Music genres do not save us from male, white, corporate oppression
Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas does not file its CD stock by genre. The name cards indicate by color code the genre in which an artist primarily performs. But they’re all stocked in the same room.
To get to the John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, you’ll need to thumb through Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello. Compilations, soundtracks, world music and classical music are sorted separately, mostly out of taxonomic necessity. (Classical music, in particular, doesn’t lend itself easily to an artist/title naming convention.)
It’s a structure that I mimic with my own collection — compilation, soundtracks and classical get their own parts of the shelf, but everything else is sorted alphabetically by artist, regardless of genre.
For a long time, I’ve ignored genre as an attribute in the music I listen to. On an instinctive level, I recognize broad categories — Emmylou Harris and Renée Fleming don’t circulate in the same circles — but I try not to use genre as criteria for judgment. If anything, I tend to favor artists who blur them.
I use a database software called Music Collector by a company called Collectorz, and until recently, I used only four genres: Popular, Classical, Compilation, Soundtrack. (Seem familiar?) I recently decided to granularize that list to include more specific genres — rock, pop, country, soul, heck, even new age — and I reminded myself why I stuck to such overly broad categories.
Genres require judgement calls, and the traditional list used in most record shops reflect the kinds of individuals who would work there — straight, white males.
Let’s take the dichotomy between rock and pop. Rock, in your traditional music critic perspective, comes from a more authentic foundation than pop, or so it’s been perceived. A lot of calculation and commerce goes into creating pop idols, and rock musicians supposedly rally against that kind of prefabrication. So what about a guy like Steve Grand? He’s got a lot of guitars and butch posturing on his debut album. What makes him closer to Nick Lachey than to Neurtral Milk Hotel?
The relationship between rock and soul is even more contentious. This categorization is entirely race-based. Are you black? You get filed under soul. Never mind that Jarell Perry sounds more like Kate Bush than OutKast ever will. And what about Res? She released an EP of Fleetwood Mac covers.
Jazz is almost reverse discrimination. Yes, there are plenty of white jazz musicians, but the black musicians in the genre outnumber them.
The very idea of world music is Western-centric. Speak a language other than English? You are automatically a world artist. Not that I hear much Asian folk influence in the pop music of Utada Hikaru. Molotov certainly incorporates Latin rhythms in their metal hip-hop, but then so does Shiina Ringo.
Yes, certain music can be clearly classified in a particular genre. But what happens when artists confound expectations? Rock music is to guitars as pop music is to synthesizers. Is Björk a pop artist because she doesn’t have guitars on her albums? She has strings, so that makes a classical artist instead? No, ultimately we file her under rock because wearing that swan dress is not a marketing-driven decision.
The exercise of using a more granular genre list made me realize I’m pretty dumb to the nuances of each genre. What determines entry to the pop category? Use of drum machines? Sales figures? Audience size?
Is Duran Duran a pop band because they’ve sold millions of records? Are they a rock band because they play their own instruments and write their own songs?
All these judgements make genres a tiring attribute to attach to music.
Tags: music discovery