We need to talk about how we describe music (and why we should probably just fudge it and frolic in eclecticism)

Don’t label me, bro. I don’t like labels. I don’t like boxes. I really don’t like dividing music into little non-genres. I’m not really one for barriers you see. It’s the unreconstructed hippie in me at a love-in, lamenting “we can be heroes, just for one day”. Surely we’d all get along better if we didn’t put such currency on difference. Or at the very least acknowledge that as we’re all distinctively different, arbitrary groupings become fairly pointless. Still, last week had me prattling on about ‘Art-Electronica’; neatly putting Troels and Thom’s music into little descriptive prisons in the process. Not cool, bro. Not cool. I owe you an explanation.

To begin; a confession. I lied. Art-Electronica isn’t really a genre, it’s more a fact. The history of which lies with the Prix Ars Electronica (an annual prize for emerging digital arts) and it’s Computer/Digital music category. A reward for Art music in Electronic form. Art-Electronica = Electronic Art Music. See what I did there? I made my own word. It was an arbitrary grouping. A convenient box. On closer inspection the label became as broad as anything and therefore didn’t really have any meaning. I’m not really too sure why I used it.

I'll show you my Art-Electronica if you show me yours.

Actually scrap that; I know exactly the reason. It was to make a point. Labels are a little bit like tribes; at once both a description of who you are and a means for you to define yourself. Like I said before, I believe that by viewing yourself as a reaction against others (e.g ‘I am’ because ‘I am different to you’) you knowingly create barriers. Obviously, these barriers can make you feel safe and secure and strong; that’s a given. We all want security and the knowledge that tomorrow will follow as today without the need for blood sacrifice. But are imagined constrictions the way to achieve this? Must we shackle our future freedoms to the choices of the past? Of course not. I will change as I grow old while my work will change as I learn my craft. So what if I start as a popular musician and then slide into classical genres, would I be hailed or vilified? To me it doesn’t matter. All work should be taken on individual merit, if it’s good it is good. Equally all music should be given equal standing; ‘Pop’ is as important as ‘Classical’ etc. The problem is that genre barriers force expectation on us that I feel is unwarranted. Too many times during my studies someone would view traditional musics (or Folk) as a lesser form than the cool refinement of western art music (or Classical). We were expected to agree because we had chosen a ‘Classical’ path.  A table-bashingly heated discussion followed; ending in a very odd argument where I found myself defending the compatibility of R. Kelly’s melodies within sonata form.

             A veritable Mozart of our times.

My classmate had imposed his lofty opinion on a man he knew nothing about. He labeled him as a lowly popular musician, unworthy of our time and unworthy of our respect purely because he was different. It’s almost always people looking in from the outside who make these judgements. Though that said, it would be childish to assume an artist isn’t capable of imposing genre strictures upon themselves, often in the name of some art or another (like electronica). That doesn’t automatically make the resulting work good. It also doesn’t make it bad, it just raises our expectations and by extension our disappointment if it fails. You see; labeling your genre in advance makes you comfortable. It makes choices easy by limiting the variables. It provides a kind of cocky confidence of the “I’m in an electronic band, I play synth” kind. It becomes an artistic balm against uncertainty; but I just can’t help but get the quivers when people shut the lid on themselves. Surely the whole point of musical expression is expression? Making that ever-changing internal tumult within us into audible form? No? Oh, just me then.

Of course, as with all things it is possible to avoid the genre question completely and emerge from the box if your will is as strong (and your kingdom is as great). My lord is David Bowie. My influence is David Bowie. We all know (probably) that he has flitted from genre to genre with varying success. Actually, come to think of it, my opinion of genres probably dates back to accepting all of Bowie’s output as good (albeit differing shades thereof). My other great inspirational pillar, Faith No More, follow a similar genre-less existence but this time with more guitars. Anyways, Bowie has made a career out of second guessing whatever you expect him to be. His canon is held together by his talent alone. It’s still distinctively Bowie; nobody sounds like him or writes melodies the way he does but his creativity is utterly unbridled. His expression is eclectic and honest and joyous. Utterly free, utterly fearless. Maybe it’s just me but when you have talent so absolute it gives you faith in what we can achieve if we ignore all the faff of definition and just enjoy creating music for the sheer joy of the thing. Bowie isn’t special, he just achieved his joyful potential.

We could all be Bowie. Or Kate Bush. Or Faith No More. Or even Mozart. We can move the foundations and influence the world; but it won’t happen without risk; without discomfort. Thom built a comfortable, perceived ‘artistically-electronic’ box around himself and his work suffered as a result. This is the danger of labels, or at least in believing that they hold any meaning. For Belief leads to distinction; distinction leads to competition; competition leads antipathy and before you know it you have succumbed to the ‘Cool’ side. This is not a good thing.

Well, for the most part.


One thought on “We need to talk about how we describe music (and why we should probably just fudge it and frolic in eclecticism)

  1. jrmanawa says:

    This is so true! Not just in music, in art generally. Needless to say, it is far better for the creative to follow their inspiration than maintain their perceived genre. As you said, it might get uncomfortable, they might fail, but Oh! What if they succeed? ^_^


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