There are entirely too many musical genres these days. Last week, as I was thumbing through some old issues of Alternative Press when I noticed the relatively popular – and entirely horrible – Ontario five-piece Silverstein described as, I shit you not, “post-screamo.”
Now, two immediate questions popped into my head once I read this horrendously contrived classification, the first being “okay, really? Are they just blatantly making shit up now?” and the second being “when the fuck did screamo end? Didn’t it just start?” Despite my anger at this once-mighty publication’s desire to make shit up rather than actually report on the band, it got me thinking about the evolution of subgenres in today’s musical culture.
As far as I’m concerned, the origin of subgenres can be traced back to the emergence of Rock ‘n Roll proper in the 1950s. Around this time, music was traditionally defined, for the most part, by the people who played it . . . or rather, the skin colour those people happened to have. As sad as it is for us to comprehend today, Jazz was predominantly played by black people and Rock n’ Roll was predominantly white and that is pretty much how the distinctions we now call musical genres took shape.
What we now know as Metal emerged in the 1970s as what many would consider to have been an offshoot of Rock n’ Roll. While this association in understandable, it’s also asinine. Yes, Metal used the same instruments and the same general band structure, but the music they were creating was remarkably different from the standard Rock band at the time. It was heavier, darker and much more technically complex; in other words, an entirely new type of music. This is ultimately where subgenres come in, which ARE different, but ultimately, not different enough.
While not the first by any means, the earliest subgenre that had any bearing on MY life is Hardcore Punk. In the mid-late 1980s, Hardcore began as an even sloppier version of Punk, which in and of itself was just a less refined and largely immature version of Rock. While it was questionable whether Punk musicians could play their instruments, it was pretty obvious that many Hardcore acts had little to no idea what they were doing. However, what they lacked in actual talent, they made up for in volume and social commentary.
While Hardcore shared Punk’s distaste of authority, they amped up the hate a thousand fold. Whereas Punk was still commercially viable, there was no way in hell any of the major record labels at the time would sign a Hardcore band and it was ultimately this fact that ended up defining the genre (it was also this fact that ended up creating the world wide independent music scene, but that’s a history lesson for the next time I don’t have anything to write about in this column). Hardcore is just one example – if I knew anything about R&B, Drum and Bass or the Blues, I could have broken those down and had my point be made just the same.
Whether or not subgenres are really a necessity or not is entirely debatable. From an industry standpoint it really doesn’t matter since, for the most part, music is marketed based on popularity and audible associations more than on the music itself. Regardless of who it actually is, it’ll be sold based on who it SOUNDS LIKE since associations, in all forms of life, are what really gets something noticed. But isn’t that the point of genre specifications? Instead of comparing one artist to another, wouldn’t it make more sense to group acts together based on their sound? Yeah well, it’s not that simple, since with most bands today it’s always “post” this or “experimental” that.
At first I thought these specifications came as a result of some dunderheaded journalist trying to sound enlightened, but then I started to realize the bands actually were referring to themselves as “Intelligent Dance Music,” “Grindcore” and “Doom Metal.” While yes, some of these artists take noticeable liberties with the established formula, it almost seems as if the ostentatious specification stems from a desire on the part of the artist to come across as unique and original. Except here’s a newsflash for all you up and comers, if you’re coming up with some incomprehensible description of yourself that no one has heard of, how the hell do you expect anyone to be interested?
As far as I’m concerned, the whole point of genres (within all forms of media, really) is to create a universal descriptive language that can be used and understood by at least a noticeable majority of people. While I by no means condone a band specifically writing music to conform to any given genre, when it comes down to describing what you do you can at least use some of the MANY established descriptions, even if it’s only to say “we sound nothing like this” (some of the best associations are made through opposition, after all). Bottom line, your originality should come from your music, not your press release.
Josh Mocle might be the Grant Morrison of music journalism (and if you get this reference you are an UBER-NERD). You can catch him spinning the best in new and newish Folk, Punk and Indie Rock on The Kids Are So-So, every Thursday between 6 and 8 p.m. on Concordia’s own CJLO Radio, 1690 on your AM dial and streaming live at cjlo.com.