “That isn’t who I am.” Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, although it probably is. I think Stephen is right when he says we are somewhat lesser for limiting ourselves.

    Maybe if you’ve gotten to a point in your life at which you actually know who you are, it wouldn’t be so bad. I know many people, even at my age of 28, who go through identity phases. Six months they’ll be rap, two months they’ll be classic rock, four months they’ll be punk. When they are in one phase, everything else is shit and they even refuse to admit they ever liked anything else. They’ll say it was just a phase. Which it was, but…

    I believe a person’s taste in music reflects the level of intelligence of that person. If a person has only one type of music in their collection, it can be assumed the person is less intelligent than someone whose collection includes samples of many and varied styles and artists. This is not to say that one needs to or even should like EVERYTHING (come on, Dave Matthews sucks!), but I think the more you can like the better off you are.

  2. Interesting addendum. I’m not so sure that a wide range of music appreciation is so much a measure of intelligence as it is of being intellectually flexible enough so as to entertain–perhaps only briefly–things other than those that fall within one’s “safe” categories. Someone could be an Einstein and listen only to, say, Dave Matthews. . .

    And Jake: Without the successes of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the disc, and the Dixie Chicks’ latest, those poor bastards at the major labels would be littering the streets with their bodies having thrown themselves out the windows of their high-rises. Twang rocks.

  3. Mac, just wait for my article dissecting the difference between bluegrass and old-timey music in which I interview a real-life banjo-pickin’ doctor (as in PhD) of piggery. No shit.

  4. I think maybe people place a little too much importance on genres. I try to look at it as shorthand for describing what a certain act generally (very generally) sounds like. If you tell me someone I’ve never heard of is “punk,” I have a loose concept of what they might sound like. Then again, what one person considers punk might not necessarily be what I consider punk, and I’m in for a long night the first time I listen to Sum 41.

    Genres become important when we start using what we listen to as a way to define ourselves, and that’s also when they become a problem. I was into metal in high school (a very long time ago) and the very thought of country music was enough to send me running for my Iron Maiden records. But then you grow up, you don’t care so much to be part of a “group,” and you realize there are more flavors than just Bruce Dickinson or Paul DiAnno. Iron Maiden fans will understand.

    Anyway, once I didn’t need the badge of my chosen genre anymore, I realized that Johnny Cash and Guy Clark are pretty fuckin’ great. And the older I get and the more music I listen to, the less important genres become to me. I mean, I like what I like, and I suppose you could break it down by genre if you were that anal, but those arbitrary classifications are growing meaningless to me, especially as I keep listening to new stuff and finding artists I like in almost any given genre. And as the subgenres proliferate and become more and more restrictive, the less use I have for them. My goal is to grow old enough so that all I listen to is music.

  5. Dear Jake,

    RE: Interview/Piggery/Banjo

    If you are checking to see if I am still paying attention even though I have relocated my center of command, YES, FRIEND, I AM PICKING UP WHAT YOU ARE PUTTING DOWN!!! PE

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