On The Futility of Genres

OK, confession time. After seeing this admission, you might decide to stop reading, thinking that I’m a little odd (and in that you’d probably be right). It’s my hope that some of you will be kindred spirits. Here goes:

After purchasing digital music from iTunes or Amazon, the very first thing I do, even before my first listen, is to right-click on the downloaded files and delete the genres that have been assigned to them. I do the same thing when ripping a CD; my first move, after CD details have been acquired from Gracenote or some other media identification service, is to delete the genre information.

There, I’ve admitted it. Is that weird? Do you do something similar?

In my case, this behaviour stems from early frustrations with digital music purchases. I would buy some Tangerine Dream and would be baffled by its classification as ‘Dance Music’, or I would download some classic Mike Oldfield and be astounded to see it labelled ‘New Age’. Besides such obvious travesties, I’ve downloaded many tracks where there is genuine ambiguity: a track labelled ‘Pop’ that I would tend to think of as ‘Rock’, or vice versa.

Just what is the difference between ‘Pop’ and ‘Rock’, anyway? I’ve never been clear on that; indeed, I no longer think it is possible to be completely clear on that.

The Amazon/iTunes model of music classification would have us believe that genres are an orderly array of rigid boxes, into which any given piece of music can be neatly placed. As prog fans we know better than anyone how flawed this model is. The boxes, such as they are, are not rigid. Their boundaries are fuzzy, very fuzzy – and these ill-defined boundary zones are precisely where the most interesting and rewarding music is to be found!

It is a familiar problem for any prog fan. Prog, with its tendency towards experimentalism and the effort it makes to draw upon many influences, invariably seems to lie at the intersection of some weird multi-dimensional Venn diagram of genres. And that point of intersection is difficult to pin down, as if a musical version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle were at work, affecting our observations. The easy way out is just to define prog as its own genre and abandon any attempt to relate it to anything else – but that’s a question I shall explore in another blog post!

In my more facetious moments, I often think that there are only three meaningful genres of music: stuff you like, stuff you don’t like and stuff you haven’t heard yet. Or perhaps Tim Hall (@Kalyr) had it right when he suggested on Twitter and his blog that genres should be regarded as recipe ingredients rather than pigeonholes.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but for now I’m going to keep on deleting.

8 thoughts on “On The Futility of Genres

  1. Dave Howarth

    I don’t change or delete the actual genres from iTunes but when I’m asked what genre of music I like I say my collection is all under one genre ‘eclectica’ covering anything from lo-fi alt country through 60’s psychedelia to vintage and new prog. Nice blog by the way.

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  2. carleolson

    Great post! This is perfect: “In my more facetious moments, I often think that there are only three meaningful genres of music: stuff you like, stuff you don’t like and stuff you haven’t heard yet.” That’s not facetious at all. A variation I’ve heard is “good music, bad music, and undiscovered music”. Exactly right. I don’t usually delete the genre tags, but I sometimes change them.

    As for the whole issue of genres, Elijah Wald’s fine book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (Oxford, 2009) does a nice job showing how genres are rooted in the commercialization and marketing of music, which led to a lamentable decrease in cross-pollination of styles, ideas, motifs, etc. Prog has always sought to cross-pollinate, integrate, and synthesize, and so it goes contrary to the categorical commercialism of the music industry.

    This, by the way, is one reason I see many similarities between prog and jazz: sure, they can be named, but trying to define, well, that’s another thing. So when I hear people say, “I don’t like jazz”, my first response is, “Define ‘jazz’ for me.” They can’t do it. What they are really saying is, “I don’t like Kenny G’s music”, or, “I can’t stand late Coltrane”. Fair enough, but you might as well say, “I don’t like food!” because you don’t like broccoli, or shrimp, or “sliders”.

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    1. Carl,
      I would love to read some posts from you on the influence of jazz on prog, and vice versa. Just this morning I was thinking about how influential and prescient Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” was.

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  3. Is it really futile to try and relate something new that you hear to something old that you know? To me, there is great pleasure in discerning influences from, and enjoying variations on, old songs and artists whenever I hear them in new songs and artists.

    I would even venture that we have stumbled across a working definition of prog, which can also be related to its Latin etymology:
    prog is a “stepping forth” that aims to explore “worlds within worlds”, i.e., the “genres within genres”…

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  4. Nick, fantastic piece. I knew something was deeply wrong and more than a little troubling when I once hit “genius” on iTunes while listening to a Seal song. The resulting “genius” list featured only three performers in its 25 song list. All three of the artists had one thing in common–they all, at some point in their histories, had ancestors from Africa. Sheesh, nothing like Apple promoting race as a category! I’ve tried to avoid genius and its genres since then.

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  5. Julie Robison

    I change the labels too! Or, I’m trying too. It’s frustrating to see the same band (different albums) placed under “alternative rock” and “rock” — what?! Nondescript, lacking in pizzazz (or prog, same difference!).

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