Musical Fridays: Do We Need Genres?
by Richard Southard
You know, after doing these posts for a few weeks, featuring a different genre each time, I’ve started to think about something: why are there genres to begin with? With just about every post, there has been at least one or two albums that seem to cross from another genre, or can otherwise be grouped with others despite their separate label.
But what is the real point of all these labels? I’ve heard discussions where genres are called “pointless” and serve to be more of a stereotype. While I do think stereotypes of music exist, I can’t see the genre itself to be the problem of it. It’s likely a statement made about how genres can act as labels, and therefore divisions, which goes against the idea that all music is still, well, music.
But genres can, more than anything, be a doorway. Some discuss that, while genres are unavoidable, subgenres are the terms that become overused. However, without those, the issue becomes one of generality.
Take, for instant, the genre of Rock. “Rock” is not only a very broad term for music, but it carries a particular sound to every individual. If you were to ask everyone to name a rock music artist, there’s likely to be an array of answers that include many different styles. Ask someone to name a classic rock artist, and the answers become far more similar (even though that term is, in a way, just as broad).
However, another issue with just using “rock music” can be seen if you simply google the term. The first song that appears is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
Great song, and certainly rock. What follows are tracks by Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Kingsman, Guns N’ Roses, etc. All rock, but you can see the trend here. In fact, if you were to ask most people to name a rock band (using only those words), I’m confident that most would name some sort of classic rock band. There just appears to be a form of correlation with the term “rock band” and classic rock (of course, Nirvana is often referred to as grunge, specifically).
But of course, there’s more to rock than classic styles. Take the sounds of this track: Sigur Ros – Brennistein (from Kveikur)
If someone were asking for an example of rock music, this still qualifies. The reasons as to how would lead into the subject of what rock really is, so we’ll set that aside for now. But even with both Nirvana and Sigur Ros qualifying with the same term, it’s still clear that they differ vastly from each other. That’s where Sigur Ros’ label of post rock comes in; a style of rock where guitars are often used to create different textures and timbre (rather than just rhythms).
Even if the term “post rock” isn’t very effective at describing the music, the importance with it comes from how it separates itself from a more general term. The subgenre distinguishes it from something different than Led Zeppelin or Nirvana, even before listening to it.
Because of the generality of “rock”, its one of the biggest generators of musical labels. With terms like “krautrock”, “math rock”, “industrial rock”, “acid rock”, and an ongoing list of others, it’s understandable that some would grow weary of the constant terminology. But at the very least, it gives something interesting to explore (math rock caught my curiosity, in particular).
Another genre that is relentlessly categorized is electronic, with its dozens of subgenres and styles. You can take a musical trip just by starting in one genre and then going down the different layers, until you get to terms that are so obscure that you can’t even find a track for it. For example, a search for “electronic music” shows us Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”.
A quick look at Daft Punk’s wikipedia page identifies one of their genres as house music. For those who are unfamilar, House is a style of electronic that’s characterized by synthesized basslines and repeated drum-machine beats. A result of this search includes “Can You Feel It” by Mr. Fingers.
Again, the sound is repetitive, simplistic, and rhythmic. You can also hear some of the disco influence that early house music is noted to have. But what if we wanted something more minimalistic? We then arrive at microhouse, a subgenre of house that’s focused on just that. Try Thora Vukk by Robag Wruhme.
It’s a notably different sound, and notably chill. But the rhythmic nature of house is still there, despite the different tone. But we can get to something even more distant by looking at microhouse’s “stylistic origins” (a.k.a. “it came partly from this”). One of these includes “glitch”, a style with a variety of sounds and intentional inconsistency. Autechre is an electronic duo that could probably described in many ways, but glitch is certainly one of their specialties. Try this track: “Fleure” from their album Exai. It’s a bit of a jump from house, but you can still hear a minimalist aspect to it. Therefore, you can see how microhouse would pick up from some of its ideas.
Of course, we could keep going on. If we did, we would eventually get to more outlandish genres like noise, breakbeat, chiptune, and “witch house” (whatever that is). However, I think I’ll leave the rest of the journey to you, if you choose to continue. If we can get anything from this post, it’s that genres can more than just a means of description. It can be a means of discovery, at the very least. And with that alone, I’d say that they are labels worth keeping (for the most part).
I hope you enjoyed this slightly different read. I tried to include a number of different artists as examples, in order to still give a few suggestions as usual. Not sure if I’ll continue with this sort of thing next week, but we’ll see. Until then, enjoy the music.