Square Hole, Round Peg
I've been ripping my cds lately. It's a lot of work, but I guess I have time to do it. Haha. I'm using RealPlayer, which downloads album information so I don't have to. I am continuously amused by the genre classifications it has.
For example, it has an "Art Rock" category, into which slide Stephen Malkmus, Tom Waits, and The Faint. Take a listen to the electronic dance-punk of The Faint, followed by the insane-blues-pirate music of Tom Waits, and see if you think they would fit into the same subgenre. They do, if your subgenre is "Art Rock" and it means "We don't know what the fuck to call this stuff." Which is actually a fairly useful description. It would be perfect for Radiohead, for example, except the RealPlayer has decided that Radiohead is Brit Pop. No, really. Kid A is pop music now.
Also amusing to me was Beck, who got put in "Post-Modern Pop." Now there's a winner of a description: no description at all! Another good one is that the Dead Kennedys are "Old School Punk" while Gang of Four, who came out earlier, are classified as "Post-Punk." Richard Hell's Destiny Street, which was released in 1982, after Gang of Four's "Post-Punk," is classified as "Pre-Punk." If punk died in 1978, it died like a bad guy in a horror franchise, apparently.
Analyzing the way that genres work is one of my pastimes. I was going to say "favorite" pastimes, but while I enjoy it, most other people don't like to do it with me. This is possibly because I am annoying, or possibly because I have a very difficult time explaining how I feel about them. But while my CDs rip, I'm gonna give it a try.
At a certain level, genres obviously don't exist. All you have to do to see this is to point out bands that straddle genres, or times when genres got created. Kid A is a fantastic example of this. It gets put into a Rock/Pop category in stores, but go on. Find a "rock" song on it. The other easy way to demonstrate this is to attempt to get a definition of a genre. Sometimes, this is possible - for example, I have a superb working definition of what makes a Console/Computer RPG, and will test any game against this. But I do not think this is possible to do with music. By "working definition" for a genre I mean a description that
a) includes most/all of the music widely considered to be in that genre
b) excludes most/all of the music widely considered not to be in that genre
c) deals effectively with most/all of the music that is sometimes included in the genre
d) it can't be self-referential (use the terms of the genre itself) or exclusionarily referential (clumsy phrase, but I mean things like "music with guitars that isn't country is rock music")
A definition that manages to do this will sound sterile next to a natural definition. For example, when I run my CRPG definition* by hardcore CRPG fans, they tend to reject it out of hand. Too sterile! It doesn't fit what they think a CRPG is.
But here I am, with a definition of a genre that doesn't fit what people think the genre is, but I'm willing to argue it, even though I don't think genres "exist." This is because genres obviously do exist, at some level. I could not be writing this and expecting that everyone who reads it (both of you) if genres weren't a meaningful term. I like to look at existence in two respects, physically real and conceptually real. For example, a unicorn is physically not real, but it is conceptually real. I am amused to think that genres aren't conceptually real, but are physically real. By this, I mean that if I walk into a music store, the music will be physically divided into genres. I will find the Rolling Stones in Pop/Rock and the Roots in Rap/R&B whether I consider these distinct categories or not.
Therefore, genres do not exist as a distinct category as generally percieved or defined, but genres do exist in a pragmatic sense, as they help facilitate discussion and use of the things that they define.
Why am I spending so much time discussing genres? (money shot, here it comes . . . . )
Because words are "genres." All of 'em. When I talk about "hip-hop" I'm talking about something as meaningful and meaningless as the word "rabbit," or "freedom," or "is," or "gavagai." Because words are attempts to take something unclassifiable, human thoughts, and put it into a classifiable, but inherently crippled form.
*My definition of a CRPG is: A game in which the player controls a single unit or small group of units, small being up to roughly 10. The units encounter a series of obstacles, and the methods by which the player overcomes the obstacles affects the player's ability to overcome future obstacles. The game makes calculations for dealing with the obstacles using random numbers.