Alrighty then. Today, I'll be writing about the pros and cons of using genres to describe and categorize music. I'm doing this because I always see people avoiding perfectly good music because it's not "what they listen to," and because I always see people contradicting themselves when it comes to judging music by it's genre.
First and foremost, what's a genre? I define it as a certain style of music, played (usually) by certain type of people. An example would be punk rock. There's a definitve style of playing for punk rock (fast power chords, faster drums, etc...), and it is generally played by the subculture of people we refer to as "punks." Genres can be as broad as "rock," or as narrow as "post-grunge rap-metal fusion." Now that we know what a genre is, let's talk about some of the good things about genres:
I find that genres are most useful when they are used in a broad context. For example, I would say that I like to listen to "rock music." Others might say "I like easy listening," and so on. At this broad level, genres are not only helpful, but they are essential. If you look at the scope of ALL music in the world, the fact is that it differs enormously. You need to be able to draw the line somewhere. If we only referred to music as "music," how the hell would we know what to call our favorite music, in relation to other music?
Essentailly, genres are good as a comparrison tool. They make it easier to discuss music. Why do we call heavy metal "heavy metal?" Because there is different music out there, that sounds nothing like this heavy metal stuff, and we need a way to differentiate. Genres are also useful if you want to describe the sound of an individual band without having to name other bands. For example, what if someone asked you what the Red Hot Chili Peppers sound like? You could say: "well, they sound like a little bit of alternative rock, mixed with lots of funk, and a little psychedelic stuff too." You wouldn't need to list of the artists that influenced them, as that would take forever, and not everyone knows every artist, etc...
And then there's the obvious positive attribute of genres, which is that if you hear a band you really like, you can refer to their genre to help you find similar music.
But that's where the good things about genres end. A genre label is only useful if you are discussing music, and not really useful at all if you are listening to it, or making music. Here's why:
Why are genres not useful when you're actually listening to music? Because a genre is just a word. It's a general term. What's the root word of genre? General. No genre term can describe every aspect of every song, by every band. It just can't happen. I know this is a tired old saying, but if it sounds good, listen to it! If you don't like it, don't listen. I am constantly hearing people say: "I only listen to metal. All that punk stuff is garbage, and classic rock is so queer!" That in itself is completely ignorant. But then, these people confim their ignorance by saying something like: "So yeah. I only like metal. But have you heard Finger Eleven's new song 'One Thing?' It's really slow, and acoustic. But I only listent to heavy metal! Rock On!!!"
The point is, when it gets down to defining your entire musical diet, and discussing everything you like to hear, you can't just judge it by what music you listen to most, or what you listen to at parties, or on your discman, or when you're studying. And everyone likes at least one song from every kind of genre. Think really hard about it. You don't even have to like the band that plays the song, and it doesn't have to be a song that you can totally rock out to, but as long as the song is pleasing to your ears, you can't logically restrict yourself to one genre. Here's a sample of my tastes, off the top of my head:
Rock: Well, I like most rock. It's my main thing. Punk: Sublime, Ramones, Nirvana (yes, they're a punk band), The Clash, The Offspring, Greenday, NOFX, Goldfinger. Metal: Ozzy, AC/DC, Motley Crue, Metallica, Def Leppard. Funk: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wild Cherry, Bootsy Collins. Soul: Any James Brown. Folk: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. Country: Charlie Daniels, Johnny Cash. Oldies: Countless bands. 50's Rock & Roll: Chuck Berry. Blues: Muddy Waters, Albert King, Robert Johnson, etc... Jam Rock: The Allman Bros. Band, Grateful Dead... Rap: Ludacris, DMX, Eminem, Ice Cube. Pop: See rap.
But I still call myself a rocker. I just use the term generally, if I'm discussing music with another person. I don't swear by rock music as my only genre that i could possibly listen to. Such a thing is totally ignorant. I see this happen mostly with (prepare to flame me), nu-metal fans. I said in a previous article that nu-metal fans, in my onw experience, tend to be the most genre-crazy people around. I'm sure you all know that one kid who's always got his discman on, and he's always listening to nu-metal, and if you try and discuss music with him, he has nothing to say about any other genre, except to explain why he thinks it's total crap.
Anyone with an open mind can see that you can't swear by one or two genres alone. And if you're in a band, then genres become a bigger problem. Any good band should have a mix of styles, and put their own touch on it. Led Zeppelin was known for going all over the map with their music. The Beatles had psychedelic stuff, pop stuff, rock, acoustic, etc... The Rolling Stones did a lot of country and blues in addition to their rock classics. I refer to my band as a rock band, and nothing else. If someone wants details, I'll say we're heavily influenced by classic rock, but that's about it. If I were to call us a post-classic-rock revivalist garage band, I would be losing people's interest really quick.
When I'm trying to come up with new songs for my band, I constatnly find myself thinking: "Okay, I need something that rocks. Let's have a good rock riff." The problem with that is that rock and roll is an almagamation of several genres. Most good rock riffs are blues licks, played a little differently. What I should be doing is trying to find a good musical idea, and THEN applying a rock & roll touch to it. So as an artist, you might find yourself "trapped" by a genre label, when your actual vision isn't of just being in one genre.
Perhaps I'm just cynical, but I see very little use for all the ridiculous sub-genres we have in music these days. It's not longer proper to just listen to punk. You have to choose between old-school punk, street punk, oi punk, pop-punk, hardcore, emo, screamo, psychobilly, rockabilly, ska, skate-punk, chick-punk, party punk, grunge-punk, acoustic punk, post-hardcore, and something called "punk rawk." It's just useless, really. Most of these kinds of bands play the same festivals and tours together, and they all share the same major influences. Yet I still hear people arguing viciously over these little sub-genres of punk.
The same goes for metal: Nu-metal, heavy metal, black metal, death metal, industrial metal, grind metal, classic metal, gore metal, gothic metal, power metal, thrash metal, war metal, speed metal, etc... All that such sub-genres do is try and streamline listeners into only listening to one shadow of one genre, and they create unnessecary rifts between fans of the same music.
Are all these sub-categories really necessary? Does anyone care that much?
And as my final point on the negative aspects of genres, let's talk about bands that escape genre classification. I always like to use Led Zeppelin as an example, so let's do that. Led Zeppelin is generally regarded as the quintessential hard rock band. This is, by most accounts, a true statement. Their heavy drums, screaming vocals and hammer-of-the-Gods pentatonic riffs define classic rock as we know it. But there are so many sides to Led Zepplein's music that defy that hard rock classification, that the term becomes useless when you really study the band.
They've got acoustic folk songs like "Going To California," "That's The Way," and "Bron Y' Aur Stomp." These songs are played with harmonicas, acoustic guitars, and a mandolin. Not very hard rock, now is it? You could look at the blues numbers they do as well. "Since I've Been Lovin' You," "What Is And What Should Never Be," "Dazed And Confused," and similar cuts are closer to the blues than to rock and roll. Zeppelin got into southern-style blues/rock with numbers like "Trampled Underfoot," and "In My Time Of Dying." They practically invented the rock-ballad with "Stairway to Heaven," and they did their fair share of progressive music, with stuff like "Rain Song," and "No Quarter." They even ventured into reggae ("D'Yer Maker"), funk ("The Crunge"), Indian music ("Kashmir"), and pop ("Fool In The Rain").
The Rolling Stones did their share of country ("Let It Bleed," "Dead Flowers," "Honky Tonk Women"), jazz ("Can't You Hear Me Knockin"), pop ("Mother's Little Helper," "Ruby Tuesday"), as well as all of their famous rock & roll classics, like "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Satisfaction," etc...
The point is that many of the greatest bands of all time have been unfairly streamlined into just one genre, because people love to label things. People who judege their music by it's genre and not by it's sound are missing out on tons of great bands, simply because they decide that they don't like the genre it's in. Although genres are useful as a comparisson tool, they shouldn't have any place in music appreciation.
So from now on, I urge you all not ask "what kind of music is it?" Instead, ask: "Can I listen to it?"