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.