A Band By Any Other Genre …

As musical genres become more fragmented, is it time to give them up completely?

Feb 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm
click to enlarge DJ/rapper Madlib diggin' for Jazz
DJ/rapper Madlib diggin' for Jazz

Depending on how specific you get with your generalizing, genres can be vague or finite. Generally speaking, one cannot be “in a relationship.” That relationship must be defined. Casual or serious?  Straight or homosexual? Open or monogamous? Films are Rom Coms, Thriller or Family. Nothing, though, has been more categorized than music.
Metal is no longer just Metal. It is Death Metal, Post-Metal, Heavy Metal, Black Metal, Metalcore, Doom Metal. A band cannot simply be “Pop/Rock.” They must be, “Psychedelic Indie Folk Pop.”
What is “Pop,” anyway? Wasn’t “Pop” short for “popular?” If a band is truly “Indie” (i.e. independent from a record label), it’s probably not getting much air time. How is it popular? Today “Pop” means “fun, light-hearted” and “Indie” might suggest “mellow” or “artsy.” But, if “Pop” means fun and your Aunt Flo really gets a kick out of Chris Botti, wouldn’t that make him Pop? I can’t imagine that the King of Pop, MJ, would be OK with that.
What about musicians like Jamie Cullum? The kid plays a mean piano … it’s pretty jazzy. But he covers Radiohead and Rihanna. Why only file him under Jazz?
Genres can both help and hinder the expansion of a band’s listener base. In a previous post, a reader denounced my description of The Punch Brothers as Bluegrass. It wasn’t perfect, but it was intentional. To say, “They experiment with traditional Bluegrass instruments” might scare off some loyal Bluegrass listeners who have (somehow) missed The Punch Brothers. Humans are creatures of habit and “experiment” suggests the exact opposite. So, you tell them to listen to “Rye Whiskey.” That’s Bluegrass. They’ll like it.  They’ll buy the album, take it home and give it a whirl. At first “Rye Whiskey” will get the most plays, but as they busy themselves with dishes, bills and laundry, the album will carry on until the end. They’ll hear other songs that catch their interest. They’ll become a fan of the band, not just the song or the genre.
As bands become less describable and more eclectic, what would happen were we to do away with the genres completely? Forget splitting up bands and musicians into their vague or distinct genres, just throw them all together and alphabetize them.  Assuming they carry the artist you’re looking for, you’ll still find the album at the record store eventually, right?  (Honestly, it might save you the hassle of looking for The Clash only to find some idiot electronics guy filed it under Pop.)
If genres ceased to exist, what would happen to awards show categories? Billboard charts? Radio stations?
To begin with, award shows would be a lot shorter. Instead of “Best Rock Performance” or “Best Pop Song,” can other, perhaps more meaningful, awards to be given? You could do the best of solo artists and groups. Or you could throw in things like, “Most Digitally Popular” and base it on YouTube and Spotify listens.  How many bands spent their entire year touring and selling out venues across the globe?  What about if “Best Solo/Group Performance” awards went to the musicians who sold out the most shows to the most fans? Would having less awards be a crime? Does Lady Gaga really need another trophy for someone to polish? Probably not.
What about radio? The first time I was in the mood for some Country and someone threw some Kanye into the mix, I know I’d immediately regret the genre ban. I’d be equally flummoxed if I were in the mood for Rock and Sugarland popped on after Nirvana. Without genres, we can’t have radio stations that specialize in generalizing our music. That change might open a few minds to some new music.
In the long run, though, we like to compartmentalize things.
Banning genres would also negate nearly half of the Billboard charts.  On the surface, this seems like an excellent idea, but we’d run into issues with smaller artists. There are certain acts that will never break into the overall Top 200. They may, however, do well on the World chart or the Independent chart. In a genre-less world, those bands would have to fight even harder for accolades and fans.
To quote Steve Carell (incorrectly) quoting John Lennon. “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not.”
I had big dreams of banishing genres. But they just aren’t practical. As sick as I may be of the ever-more-obscure labels and subgenres bands put on themselves, they’re a necessary evil.  Music has, for a long time, been a very segregated art. As bands try to clearly define themselves with new labels, all they’re doing is breaking down the walls finite genres can create and bringing in new, diverse fans. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Besides, three-hour award shows aren’t really that horrendous.  I’ll sit through a million Taylor Swifts if it means I get to see Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl rock out to “Golden Slumbers.”
*Jim Pelz from the local group Hickory Robot was kind enough to answer a few of my long-winded questions about a musician’s view of genres. This blog would have come to a very different conclusion without him. Check out his band. We call it Bluegrass, even if he doesn’t.