As long as there has been art of any kind there has been ways to categorise it. Whether it be for ease of discussion, accessibility, or as a marketing technique, genres have proven themselves a useful yet problematic device for music fans and listeners. In the streaming age, where there is an incredible amount of cross-section between different musical styles, the necessity of genre as an interpretive focus warrants challenging.
Firstly, it’s important to establish the etymology behind genre names and where they usually come from: which is critics and journalists, not the musicians themselves. Sometimes the names of these genres can come from a place of negativity, as is the case for ‘shoegaze’ which was labelled as such to criticise the lifeless performance of guitarists who instead of looking up and engaging with the crowd, would be seemingly staring at their feet as they worked with the effects pedals. Other times it can come from a place of admiration, such is the case of ‘IDM’ (aka Intelligent Dance Music) which was categorised as such because it was thought of as a more cerebral form of dance music. In both cases however, the connotations evolve over time as the artists of the genre experiment with new ideas and the culture surrounding the music evolves. In the case of Shoegaze, the name has come to represent a dreamy level of introspection and focus whilst the label of IDM appears more elitist and absurd (how does one intelligently dance in the first place?)
The naming of genres thus becomes a powerful process, inflicting a meaning upon the music before it is even heard, and influencing a person’s perception of an entire body of music. Chicago Sociology professor Deena Weinstein asserts that the genre does more than simply place arbitrary categorical barriers between music, but it also “calls attention to how to hear the genre [and] what feeling is appropriate to hearing it”. The implication of this of course being that artists within the genre are placed within a creative box and when they try to break out of it they are often met with criticism and rejection by fans.
One only has to look at the criticism Bob Dylan faced and the perception of a moral controversy that he created when he started using an electric band during his performances and recordings to see the harmful and reductive trappings genre labels can have on the perception of an artist’s music. The idea that by going electric Dylan was renouncing the purer aspects of folk music was common amongst his detractors and is a notion that points to the general esteem placed upon folk music when compared to pop-music. When an artist experiments with a new sound they are taking a risk, sometimes it works and sometimes it does not, yet most of the time they are chastised by their fans for their drastic sonic departures. It’s the trapping of genre labels that create that classic fan complaint “I preferred their older stuff”- not because it was better, but because it was consistent with their perception of how a certain type of music from an artist should sound.
Yet, at the same time, we can’t fully discount genres as a cynical way to promote conservativeness and marketability in music with no other benefits. There’s also the source of pride that artists and fans find inside their genres- and within this pride is a perception of unity and belonging that speaks to the power of music to bring people together and form communities. Pride in one’s genre is also useful for emerging styles of music, sometimes situated in a specific place. This is the case for successful grime rapper and pioneer Wiley who, consistently throughout last years ‘Godfather’ album cites the genre as a source of pride for what he has worked for in his stylistic developments. This kind of pride develops the scene and tunes onlookers onto a new musical movement worth getting excited about.
Additionally, genre can be quite a useful reading strategy for the music fan looking to get into different kinds of music. Say if you wanted to learn more about how rock instruments can be used to explore textures in different ways then hell yeah check out those post-rock lists. Yet where the usefulness of genre names fall apart is its ability to cover preferences for music taste or, you know, to actually describe what the music is.
In the future I’d hope that when discussing genre people will start to consider where the name comes from and how it undoubtedly influences their perception of the music. Added to that, the age old question of “what type of music do you like?” should be replaced with more specific questions such as “what are your favourite artists” because these days there’s barely a person I know who has enough time and motivation to ignore all the good tunes coming in from all the different genres.