Music Genres Out of Control

Slice of a Music Genres Map

I’ve been into music for as long as I can remember. In my youth, I spent more time memorizing the names of the members of Aerosmith than I did memorizing the names of the presidents in History class. That would come back to bite me later, but let’s just say I really loved music (and I could draw the Van Halen logo better than most art students, but again, focus with me here). Let’s just say I really loved music. I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering what kind of music, because anytime someone says they like music, the natural question is "what kind?" That’s a good question.

Twenty or thirty years ago, that was an easy question to answer because although it was more convoluted than it was twenty or thirty years prior, the way genres were defined was pretty simple. There was rock. Disco. R&B. Soul. Folk. Alternative. Heavy Metal. Top 40. Pop. Rap, to an extent. Punk. Oldies. Sometimes people would use less common labels like Progressive or Psychedelic. The labels that were used were generally simple yet descriptive. You knew, for example, that when someone said that Iron Maiden was a Heavy Metal band, what kind of music Iron Maiden created.

I swear to Gorto to the God of Cheese, I am not the type of person who thinks that the old ways were always better. I don’t lament that things aren’t the way they used to be simply because everything from the past is better than anything from the present.

That said, the way music is classified now is absolutely retarded compared to the way music was classified when I was growing up – and I’m only 32, so I’m not playing the "when I was your age" game here. I know that in the preceding paragraphs I perhaps oversimplified the list of genres because going from memory and personal experience can be a little off-kilter.

Do me a favor though. If you were alive in the 1980’s or 1970’s or earlier, think back to how you remember music being classified. I’ll bet my assessment isn’t that far off. Now do me another favor. Head over to Rhapsody and take a gander at their classification system. At first glance, all looks well. They’ve got 19 classifications and they all make sense. It’s pretty much what I listed earlier, right? Generally? Close enough?

Let’s look at the Alternative/Punk category. Unlike the Rock/Pop mashup, this combination of styles makes sense (because Black Sabbath and Britney Spears should never be under the same heading). What is punk if not alternative? Alternative/Punk gets broken down by Rhapsody into sub-genres. Eighteen sub-genres. Can someone explain what "Brit Pop" is supposed to be? How about "Electropop?" My favorite is "Dream Pop", and that gets broken down into three additional sub-genres: "shoegazer", "slowcore" and "space rock". Really, is Mazzy Star so far removed from The Verve that they should be in different genres? How "sub" should they go? Before long, each artist will inhabit his own sub-genre, and when you’re asked what style of music Jimmy Eat World is, you’ll have to answer "Jimmy Eat World".

Rhapsody has approximately 500 classifications for audio. That’s insane.

Each of the 19 main classifications is broken down into sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, and sometime sub-sub-sub genres. Each of the main genres is broken down into at least a few sub-genres, some going as far as two layers deep, a few going as far as four layers deep. All in all, Rhapsody has approximately 500 unique classifications for audio, according to a RealNetworks employee I asked. That’s insane. Rhapsody isn’t alone. Napster, iTunes, and the rest all do their best to classify music to the Nth degree. My question is "why?" Why must music be so compartmentalized? Neil Young, Stephen Stills and David Crosby are listed individually as Country Rock, but throw in Graham Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gets listed as a Classic Rock band. Isn’t Neil Young considered Classic Rock? Of course he is! That simply points out that these ultra-compartmentalized websites and services are trying too hard to pin everyone down into very narrow categories.

I also think that we need to go back to defining "alternative" as "music that doesn’t get played on anything but college radio and indie radio stations" because that’s what it’s supposed to mean. It’s supposed to be the alternative to the mainstream. I know that’s asking too much, though. I think any station that calls itself "Real Rock Alternative" or "The Alternative Rock Station" should be barred from playing anything that gets played on any other station on the dial. Wouldn’t that make sense? No more Nickelback, no more All-American Rejects, no more Linkin Park, U2, Coldplay, or R.E.M. (post-Green that is). Those are all very mainstream artists, after all. If you want to be alternative, be alternative. Actually, the ban on Nickelback might be a good idea regardless, for every station.

Curious what Rhapsody classifies R.E.M. as?

Jangle Pop, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

You know who else they call "Jangle Pop?" The Smiths.

They’ve got about as much in common as Babe Ruth and George W. Bush. Just as Ruth and Bush are both humans, R.E.M. and The Smiths both play music. That’s about as close as you can get.

Then again, I have to believe that conversations like this happen on a regular basis:

Bob: "Hey, Tom, have you ever heard of an artist called Moby?"

Tom: "Oh sure, I like his stuff."

Bob: "I’ve heard the name but I don’t know anything about him. What kind of music does he make?"

Tom: "He’s Ambient Techno."

Bob: "He’s… what? Is that like Dance music?"

Tom: "No, that’s a whole different thing."

Bob: "So, people don’t dance to Moby? I thought he was popular in clubs".

Tom: "Yeah, but he’s Ambient Techno. It’s not quite like Euro Techno, closer to Detroit Techno, but maybe a little bit like Minimal, but not exactly. It’s what Moby is."

Bob: "Get the hell away from me."

I’m not advocating a "return to the old ways", or some such nonsense. I’m not arguing that we should only have a small handful of categories to throw all the artists into. What I’m arguing is that it’s completely unneccessary and counterproductive to have hundreds of mini-genres that are so finely defined that they no longer have much meaning.

How much do you think is enough?

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