I’ve always had a bit of a problem separating things like music by genres. In a recent piece I wrote, I made the statement, “I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues.”* I knew when I typed it that the statement would bother some people. People have a way of strongly identifying with the art that they enjoy. Saying that I’m a Blues** fan, you’re a Country fan, and she’s a Hip-hop fan isn’t just describing what type of music we enjoy. It’s making a statement about who we are as people and that bugs me.
When I was young, I never even thought about genres. Growing up, I regularly heard my dad’s music, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Stones, etc., and my mom’s music, Simon & Garfunkle, The Beatles, Show tunes, Itzhak Perlman, etc. I heard Def Leppard and Run DMC from my older brother. And I heard Michael Jackson, Van Halen and Madonna on the radio. When I started playing an instrument, my parents got me Horn music like Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. And with all of that, it never occurred to me that any of it was separable. It was all just music. I knew that Strauss’ horn concerti sounded different than Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits, but not in any classifiable way. They were just different songs.
I’ve never managed to get over the feeling that music is just one big, inseparable thing. Unfortunately, I’ve had to learn to talk about genres in order to have conversations with other people. It started with Classical (Not that Classical is a good descriptor at all, but it is the most common word for everything from Bach to Ligeti). As I played and studied it, I was forced to wall it off into its own thing. Of course, there is no one sound or structure that all Classical music has in common. Nor is there anything that is exclusive to Classical music. Classical just became music that I might play on my horn.
Jazz was the next separate genre for me, and it was kind of the opposite of Classical. I was in pretty much every ensemble I could be in as a student, but they wouldn’t let me in the Jazz band. Apparently, the horn isn’t a Jazz instrument (I’m glad no one ever told Julius Watkins or Tom Varner that). So, Jazz became the music that I don’t play on my horn. I know that seems like an odd way of defining a genre. Most people would probably say that Jazz is music that is improvisational and swings. Except when it doesn’t swing or isn’t improvised. All I know is I resisted Jazz for the longest time because they wouldn’t let me play it, which is sad because I love it now. Whatever it is.
Things stayed this way for a long time. There were essentially three genres: stuff I played, stuff I didn’t play and everything else. It wasn’t until I started working in a record store that I had to learn everything else. If a customer wanted something, I had to know which section of the store to look in. I learned that Blues meant the artists that were shelved over near the office. And Gospel/Religious meant the artists next to that, then Country next to that. Pop/rock was on the back wall, R&B was near Rap/Hip-Hop and Reggae/World Music. Then we round that out with Jazz, Classical, Folk, New Age and Easy Listening.
I learned it for the job, but I never found the labels at all satisfactory. There’s the blatant racism in keeping all of the black artists separate from the white artists. But aside from that, genre labels just don’t give worthwhile information. If I tell you that Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy are both blues artists and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Smith are both jazz artists, I’d be correct. But that’s hugely misleading because Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong sound a lot more alike than Bessie Smith and Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Smith and Buddy Guy sound a lot more alike than Jimmy Smith and Louis Armstrong. If the genres won’t tell me what the music actually sounds like, what’s the point?
As far as I can tell, the point, as I hinted at in the beginning, is to allow people to separate themselves based on their preferred music genres. Genres seem to create little musical bubbles that people can stay in. It’s like the social media echo chamber except it predates social media and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s very claustrophobic. When I listen to music, I want to stretch my ears. I can’t do that in a bubble, no matter how big that bubble is.
So, even though I’ve had to learn all the genre labels for various reasons, I still don’t really hear them. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two types of music, good music and boring music. Any other labels just get in the way of my enjoyment.
*I know that I’m currently cataloging my record collection and splitting things by genre. The site I am using forces me to use genre labels, it won’t allow an entry without one, so it’s just the easiest way to do it. I may not like it, but sometimes I have to go with other people’s structures.
**Blues is a bit confusing because the word can be used as a genre label, which is what I’m talking about here, but it can also refer to a musical form. That form can be found across genres, from Classical to Jazz to Folk to Country and pretty much any other genre you can think of.