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.



Continue reading