Musical Subgenres: Friend or Foe?
Oct 2010 15

Musical Subgenres: Friend or Foe?

Posted In Blog,Entertainment,Geek,Music

by Brett Warner

Indie folk troubadour Sufjan Stevens has a new album called The Age of Adz and despite what the iTunes Store and Amazon.com will tell you, it is not “alternative rock.” The Age of Adz is a big, loud, messy electronic record with gurgling, buzzing synths and sputtering, almost glitchcore/IDM drum programming. To say it diverges from Sufjan’s previously established sound – alternately precious and pretentious acoustic pop with a predilection for Christ and state trivia – is a gross understatement that leads me to an all-too common musicologist dilemma: What type of music is this, exactly?

With the iTunes Library all but replacing the traditional wooden shelf strewn with LPs, CDs, and a stray cassette tape or too, anal-retentive music geeks find themselves in a perpetual pickle: Right click to update an album’s info and you’ve got to decide then and there what genre category this belongs to. How specific should one get? Is “80s Manchester post-punk” really necessary, or will “rock” suffice? Additionally, what do these genre and subgenre tags even mean – really? When forced to, few record collectors can really offer a distinction between, let’s say, “shoegaze” and “dream pop” or “IDM” and “glitchcore.” The intense breakdown of musical styles leads to a massive barrage of labels and movements, one that’s maddening to keep straight. Not to mention the plain fact that not all bands (certainly not the best ones) really adhere to a single sound. There’s also economics to consider – Sonic Youth and R.E.M. signed to major labels half-way into their careers, so is it a misnomer to consider them “indie” or “alternative”?

The ever-growing necessity for genre and subgenre categorization springs from the constant fracturing of the music itself. With the digitization of records old and new (and the ease of access that comes with it), bands and artists must strive at an increasing rate to distinguish themselves, to forge a (seemingly) original sound and give it a new name. So is freaking out over genre a good thing? Or were we better off in the days when “rock & roll” meant rock & roll?

If you’ve bought a CD from a big box retailer lately, you’ll attest that buying music can feel a bit like ordering a cafeteria lunch: the choices of genre are a slim few. Pop/Rock, Rap, R&B, and Country. Maybe Soundtracks if you’re lucky. The idea that Cannibal Corpse, Coldplay, and Joe Cocker would sit comfortably together is enough to drive a music fan crazy. Do these broad, all-encompassing categories ruin what makes music such a fluid, multi-faceted art form?


[Lelaina in Graf Park]

“To categorize is human,” says Michael Moore, guitarist and vocalist for the Detroit-based progressive art hard rock band Tinscribble, “It is only normal, natural and intellectual to a point to categorize things with other things that have elements in common.”

Like literature or painting, it can be beneficial to engage music on a nuanced, intellectual level. Plus, like any genre designation, specific information about the work’s content needs to be expressed. If my band is playing at your favorite bar this weekend, it might be helpful to know if we’re, let’s say, free-form jazz, alt-country, or grindcore.

“However,” Moore continues, “As an artist… I abhor categories and definitions more specific then say Rock or Classical ensemble, instrumental, etc., etc. One problem is that an artist can fit into many categories at the same time depending on how general or specific that categorical genre may be. Furthermore, the mere placement of an artist in a ‘genre’ indicates nothing of ‘quality’ of the artist.”

CinemaBlend writer Michael Fraiman adds:

“Music has become so intricate, so diverse, that music fans have become forced to be equally eclectic. And with fans only becoming more die-hard obsessed, expressive and outlandish, strict lines have to be drawn to divide them. Though they might look the same, shoegazers are not emo kids; speed-metal fans are not the same as black-metal fans; and don’t even go near the Bronx if you dare confuse gangsta rap with crunk rap.”

A friend of mine in Manhattan’s East Village lives in a nice, spacious apartment with stacks upon stacks of CDs lining the walls. Organized in only the vaguest sense, his collection is a beautifully sprawling mess. Consequently, he often finds himself buying duplicate copies of things and losing track of all but his choice favorites. Unlike my iTunes Library, his record collection is boundless and without barriers, a lawless frontier where Swans and Doves can roam free with The Monkees and Beatles. We both share an intense love for all types of music, but I suspect my friend spends less time analyzing his round, plastic purchases and more time actually listening to them.

Like most things, intense genre breakdown is a helpful tool to be used in moderation. There’s no sense in losing sleep over whether Tori Amos is “aternative pop” or “piano rock,” but at the same time, “singer/songwriter” is hardly a proper stylistic category. (Though she did go through a bit of an “electronica” phase during the late ’90s, and then there’s the more “acoustic pop”-ish Scarlet’s Walk, and Midwinter Graces can’t possibly go under any of those, it’s a Christmas record…)

Good grief – maybe the iTunes Store has the right idea.

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