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19 May 2007

What's in a (genre) name? [More:] When I first got into music I loved novelty songs like 'The Monster Mash,' then oldies that I heard on the car radio. When I became a pimply adolescent, it was heavy metal and classic rock, then punk, 60's garage, blues, roots-rock...then just about everything.

During the pimply adolescent metal phase, the term 'new wave' was big and was applied to stuff like Haircut 100 and The Thompson Twins which was an anathema to me, so me and my metalhead friends declared that 'New Wave Sucks.' Which created a gulf between us and otehr music fans and kept me from listening to a lot of good music, since it was years before i learned that New Wave originally meant stuff like Elvis Costello and The Only Ones, which I like a lot and am exploring now. (feel free to reommend more in the same vein).

But I mention this to say that taxonomy of music can be a pain in the butt and in this case kept a listener from some music he would've liked. Anything similar happen to you?
I have (not purposefully, just by chance) never made much of an effort to learn about musical genres. Even with the artists I like, I rarely know what genre they're supposed to be. And I don't know a lot of artists anyway. Which all combines to make me quite musically naive, and not much of a music conversationalist.

But, it does mean that I've never rejected a recording based on genre or artist without listening to it first. I've often bought stuff based on stupid things like the fact that the cover art looks interesting, and I've found music I like that way.

It also helps that there isn't much music I don't like, at least to some level.
posted by chrismear 19 May | 09:58
I was on the other side of the coin: I listened almost exclusively to alternative music during my adolescence: lots of New Wave, local punk bands, and plenty of what would now be considered Emo, I guess.

I spent those years in Texas, where country was dominant, and the non-country market was saturated with MOR stuff that didn't appeal to me, and it didn't occur to me that there might be more to classic rock than the most popular stuff I overheard from my siblings' radios. I didn't really discover mainstream contemporary music, with the exception of Springsteen, until I was almost out of my teens.

If you're looking for alternative music from the late 70s/early 80s, you might want to take a look at this boxed set. I picked it up at my library (good library!) a couple of years ago and was yanked down the time tunnel to my youth. It's selling itself as punk, but the collection is a lot more nuanced than that suggests: Elvis Costello is there, as well as The Pretenders, X, Gang of Four, and some other acts you might not have heard of. It's a jumping-off place, anyhow.

Any suggestions cutting in the other direction?
posted by Elsa 19 May | 10:12
Well, if you like Springsteen, I'd suggest The Band, Beggar's Banquet period Stones, Highway 61 era Dylan and early 60's stuff like Gary US Bonds and Dion & the Belmonts since that's his source material.
posted by jonmc 19 May | 10:31
I'm usually of the mind that, for almost any genre, there's something in there worth listening to (and a whole bunch of crap), but once you get narrow enough, that just doesn't work any more. There are plenty of good hip-hop/rock/jazz songs/albums/artists, but once you get as fine-grained as, say, crunk/rap-rock/smooth-jazz (for example), you're a lot less assured of finding something listenable.
posted by box 19 May | 11:21
Me too, box, but I think it had to do with the fact that I encountered the term when I was a young teen and because what it was usually applied to was so inimical (and often hostile) to what i dug.
posted by jonmc 19 May | 11:27
I still haven't figured out why NuMetal was applied to both Mudvayne and Linkin Park, nor can I hear any difference between rap and hiphop. Speaking of metal, how many subgenres has that spawned? heheh
posted by mischief 19 May | 11:30
The conventional wisdom seems to be that rap refers to the music, while hip-hop refers to the broader culture (i.e., graffiti, breakdancing, DJing, list-making). Or, alternately, rap is a subset of hip-hop music, a broader genre which also includes things like turntablist records, some of which don't have any rapping at all on 'em.

And nu-metal was just a marketing hook, right? Kinda like electronica?
posted by box 19 May | 11:40
posted by mischief 19 May | 12:35
Anything called "country" I would avoid , but in the last 4 or 5 years I've been slowly opening up to music that would be called country. Starting with certain classic country songs performed by a band I already enjoyed or getting into a kind of root/folk band like the Old Crow Medicine Show a few years ago I started to see that genre in a new light. Jimmy Dale Gilmore , Guy Clark, Jerry Walker. I've been getting into Bruce Springsteen's music output strangely enough by way of his more recent folk/americana type music and I'm wanting to explore more early rock like Johnny Burnette ,Bill Haley , Charlie Feathers and the like.
posted by nola 19 May | 12:42
"It's always interesting to me that any time anyone hears something new they immediately have to categorize it or they don't feel comfortable. It's also one way not to experience something."
~ Dave Friedman

"Boxing is like jazz, the better it is, the less people appreciate it."
~ George Foreman

It took me 20 years to cotton to bebop, not only because I think it is a music that is something of an acquired taste, but because it was so heavily hyped by its adherents in the 60s and 70s, as if not "getting" bebop meant you had plebian ears. But every time I would try listen to Dizzy or Bird or Bud Powell ripping it up, it would just sound like flurries of notes, or even furies of sound, more than it did music, to me. It was literally, music that was too fast to listen to, mostly.

It took me a long time to understand why a music so dense, so incredibly energetic, so demanding of both musicians and audiences ever caught on with even the relatively small numbers of people to whom bebop ever did appeal. Even though I didn't understand the music, and was often put off by the sound of bebop, I found I was pushed back to it, again and again, by things I'd read, and people whose opinions I respected.

Like an interview with Dizzy Gillespie, where he talked about the sheer creativity of the leaders of bebop. He said something to the effect that he'd heard from a musicologist who'd made a study of several notable bebop recordings, and found that one of Charlie Parker's quintets had played more notes in a 3:30 rendition of "Shaw 'Nuff" than are in Beethoven's entire 5th Symphony. Or, as the Genius Guide to Jazz put it in an August 2001 article titled "Terror in G Sharp," "Using arpeggios of the underlying chords in his solos, not merely confining himself to the notes in and around the melodic theme, Parker seriously increased the syllable count of the paragraphs describing his playing."

I finally got hip to Parker and Gillespie et al, by doing what a lot of people did in the 60s, which was to put their 78 rpm records on at 45 or even 33 1/3, so I could get all the notes straight. It's all there, slowed down, where it should be harmonically and rythmically. But these guys were hearing it and making it up, improvising it, at double and triple and quadruple speed, 5 and 6 nights a week, for years. They'd hit a recording studio in the afternoon, put down 3 or 4 commercial recordings for 78's, and then head to a club, where they'd do 3 or 4 hour long sets of this incredible music. And unlike today's musicians, who often strive to be human jukeboxes, who are generally expected to satisfy their audiences by sounding "just like their records," the bebop guys lived an artistic ethic where playing anything the same way twice was incredibly unhip, as if you weren't smart enough to do more than replay stuff you'd already recorded. It was OK to quote yourself or others, off records, but only if that was a hint to your audience, or other musicians of where you were headed with the current riff. The ability to do that (live artistically without repeating yourself) is, I'm convinced, super human.

Bebop, especially "hard bop," is not like shred metal or other fast-for-fast-sake's music either. Bebop players prized the inciteful bon mot, the musical quip, the flipped and turned back phrase, tossed off at 300 beats a minute, effortlessly, like it was nothing, more than anything. Charlie Parker quoted phrases from Prokofiev's Scythian Suite and Bizet's Carmen in his solos. "I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar Varese," he once said on Boston radio: "The French composer. He was very nice to me. He's willing to teach me. He wants to compose something for me." This from a guy who could take an audience through 8 key changes (or a circle of 5ths) in 16 bars, and leave a smile on their faces while doing it.

And yet, Parker used to grin big, it was said, when he'd play guys like Miles Davis off the stage. Somebody once asked Gillespie why Miles Davis left the stage so often, and Dizzy said "How do I know why Miles walks off the stage? Why don't you ask him? And besides, maybe we'd all like to be like Miles, and just haven't got the guts."

But Parker died at 34, eaten up, as much by the intensity of a life that bebop expressed, as by the drugs and booze that people point to as the accepted cause of his death. Bud Powell shuffled off to an early grave, after taking a tour of madness himself. It was only guys like Davis, and Gillespie, and Getz, and Mulligan, who left bebop for other forms early on, that survived. And I think that the same energy that's still slightly reflected in the old bebop recordings is enough to burn a lot of ears that come across it, today. At 50 years remove, it still takes some courage to immerse yourself, as a listener, in bebop.

So, I don't wax too poetic about bebop to the uninitiated. It's never been music that sold well, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. It's just too demanding for the mass audience, on too many levels, much as I wish, sometimes, it wasn't. With others, I find that about 3 minutes of Bird or Diz in 2 hours, if that, is the right ratio. Kind of like how great hot sauce makes good chili.
posted by paulsc 19 May | 13:18
You put hot sauce in your chili? Infidel, only dried and ground peppers will do! Hot sauce adds too much liquid.

(Or, were you talking about mom's style chili? Then I will grant you hot sauce, but only if you don't make your own salsa or buy it fresh from a mexican grocer.)

From a rock standpoint, what you write is why I never got into what Vai and Satriani do. I do enjoy listening to the be-bop jazzers, especially when walking through the city on a sunny afternoon, so perhaps the electric element of the rock stylists is what puts me off.
posted by mischief 19 May | 13:31
I got around this by purposefully learning all I can about genre labels: Their origins, their evolution, what they've meant to different people. In a lot of ways, it's all about context. So I know that early new wave was originally considered punk, but then divereged, but I also know that by the time your friends were declaring that "new wave sucks", new wave refered almost exclusively to a specific sort of corporate produced pop. Which I happen to like rather much.

The history of 'emo' is even more convoluted and interesting.
posted by Arturus 20 May | 00:32
Speaking of emo, Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good is a pretty decent read. And, speaking of genre and subgenre and whatnot, here are a couple more reading suggestions:
Body Piercing Saved My Life, by Andrew Beaujon, about Christian alternative music
Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence, by Ronin Ro, about gangsta rap
Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, ed. by Kim Cooper and David Smay, about bubblegum, kiddie pop, etc.
Wake the Town and Tell the People, by Norman C. Stolzoff, about dancehall
Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro
And, though I haven't read Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, by Michael Veal, I hear good things about it, and I like Veal's Fela Kuti book. (And I'm leaving out a bunch of things, and I could go on all day like this.)

If anyone else has reading suggestions along these lines, I'd love to hear them. Specifically, I think I'd like to read a book about contemporary country music, and a good book about blues that isn't Escaping the Delta or Searching for Robert Johnson.
posted by box 20 May | 13:45
When I was young and full of grace, I used to say that I liked everything but country and opera. The first fault was that I didn't know how far genres extend, and the second fault I had was that I didn't realize how permeable the membranes were.

A genre is a descriptor, a short-hand. Once it's understood as a short hand coterie, it makes more sense, and cuts through the false scene allegience.
And yeah, I'm guilty of using "emo" as sarcastic shorthand, mostly because I know how much emo bands hate being called emo, but every genre is more a Mrs. Green mnemonic than a Roy G. Biv: overlapping criteria rather than strict categories. "Blues" is more handy than giving a longwinded "12-bars flattened 3rd 5th 7th, minor key, old black dude lost his woman" descriptor.

Have I let genres get in front of my enjoyment? Sure, sometimes. I'll cop to the opposite problem from Paul: bop bores me. I get in on post-bop, on fusion, on freakout skronk jazz with little instruments and avant arrangments. Charlie Parker? Yeah, technically, I can recognize his skill. Would I rather listen to him than Roland Kirk? Hell no. But there are boppers that I dig, and I realize that straying from bop keeps me from some things I might like.
I was talking to my girlfriend tonight about how a guy I'm friends with is an uncritical Latin Jazz listener, but that the genre is too broad to be helpful. Even Tito Puente is too broad— shitty smoov half the time, complex and captivating the other (the Bill Laswell conundrum).
My girlfriend thinks she doesn't like blues, but that's partly because blues is one of the most butchered genres, colonized by the comfortable and complacent in recent years, and overpopulated with BB King wank bullshit. Gimme a kickboard and 12 bars though, or Hound Dog with a slide, and it's on.

And, granted, things I don't like are just that: thins that I don't like. But is that limned generally by genre? Not since I was 17 or so.
posted by klangklangston 21 May | 00:28
Wait, The Monster Mash was a novelty song?

I think most people get stuck on every song or artist having to be part of a single genre, when almost all music (anything half-way decent anyway) can be placed across any number of genres and fit equally well in them all. Usually, it seems that whatever genre fits the most common musical style of that artist it tagged onto anything new and there it stays and people who don't like that kind of music will stay way from it. Because we like to pigeon-hole things.
posted by dg 21 May | 00:38
Major-key, minor-key, fast, slow, quiet, loud. What else is there? Consonant and dissonant?

I like my fast major-key music loud and consonant. And my favorite slow minor-key music is quiet and dissonant. Break it down to modes, maybe, or categorize it in rhythmical terms, is it swung? where's the backbeat? now we're talking music. What tone-color pallette is the composer/performer using? What various ranges are being touched, and how? (Ranges like the aforementioned loud-soft, consonant-dissonant; also things like high-low, treble-bass, sharp-muffled, sharp-flat, the list goes on). These are useful ways to describe music, unlike genres.

Take, for example, Bonnie Raitt. Jonmc says she's a blues singer. I concede that she sings the blues, but is a country singer. I suspect we're both right (though of course jonmc is more right than me, to appease the gods), but if we were to listen to some Bonnie Raitt, together or separately, and describe how her music sounds over a variety of metrics like the ones above, and refrain from saying "Sounds like [so-and-so], part of [such-and-such] genre," we would find that we mostly agree.

Of course, everyone's ear perceives music differently. Just listen to something heavily harmonized, like the Beach Boys. If you ask five people to sing the melody back after they finish listening to any given song, you'll get at least three different melodies. And it's not just notes that are heard in different ways. Some people can't hear the bass as a distinct instrument, or confuse it with the rhythm guitar, or low brass. That's where discussion of music becomes interesting -- when we differ on how something sounds and not on what something sounds like.

Alas, most music writers earn their bread and butter by making connections between tunes and tunesmiths and not by the much more difficult path of describing the music. Which makes rags like Rolling Stone unreadable, nothing more than webs of relation between what I've listened to and what I have yet to listen to. Webs that eventually fill the ear and muffle everything into genre-this, genre-that mediocrity.

I'm a gentleman first, yet versatile if necessary; I can get by with genres, but the music comes first.
posted by Hugh Janus 21 May | 08:39
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