Genres: What are they good for anyway?

So, yesterday’s post on genre got me thinking: why do we bother trying to define music anyway? You might as well ask why we bother to review music.

Here’s the thing: I forget exactly how many albums are released each year, but I think the number is something like 20,000. That’s an impossible number of albums to listen to – even paid music reviewers only hear up to about five albums a week (that’s 260 albums per year), because that’s realistically all you can hear and form any sort of judgement over. Assuming the reviewer listens to the album twice before writing down their thoughts, that’s 10-15 hours’ active listening per week, which is actually quite a lot, since those thoughts then have to be written down and communicated – and almost everyone writing about music is fitting it around a full time job.

Few reviewers are professional critics. Most of the music reviews you will read will be in the form of “omg dis da shiiiii”-type scrawlings on Facebook et al. The last music review you probably heard was your best friend raving about some cool album over lunch. Do they count as reviews? In a definite sense, yeah – because they’re fulfilling the role of gatekeeper, drawing your attention to the dozen or so albums out of that 20,000 that you’re actually going to like. (I’m actually pretty glad I don’t hear 260 albums a year any more, because hearing 240 bloody awful albums per year is soul-destroying.)

When we get that little nugget of joy, though, well, then we can’t help ourselves. When you’re experiencing real passion for something, it’s almost impossible to shut up about it. I was thinking yesterday how much I need to get certain people on instant messenger because I don’t have anyone to wibble away about Foetus with and I’m undoubtedly boring the pants off my other friends about it. The only way past that is to try to reel them in too, and the only way to persuade them even to listen to it is to describe it in terms they’ll understand. Even these days, when you can embed a YouTube link so people don’t even have to bother to click off the page, most people won’t bother to watch it because that’s taking up their precious time and they don’t want to be bored senseless for three minutes by music they hate. Tell me in 10 words or less why I should click on this link.

Most music is pretty easy to describe. Oasis? Three-chord pub rock Beatles-lite without a fraction of the skill or innovation. The White Stripes? Simplistic country-influenced garage-punk blues rock with no bass. Blur? To The Kinks as Oasis are to The Beatles, only with actual talent. What about genre, then? Well, that’s a shorthand way of saying sounds-like, though it doesn’t have to be exact. Someone tells you that The Sex Pistols are punk, and then tells you that The Buzzcocks are also punk, you can have a fair idea of what the latter sound like, even if you haven’t heard them: it’s like speeded up rock’n’roll with off-key, shouty vocals over simplistic song structures with little in the way of demonstrated musicianship. Much as the Manic Street Preachers played the punk card, like The Clash, they were just too darned good to really fit the bill.



The people who are identified with a certain genre are very rarely the ones who invented it. Ask most people about “industrial” and they’ll point to Nine Inch Nails – maybe four generations beyond the people who made that type of music up. Why do NIN get to be the benchmark? Because they have sold over 20 million records. More people have heard NIN than pretty much every other “industrial” act combined, so if that’s a term that gets associated with them, then that’s what people understand by it. Remember: the purpose of genre is to describe to the uninitiated, so if you heard back in ’89 that NIN were “industrial” and knew that Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb were also industrial, you knew there’s a fair chance you’d like what they were doing. You’d know to look out for hard’n’heavy synth rock with melodic basslines and prolific use of samples, overlaid with aggressive vocals. You knew that there would be a cold, mechanical element to the sound – either through electronic samples, or the more literal metallic clangs associated with the progenitors of the sound.



You know if you like NIN you’ll like Skinny Puppy – Reznor himself noted how much Down In It is a rip-off of Puppy’s Dig It. You know if you like Skinny Puppy you’ll like Front Line Assembly, and vice versa – the bands have shared sonic roots as well as shared members. Of course, the further away from the benchmark act you get, the more the sound deviates. Yes, NIN’s Wish is clearly in the same genre as KMFDM’s Power, but how much does that have in common with Einstuerzende Neubauten or Throbbing Gristle? It clearly has nothing in common with the bland elevator-muzak-techno-with-bad-distorted-vocals sound associated with “industrial” these days.

So you need more than genre. Pretty Hate Machine isn’t just “industrial”, it’s “EBM synth rock with early Bowie piano-based songwriting and Queen’s catchy rawk choruses, stirred together with a delicious dollop of Prince-style funk“. The Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists isn’t mere “punk”, it’s “energetic glam-punk with poppy singalong choruses and memorable riffs in high-octane anthems of rebellion and despair, all based around Bradfield’s exhilharating metal fretwork”. That should be enough to make you consider clicking on the link, but that only works with bands that – even loosely – work within a particular area.



Most of the bands I like play fast and loose with their ascribed genre. Pink Floyd have taken in psychedelia, proto-metal, blues and jazz and electronic music, but have always been recogniseably rock. I think without exception, all the bands I like take rock music as their starting point, and that’s a pretty narrow definition of music.

If you ask most people about music in the late 20th and early 21st century, they’ll be thinking of rock music and/or pop music. They’ll start with 50s rock’n’roll, mentally plough through the Beatles and Stones, Bowie and T-Rex, Michael Jackson and Madonna … Pink Floyd, Phil Spector, Brian Eno, various incarnations of heavy metal and alternative rock, and the various styles of dance music that emerged over the 80s and 90s.

Even that is a very, very narrow definition of what’s been happening over the past 60 years.

Whenever I look at music, I feel like the Titanic. That is one pretty f***ing huge block of ice I just ran into, and I have absolutely no way of processing the information I’m being given. The thing is, I know it’s just the tip and that just below the surface is more than my brain can comprehend. I know virtually nothing about music that isn’t British or American rock. I hear snippets of music from other countries, and I’m intrigued and overwhelmed by turn. I need it to be filtered, packaged up and presented in a palatable form. The classical and experimental music written in the past … well, ever … has simply passed me by. Yes, I can hum Pachelbel’s Canon in D, but there’s an eternity of music I’ve never even heard. Even just the 20th century, my experience extends to three Bartok concerts and Kodaly’s Hary Janos, which I was fortunate enough to hear in school. I know that a lot of the music I like is informed by the theories of John Cage – I just haven’t actually heard anything he’s done.

So, knowing this – feeling that suffocation of wanting to hear everything but being blinded by the sheer glare of choice – that’s why we need to broaden our vocabularies. That’s why we need to compartmentalise things, even with imperfect grammar and words that don’t quite fit. We have to put things in small boxes for people to open or they’ll be so daunted they won’t even peek under the lid. And then they’d be missing out.

How do we describe Cardiacs? Some people say pronk – progressive punk, but that’s an odd-shaped word for a weird-shaped band. Math rock? Post rock? They’ve influenced each, but (as I noted yesterday) the only common denominator is the sheer eclecticism. They’re a product of everything they take in, which is every sound they’ve ever heard, mixed up with a metric f***-ton of hallucinogens. Me, staring at Tim’s Class C buffet in mute astonishment. Sitting on a rug in a garden in Kingston, sipping gin-and-tonic and listening to Mr Bungle. Opening a lengthy handwritten letter from Tim to cheer me from my lowest ebb. Being bundled into a van after a gig and driven to the other side of London, to witness aforementioned chemical consumption in a room full of people who talked until daylight about nothing in particular, but still really enjoyed the conversation. My 21st birthday in a Camden pub, Tim standing behind me pouring cider into my open mouth – it went everywhere, of course. Cardiacs weren’t a band, they were a way of life; they didn’t have fans, they had family. Cardiacs music? That, in sonic form. The sound of pure fun, where you could never predict what would happen next. Or, ya know, post-punk progressive math rock psychedelia. Whatever: weird music with a catchy chorus.



How do we describe PIG? It’s flippant to say “Diet Foetus” – sure, the shoe fits from a distance, but the differences become apparent the closer you look. I’m sure Raymond Watts has a broad interest in classical and soundtrack stuff, and genuinely likes the jazz and blues he flirts with, but it’s pretty obviously a handful of spice to season the meat of the music, which is rock. Watts breathes rock – and to underrate his aptitude for writing rock songs is to make a grave error: his departure from KMFDM left them catastrophically impoverished. So in terms of genre, is PIG industrial rock? Sure, from a distance – if it gets you to open the box marked “Raymond Watts”, it will do.



Raymond collared me once to tell me that he’d bought VAST’s Visual Audio Sensory Theater, based solely on my review. Pride and dread congealed in my stomach; if he liked it, everything I did would be vindicated – I’d persuaded someone without hearing a note to take a chance on something they might enjoy, by describing it in enough detail for them to make a decision to hear it. If he didn’t like it, it would be a failure – I hadn’t described it well enough, or been too inaccurate for him to make a reasonable decision. The gatekeeper lets in too much of the wrong stuff; not enough of the right. You can’t trust anything I say any more. He loved it. The proudest, I think, I’ve ever been. See, that’s why we do it – why we label and compartmentalise and describe. Because otherwise, there’s not enough lifetime for us to hear it all, so we just need to know where to start.


3 comments on “Genres: What are they good for anyway?

  1. “I know that a lot of the music I like is informed by the theories of John Cage – I just haven’t actually heard anything he’s done.”

    Oh, so you HAVE heard some of his stuff then! 😉

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