Take it easy, man: A Defense of Genre

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Take it easy, man: A Defense of Genre

Philip Cosores

Philip Cosores

Philip Cosores

Philip Cosores

Niccolò Bechtler, Web Staffer

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Genre is dead, and I say “good riddance!” Or at least that’s the popular opinion.

In music journalism today, it’s regarded as an absolutely white-hot take to say that genre is a goner. Look at Medium, The Guardian, Pitchfork, even the New York Times, and you’ll find similar articles: “Death of the Music Genre,” “What Killed Genre?,” “How Can You Prevent Genre Death? Ask Your Doctor Today.” You know, that kind of thing. I even wrote about the death of genre 2 weeks ago in my column article, “The Boyband Manifesto.” The position is, essentially, that the wide-ranging access to music that services like Spotify have afforded listeners allows them to listen to music regardless of the genre confines that once ruled taste.

30 years ago, when you wanted to listen to a new album, you had to go to a record store and buy a vinyl copy, or, god forbid, a cassette tape. Now, that record would come from a section labeled by genre and have a hefty price tag stuck to it, so you’d be forgiven not to take a risk on an album from some genre you’d never tried before. Instead, you’d stick to what you knew you liked; if you’d enjoyed rock before, you bought it again. In this model, genre distinctions were kept neat and divisive by the forbidding expense of trying new things.
Today, though, there’s no more risk to listening to new music. You can pay ten bucks a month to have ad-free access to Spotify’s damn-near-infinite collection, and bounce from hip-hop to rock to ambient nature sounds to progressive house music, and no one can stop you. The possibilities are only limited by the time you can spend listening. Then, when these listeners go to make their own music, their influences are unfettered by the genre distinctions of days past, and they produce exciting new sounds that are hard to classify by genre. Out of the Spotify generation, you get an artist like Toro y Moi, whose new album Outer Peace could be funk, or hip-hop, or R&B, or maybe even soft rock. It’s hard to tell, with such eclectic influences on its sound.

This is a beautiful thing, and it’s led lots of music journalists to declare genre dead and irrelevant. The Guardian even went so far as to extrapolate on the idea, asking “who killed the music genre?” Jokingly, I guessed millennials, since they already killed just about everything else (including the horse I’m beating with this gag), but it turns out, at least according to Medium, that I’m right: “Millennials or ‘digital natives’ are the first generation to literally have the entirety of the world’s music at their fingertips,” the writer pontificates, explaining how it’s one generation’s responsibility that an entire means of classifying music is dead. Regardless of who killed genre, these articles argue, we should be happy that it’s gone. After all, all it ever did was divide listeners based on some artificial difference in musical aesthetic. We should go into our genreless future with heads held high.

And to an extent, they’re right. The new music coming out of artists with eclectic influences is inspiring, and I’m excited to see where this new generation will take us.

The problem is, genre was originally created so that we could simply describe many different types of music. This claim is so basic that it risks sounding really dumb, I know, but genre has been so politicized in music journalism that it’s important to step back and remember that it exists, first and foremost, as a tool to describe, rather than a blockade to divide.
And as a way to describe music, genre works really well. Better, actually than anything else. That’s why it’s so popular. I think there’s basically a single reason that it’s so effective: genre is a clear, objective description in a subjective world of music that’s notoriously hard to describe.

Genre levels the playing field of music description. When you go to talk about an artist’s sound, you might try to dip into your arsenal of clichés ripped from music articles; you might call a folk-rock band “earthy;”  you might call an ambient artist “ethereal” or something. But the fact is that these words mean different things to different people. You have no guarantee whatsoever that “earthy” means the same thing in your mind that it does in someone else’s. That’s why, when you want to place an exact idea of a sound in someone’s head, you turn to genre. It’s why, even in my example above, I called the “earthy” band “folk-rock:” while we have no idea what exactly “earthy” means, we’ve all agreed on what “folk-rock” is, and we have a collection of examples in our heads to back it up. When we hear the term, we imagine Simon and Garfunkel, we imagine Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty. Each genre comes built-in with a list of example artists to define it.

Genre is the closest thing we have in this subjective musical world to some kind of objective language to describe sounds. Notice how, above, I first described the folk-rock band’s genre, then described their sound with a crap adjective. That’s because, for music writers, genre is the only way of establishing a clear meaning to an artist’s sound, which description they can go on to color with fun adjectives later. But genre always comes first, for the simple reason that it keeps us all on the same page. And that’s a beautiful thing, too.
For a quick demo, imagine, for a second, the genreless world that we’re supposed to be so excited for. We’ve all come to our senses and abandoned genre distinctions, instead embracing a world where every artist is unique, and where the only tools of description we have are comparisons to other artists, and vague, subjective adjectives. You get into a new band, and you want to tell your friend about them. What do you say?

“They have good energy and they play guitars and drums.”
“Oh, like Parquet Courts?”
“No, not really. Their songs are slower and sadder and they feel, like, more, uh, deep?”
“Oh, like Nick Cave?”
“No, no, there’s, like, more to it, you know? It’s, like, swishier. Like there’s this swishy sound on all the tracks. It’s such a vibe.”
“You sure they’re not like Nick Cave?”

It’s fucking impossible to get anything done in a world without genre. This could be a 3-sentence interaction:
“I just got into this new band; they play shoegaze, but with some darker, gloomier lyrics than you usually hear.”
“Woah that sounds like such a vibe. I’ll check them out.”

Without genre, you’re left grasping at the straws of floppy adjectives that mean different things to different people, trying to place a sound into a context where each person’s context is different from your own. You can try to compare one artist to another, but by the same logic that’s supposed to destroy genre (i.e. that every artist is unique and can’t be classified), that comparison breaks down, too. A situation like this one proves that genre is an indispensable communicative tool.

I’m all for this future where genre doesn’t divide us like it used to. I want to live in a society of music lovers where everyone respects and enjoys folk and jazz fusion and funk and rock and hip-hop, and I want to be around people who monitor new releases as well as pore over deep-cuts from 40 years ago. And, god knows I’m ready for the music that all those people will make, with all its genre-bending tastiness. The future is bright, people.

But I don’t think we should be so quick to say that the blending of genres is going to obliterate them completely. That’s nearsighted, and honestly pretty fucking stupid. If we lose genre, then we lose the best language we have to communicate with other human beings the powerful individual experience of enjoying good music (or hating on bad music). A world where the only means of describing music is through flimsy, ambiguous clichés and comparisons to other artists is a pretty bleak one. It’s one where you can’t tell your friends about this terrible rapper you found on Soundcloud. It’s one where no one will ever really know why you love your favorite artists. In that way, the genreless world is a lonely place.

So let’s just say it: screw the journalists; they haven’t been halfway in touch with anything in a decade anyway. Forget their sh*t-talking and give genre a break. Because without genre, we can’t communicate, and communication is all we have. So embrace your favorite genre today, and tell it why you love it. Send your local music journalist an angry email. Tell him why he’s an idiot. Enjoy genre while you still have it. Because, you never know when millennials might really kill it, too.