Over the decades of my career in music, a strange and upsetting truth dawned on me bit by bit.
We talk a lot about this or that genre of music. Yet, when you analyze what we are talking about, it actually makes no sense at all!
Why do I say this? There are lots of reasons why genres don’t actually exist like we think they do.
A Commercial Invention
When we place music into different boxes called “genres” we are following the lead of the industry. which has decided how it wants to market its products. These marketing decisions are completely arbitrary and almost never make any artistic sense.
You may not believe me at first. This story is from long ago when the record industry was starting. “Race music” back then was what later became known as “the blues”. Back then, the only difference between a “race” artist and a “country” artist was the singer’s skin color! Companies sometimes got it wrong and destroyed artists’ careers by putting them in the wrong category. In those days, America was of course very segregated, as was the music industry. A wrongly classified artist was unable to tour. And unfortunately, in many ways, even today the trend continues. Since the early 1970s, the music industry started to segment and segregate even more.
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One Leads, Others Follow
Most of the time, a genre is “created” behind the sound of one single super innovative artist or band. This sound is then imitated by hundreds or even thousands of wanna-bes. Or at best, two or three artists are doing something similar and unique, which then gets imitated to death. Here are some of the more clear examples of this phenomenon:
-Black Sabbath invented a heavy and slow way of playing blues and R&B. People called this “heavy metal”, from the lyrics of one of their first songs (“Wall Of Sleep”). Fast forward several decades, and thousands of metal artists owe it to Black Sabbath. Some would say they also invented punk as well.
-Little Richard actually did it twice. He invented “Rock And Roll” (which back in the 1950s was simply a crude way to refer to having sex). Later on in 1959, he released a single called “On The One”, the first funk song ever. James Brown was a huge fan, and took the style as his own, and the rest is history.
-In 1992, a Panamanian group called Nando Boom released “Ellos Benia”, a Spanish remix of Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow”. This beat got copied over and over. The Dem Bow beat spawned the entire “genre” of reggaeton. This is probably the clearest example ever of a “genre” tracing back to one song. Read the whole story here.
Irrelevant And Minute Differences
That last example leads exactly into my main point. The difference between dance hall and reggaeton can is one thing only: the language! Genre differences are full of petty and musically meaningless differences like this. Here’s another example. In the son and mento styles – the language is the only real clear and concrete difference between the two.
Gospel music is marketed differently than other styles of music. Yet, what is gospel music from a musical standpoint? It’s music in various styles (blues, country, jazz, hip hop now). The difference is in the lyrics, which relate to the Christian scriptures. Musically, you 99% never play anything that you can define apart from these other styles. That’s a fact!
Defining Things By Rhythm
Also, people like to define a genre by its rhythm. There’s a big problem with this, however. For example, a tarantella, a jig, and a por corrido all have 99.9% identical rhythmic expressions. The difference between individual songs is greater than the differences between “genres”.
And this is not even to mention all the thousands of sub-genres out there. Look at the worlds of metal and EDM! I’m not saying there isn’t any difference at all between these genres. I am definitely saying though that these differences tend to be minute. They tend to have limited relevance at the practical musical level.
Styles, Not Genres
My proposal is simple. Instead of talking about genres, we should be talking about musical styles. This allows us to forget completely about false distinctions. It makes us focus on that which is concrete and empirical, especially the rhythm. It makes better sense to define a particular rhythm and label them for reference. This also applies to many chord progressions, by the way. These types of labels will be based on actual verifiable information, not on prejudice and superstition.
Geographical locations and concrete dates are also very good indicators of style. You should never allow superstition and mysticism to be a part of analyzing music! It’s better and more useful to refer to a specific place in time where a person or people made a specific style of music. This imparts valuable information on how to approach the music as a style.
I know that these ideas represent a deep shift for so many of us. As a musician, this article may have even made you mad. In any case, I hope that at least it made you think twice about some deep-seated notions that may need tweaking. As always, comments are more than welcome at the bottom; feel free to drop one!