As ever my musings arrive via a new release and in this week’s case it’s the great new track “Lovin’ on borrowed time” from Liverpool band Haarm. It’s a banger, but above all it’s not easily pigeonholed. I don’t know why I even tried but since hearing it the phrase “indie disco” has been about my best effort at summing it up. To be fair I have always been rubbish at stuffing songs into genres, I was most crap at it when I was in my own band “indie, punk, rock, rap, alternative, metal” starts to become so wordy it’s silly, nigh on pointless. Maybe knowing all the influences and ingredients in the music didn’t help.
As someone who listens to music from all over the spectrum genre doesn’t bother me too much, if you describe something as “classic pop”, “garage electronica”, “post modern jazz” or even “indie disco” then I’m going to check it out if I’ve reason to. It doesn’t mean I’ll like it, I have my safe spaces like anyone else but genre description doesn’t put me off too much. Yet we all know there’s some people who would make genre choice a hill to die on. We all know them, the rock fans who wouldn’t hear a touch of jazz, the indie fans who can’t hear a note of pop music without decrying sellouts and “it’s all the same”. Like there’s some simple dividing lines that shouldn’t, maybe even can’t, be crossed.
How do we even decide genre in the first place? Take my example from earlier, I knew where all the little bit’s came from so felt inclined to try and accommodate and include them. We weren’t playing straight up punk so we needed the rock bit, but were we more alternative? Did we need the “alt” prefix for the rock? But then we had some rap bits so “rap”? “Rap metal”? Was it more “Nu-metal”? It becomes silly, so do you just stop at a big overarching genre of “rock”?
Are we basing it on the songs or the band? Would the same song from Aerosmith get the same genre category as a song from, say, One Direction? and I mean, if they sounded exactly the same would it be more likely to attract a “rock” or “pop” tag because of the artist – even if it was a “reggae jazz” track all along?
Weirdly you can’t even categorise a band with one tag especially when they’re long liver, “Alternative / Indie” is what you’d get if you Google Radiohead but there is definitely Radiohead output that would land firmly in the “Electronic” genre, “electronic” being a broad church in and of itself. Interestingly this kind of pigeonholing can be a problem for artists and bands, whilst I’ve used Radiohead as an example above there are a lot of groups that have found it difficult to move too far away from the genre that made them.
In reality it is often a fluid, weirdly vague sense of the style that we get from this kind of classification, which is strange when you consider how it is such a lynchpin of our understanding of music. How we’d all believe we’d know pop and rock and jazz if it hits us but how a lot of this comes apart with the slightest picking at the seams. How, as mentioned above, some people can construct so much of themselves and their identity around a genre.
All in all I guess the question is, does it help? Does it bring anything to the table? Which it’s hard to argue anything other than it does, it helps have an idea of what to expect from something. Whilst I listen to a lot of stuff I’ll know that I’m more likely to have a better time with an indie album than a bubblegum pop one for example and that I might not want to try out a heavy obscure electronic album or experimental jazz when I’m not really in a decent listening space.
The key is, at least from my perspective, to not be too wedded to a genre, to a sound, try not to let it straitjacket an artist and not to let it constrain your listening horizons. As pineapple on pizza shows, mixing genres can sometimes be wonderful and to finishing butchering the Shakespeare in the post title “What’s in a genre name? That which we call a song by any other genre name would smell just as sweet”.