Can We Ever Be Genre Free?
I was thinking about music during my commute to NYC today, as I often do, and the notion of genres came to mind. When you tell someone you write music, the next question is almost always something about what genre or what kind of music you play. Music is music to me. It’s a hard question to answer. More on that in a bit.
Let me just say that I think genres are (for the most part) pretty lame. I mean, what exactly is “Americana” or “Indie” anyhow? What’s “Alternative” or “Grunge?” I’ve heard the term “Progressive” attached to anything from Todd Rundgren to Genesis to Rush to King’s X. The “Country” genre is almost anything but country these days. All you need is a little twang in your voice. It seems that as times change, new genres come and go. What was once “disco” moved on to “dance” and then eventually into things like “freestyle”, “trance” and “electronica” and what not. Before Disco, the term “dance” would have probably referred to something akin to Ballroom Dancing. Then there’s the whole “World Music” thing which I’m not sure what to make of, genre-wise.
Who can keep track of all this? The whole thing confuses the hell out of me and while I reluctantly attach a “Rock” genre to my material, you’ll definitely hear other elements in there. I guess this is the real problem I have with genre, actually. Once you’re pigeon-holed into one of those categories, the moment you stray outside of one, you might get attacked or looked at with a cocked eyebrow as if to say, “What are you trying to pull, buddy? How dare you!?”
That’s partly why, as I’m writing new songs, I’m trying to be as diverse as I possibly can. While I sit comfortably in the “Rock” genre (or some might call it “retro rock” or whatever), I stretch out into other areas as well. I don’t do this consciously, for the most part. I do it because I like many different kinds of music and they all influence me and my writing. There are times when I say, “Hmmm. I’d really like to write a reggae-influenced thing…” but this is not because I’m thinking about being pigeon-holed into a Rock genre. It’s just that old reggae-induced rock tunes by bands like The Police and early Joe Jackson influence me. It’s the kind of music I love and whatever chemicals are released into my brain that make that music attractive to me are also swimming around in my skull when I’m writing or thinking about writing something. It’s influence. It’s inspiration, and it doesn’t have to come from any given genre. It can come from anywhere, anytime.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I like to cross these so-called genres. Songs like “Tonight I Ride” and “Number Two” are a little like something the Foo Fighters might put out. I guess you’d call it “Hard Rock” or something. “Corporate Robot” has a slow funk vibe. “Hello Blue Sky” is very “Beatle-ish” for lack of a better term. “The Walking Man” and “Did You Tell Your Man” are straight up blues. Songs like “Mall Girl” and “Crackberry” are stabs at humor with a bit of Lenny Kravitz thrown in for good measure. “The Luckiest Man Alive” even has a twinge of (dare I say) country in there. If you like that 70’s classic rock thing, then “Will We All Be Friends at the End of the World?” is for you.
Future songs that I conjure will definitely keep moving against the genre grain. As I mentioned previously, the reggae-rock fusion thing has been on my mind lately. A genuine funkified Prince-like jam has been rolling around in my noggin for a few weeks now. I definitely need some more acoustic-based ditties to round out the sound. My buddy Doug and I have been talking about a larger piece that we might work on together some time. It’s a bit of a concept piece. Filling out the space in between all this are countless other songs I’ll put together when time allows. Nothing can be forced; it just has to come.
Answering that dreaded “genre” question (when people ask what kind of music you make) is sort of like when a woman asks you if she “looks fat in this outfit.” What do you say? The truth isn’t what the person wants to hear. The lie makes you feel like you’ve done a disservice, in a way. I usually default to the lesser of the two evils and say, “You know… rock stuff.” It’s sort of a non-answer and a little vague but what else can I say? “A little of everything” might work. I don’t know. I despise that word eclectic for some reason. There are too many C’s in that damn word and it just seems overused to me when referring to people’s taste in music. It’s become the standard answer these days. “I have eclectic taste.” That’s actually a good thing but I can’t stop myself from thinking that most of the time when people say this, they’re really just full of shit and listen to top 40 radio all day mistakenly thinking that it’s eclectic because it goes from the latest Rap artist with a hyphenated name to some pop chick that plays piano.
I suppose the big problem I have with the whole thing is that people feel you “have to” fall into some predefined genre to be legit at all. I don’t agree. Where does someone like Prince fall? Is he Rock? R&B? Funk? Easy Listening? Soul? One of the things that initially drew me to Prince (and this was before Purple Rain, kids) was that he was so diverse. 1999 and Controversy were my first two Prince records and they were both heavy in funk but rich enough to include many other styles of music. That was something I could wrap my head around, even as an early teen.
I suppose genres can be helpful for some people and there’s really no way to avoid them entirely. Hell, I’ve utilized them in this very article numerous times, making myself sound hypocritical in a way. I worked in record stores for years and sure, it’s nice to know all the “classical” stuff is “over there” somewhere. I don’t know how many times a day I was asked, “Where’s the _____ section?” People are used to genres. They like to browse by genre. Maybe by doing that, they’ll discover something else they like. That’s cool. I guess it’s all in the context.
Books and other media can also be applied to this line of reasoning. Stephen King is known as a “horror” writer. What is horror, though? In film, you think of Freddy and Jason ripping limbs off terrified kids and slashing their way through 2 hours, which is very fun! King does not write like this (most of the time) and he’s written well outside the “horror” genre, so to speak. I’m not a betting man and I don’t know Stephen King at all, but I’m guessing he’s not thrilled (no pun intended) about being called a “horror” guy all the time.
I will not condemn genres. They just don’t interest me anymore and I certainly don’t want to be dropped into one. But it’s unavoidable, I suppose. People like to throw labels on everything. It’s human nature. We even do it to each other. Black, white, gay, straight, asian, indian, redneck, etc. I’m just as guilty in that aspect but it’s so hard to break out of that habit when you’ve grown up with it in your face every day. I’m not talking about racism, here. I’m just talking about how people tend to put people or things into categories, which can sometimes be different. Don’t misread me. I’m simply making an analogy.
Wouldn’t it be nice to all be known as just human beings? Yes, that would be very nice! Will it happen? Probably not. But it’s nice to think about, isn’t it?