The Thinking Man's Take On: Genre Definitions

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Want an exercise in futility?Try to describe TV on the Radio’s sound to someone who has never heard them.What kind of music do they play?Soulful Earthy Poet Rock?Hipster Hop mixed with Funk, Jazz, and A Cappella?The dreaded catch-all, Indie Rock?It’s tough to pin down their musical stylings – so why even bother?

Recently I’ve been doing some thinking about genres – what they mean, what purpose they serve, what we’re supposed to do with them.Essentially, I’ve been wondering about how we define genres, and what the results of those definitions could be.Or in an even more meta sense, why we define genres.As a society we have become obsessed with pigeonholing things – tagging them appropriately and specifically so that they can be indexed by search engines to find an audience.But to what end?Is it worthwhile?

Anywho, these jumbled thoughts have been bouncing in my head for a couple months now, and Jeff Lind’s recent examination of Indie Rock, published a few days ago on this very blog, inspired me to try to put it into writing. 

I’m not going to get into the weeds of trying to define specific genres, because a quick peek at the comments on Jeff’s article will tell you that that’s a slippery, contentious, messy slope.An interesting one for sure, but not the hill I want to die on.I’m more interested in the theory behind creating those genres, and what role they play in your and my music listening experience.

I guess this thread of thought was originally kicked into motion by a November feature over on Pitchfork talking about Kanye’s “Art Pop” album 808s and Heartbreak, iTunes’ Genius feature, musical niches and neighborhoods, and the commercialism of pigeonholing.The article is a little heavy on tangents and lacks a definitive purpose, but is an interesting read on how we control our music libraries, and how they control us. It concludes with a profound quote from Peter Gabriel regarding the evolution from “Freedom OF Choice” to “Freedom FROM Choice” – are genres allowing us to think less, encouraging us to stick within the known boundaries of what we like?

This is a tough path to walk down, as it’s full of diversions and distractions, so I’m going to attempt to keep the ship on course by breaking it down into the how, the why, and the aftermath of modern genre definitions.

1. How:By broad genre.  Alternative.Jazz.Hip-Hop. These are the Ray Romanos of genres - plain, unoffensive, and enjoyed by your parents.  But do they really help narrow down to a specific type of music?iTunes lists N.A.S.A., Aimee Mann, and Fall Out Boy as “Alternative”.It lists DJ Spooky, Liza Minelli, and Louis Armstrong as “Jazz”, and Steve Reid, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Timbaland as Hip Hop.At this rate, we might as well just have one genre called “Music”, classify everything under that umbrella, and stop there.

Why:Simply put, because it’s simple.As antagonistic as I am with this method, it’s hard to argue against the beauty of it.It’s like when a colleague asks you how your weekend was, or a fellow student asks how classes are going.They want you to say “It was good” or “They’re going well” and then move on with life.They don’t want to hear the minutiae of the professor’s intricate theories on primate evolution, nor do they want to know what made-for-TV-movie you watched on Sunday evening.It’s a gesture.“What kind of music do you like” is the friendly equivalent.It’s broad, it’s largely useless, but it’s benign and often perfect for the occasion.

The Aftermath:Lots of people walking around not knowing exactly what’s playing on your iPod, and a lot of stupid conversations cut off at the pass.We both like “Country” music?Great!We now have a great starting point for a solid conversation!You like “Country” music and I like “Techno”?Well, let’s move on to sports or weather.

2. How:By specific genre.  Many - including this very blog and its commenters - have gone down this path before – defining artists with genres like Lo-Fi Acoustic Folk, Indietronic Cartoon Pop, and Rugby Pneumonia Gospel Rock Drone.Although these can be descriptive – and I don’t argue that – I think they are really more of an academic exercise.

Why:These types of genres go into much more than the music, or how it is perceived by the listener.They take into account music history, recording techniques, influences, and non-musical styles at a much more profound level than generic genres.When I hear about an Indie Afro-Prep Band, I know that they probably listened to a lot of Paul Simon and Talking Heads, use guitar, bass, and drums to pump out poly-rhythms, and wear polo shirts.  (Hint: It's Vampire Weekend).When I hear about Lo-Fi Acoustic Folk, I know that the recording is grainy, unplugged, the instrumentation is likely simple and based around guitar, and if there is a dude in the group he probably has a beard.(Writer’s note:When I originally typed that, I wrote “probably has a bear” which would be even cooler).

The Aftermath:This method is really the opposite of the first technique.Defining genres broadly really allows listeners to apply bands to genres – figuring out which musical category their favorite bands fit into, and lumping them together under a single term.When defining music more specifically, we essentially flip that on its head to apply genres to bands.We take three or four terms that describe the basic aesthetic embodied by the artist and put them together with hyphens and slashes to attempt to verbally encapsulate a sonic landscape.An impossible but worthy goal.Defining genres on a narrow scope like this is for late night conversations and music classes – phrases like “IDM/Experimental Electronic” shouldn’t be used in polite company.

3. How:By spatiotemporality.

Why:Not going to lie, I wrote this down when I was brainstorming for this article.I’m pretty sure it’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written down on paper.I’m not even going to talk about this point, because I’m embarrassed.Damned Geography major.This is what you’ve given me.

The Aftermath:Shame.

4. How:By Era.  This is probably what I meant by #3.I love 80’s music.That’s a true statement.But I don’t know what “80’s Music” means.Well, I know what it colloquially means – Tommy Two-Tone, Duran Duran, and Air Supply.But that’s not the complete picture.Run DMC was in the 80s.R.E.M. and U2 were in the 80s.Why aren’t they on my Best of the 80’s 4-disc Compilation that I got for two easy payments of $17.99?

Why:This is a tough one, but I think it boils down to nostalgia.We use eras as a means to extract a feeling – a mood, a political flavor, a lifestyle – and put a soundtrack to it.We identify the 60s (all of them) with long hair and paisley, the 70s (all of them) with long hair and classic rock, the 80s (all of them) with long hair and glam metal, the 90s (all of them) with long hair and grunge – OK looks like the “Why” on this one revolves around long hair.

The Aftermath:Nothing too dangerous as a result of this one.A bunch of great 80’s dance parties, kids running around thinking the 60s were nothing but free love and smokin’ grass (fairly accurate, as far as I’m aware), and radio stations playing grunge during “90s Lunch Hour”.Not particularly descriptive and pretty lame if someone asks you what type of music you like and your only response is a decade.

5.How:By Location.  Or maybe this is what I meant by #3.Location is used to describe some musical styles – Motown, Southern Rap, and even as far back as Tin Pan Alley.This technique describes a sound, the combination of production method, instrumentation, musical technique, vocal accents, rhythms, and references.It’s the predecessor to the internet neighborhoods currently being pushed by Last.fm and iLike.

Why:Because there was a time (and still is, in some area) when geographic location caused a particular style of music to emerge.Like separated canary populations, music produced in isolation evolves differently even if it shares an ancestor, creating rifts between East Coast and West Coast rap or allowing an indie folksy scene to develop in Portland, Oregon.

The Aftermath:I can’t really critique this one, as the definition and classification of some of these genres were integral to their success and recognition.The Motown Sound is one of the most important genres in history, and it largely emanated from a single Detroit studio.The reality is that it’s tough to call attention to something new and different if you don’t know what to call it.


6. How:By elements.  Next time you’re listening to Pandora, click on the song that is automatically suggested for you.Up will pop a list of characteristics describing the song –“east coast rap roots, r&b influences, a knack for catchy hooks, thin backup vocal performance, chill rhymin', clean lyrics, lyrics that tell a story, a bumpin' kick sound, a slow moving bass line, a dry recording sound, radio friendly stylings, thin orchestration, lyrics by a famous rap artist” describes Talib Kweli’s “Ms. Hill” for example.

Why:In the words of the Music Genome Project (Pandora),

“we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like.”

This, at the most basic level, is music classification.It applies empirical and quantitative measures to something that has traditionally been thought of as subjective. But to continue the conversation examples, imagine asking someone what type of music they listen to, and having them respond: “Well, I really like a dry recording sound, thin backup vocal performance, and radio friendly stylings” or “I just can’t get enough of rock influences, percussion layers, and use of marimbas”.Yeesh, talk about over analyzing.And annoying.

The Aftermath:For some reason, more than any other genre defining method, the by elements technique is the one that creeps me out the most.Maybe it’s because it makes me feel robotic – like someone knows more about the way I’m programmed than I do.Because when I’m in the mood to listen to some Kanye West, Talib Kweli’s “Ms. Hill” is perfect.And when I’m jonesin’ for some Passion Pit, Hot Chip fits that groove quite nicely.HOW DID THEY KNOW THAT GET OUT OF MY HEAD.Seriously, though – this is creepster to the max.And yet incredibly effective.

So what does all this mean?  Basically, it means we have a ton of different ways of classifying the music we listen to, almost all of which are flawed.  I feel like Goldilocks - this porridge is too hot, this chair is too big, etc.  But really, how we define genres is highly fluid based on context - in casual conversations our methods are different than in scholarly approaches.  Our dance party themes are different from our Facebook profiles.  And that's as it should be.  Just don't get too sassy, 'cause nobody likes that.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.  He's sure some smartypants will try to define TV on the Radio in the comments.