It’s pretty standard to hear people say that pinning something down to a particular genre or label is unnecessary and counterproductive. Labels only serve to divide, not unite; they draw distinctions in art and culture where there shouldn’t be any; the only people who profit from categorisation are marketing departments and spin doctors out to make more revenue streams from a single source of creative output.
I’m all for labelling. I love labels. (Not record labels, mind you. But that’s a rant for another time.) Granted, telling one genre from another used to be a little simpler: if it had guitars and someone with big hair and makeup wailing on vocals, it was rock. If some dude was whining about how his wife left him and took the dog with her, it was country and western. If it was a busload of angry-looking men in tracksuits and basketball sneakers, it was rap. If it was Amy Grant, it was adult contemporary. Likewise with art – cubist work made it into museums, digital art was insane meth-driven printouts only nerds with expensive Silicon Graphics rigs could make, and literalist portraits were what you could readily purchase in Central Market for less than two hundred bucks a pop.
Over time, things tend to get a little more complicated. Bands don’t like being pigeonholed into as narrow a classification as just “rock” – so you have, say, indie, post-punk, math-rock, electro, death-jazz, grindcore, shoegaze, and electro all existing at the same time, to denote what a bunch of greasy-haired young adults with guitar pick and Macbeth sneaker collections do onstage and in the studio. Hip hop music has gone through the same level of fragmentation: when once you had the pretty straightforward dichotomy of mainstream vs. underground, you now have true school, new school, boom bap, grime, trap, dirty south, nerdcore, backpack, east coast revivalist, west coast resurgence, and whatever the hell A$AP Rocky tries to do. Let’s not even get into the great-grandaddy of genre fragmentation, dance music. (Amy Grant is still adult contemporary, though.)
And, really, that’s okay. There’s nothing keeping subcategories of musical and artistic expression from being complementary to one another. Differentiation from one another does not amount to discrimination against each other. Knowing which small part of a culture you contribute most to does not prohibit you from appreciating all the other parts, let alone to enrich those other areas of art. Kanye West, Skrillex Mumford & Sons and Dangermouse have made careers from mingling freely with different genres and subgenres and picking out the best (or in some cases, weirdest) bits from the sum of those parts to make something freshly recombinant. An off-box office cinematic release like Safety Not Guaranteed can sidestep Hollywood genre conventions and pull off a watchable hybrid – in this case, an indie retrokitsch sci-fi dark romantic comedy. One of my favourite websites, io9.com, is a hodgepodge of hard science (astronomy), science fiction (Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics), gadgetry (“the HTC One is so awesome, you guys”) and popular culture (“Amy Grant is a Martian prophet and we must obey her”). Besides, you don’t just call the different parts of an engine ‘engine parts’. They’re all different components of a larger whole, and you either recognize each part’s specific qualities and how they complement each other, or you risk not knowing any more about engines other than “maybe it doesn’t take unleaded.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that people who protest too much about genre distinctions are insecure about their place in their culture. Slow your roll. If you want to switch from hip hop to dubstep to electro to glitchrock to k-pop in the space of twelve months, do it without self-loathing. Own your chameleonic tendencies. It’s not like you’re moving around so much because no one likes your work in any genre, right? Right? The notion that a creative movement can only be united in purpose if it’s homogenous and free of classification and nomenclature is cowardly and naïve. The more we embrace the differences between us as a positive and progressive part of our collective culture, the better off we’ll all be. This isn’t some hackneyed 1984 situation where everybody has to be the same just to get along with each other.
Besides, I would pay good money to hear a 12th Planet remix of Amy Grant’s ‘I Will Remember You’.
Be it in writing, music, photography or social commentary, WordsManifest’s ouvre can be found in the Bargain Bin section.