‘Genre’ and self-definition, and the problems they create

What follows is a confusing, almost-but-not-quite pointless ramble about classification and artistic definition in general.

Try to define ‘punk’ with no reference to the social context or the time it was created. You end up with some variation on ‘aggressive music with guitar, bass, and drums’ which is a really poor description considering it’s the same as the one for rock. But there’s a clear difference. I don’t believe systems of classification should depend on temporal removal or easily re-contextualised contexts – we’re talking about art here, and the lack of clarity and non-specific nature of genre classification does help create new things but also makes it annoying to inspect the old.

Recently, there has come into existence a digression between ‘progressive rock’ and ‘prog’ – one meaning music that pushes the boundaries of rock and the other referring to rock music from the early 1970s that made common use of the mellotron and other non-conventional instruments and time signatures – in other words, the exact same thing, but temporally removed. Musical genres, in short, have become ridiculous, and there are hundreds of stupid and strange things with names like ‘Tropical Goth’ and ‘Witch House’ music which are barely distinguishable from one another. We need to drain the swamp. We need new genres to be clearly classified, and named in ways that accurately depict their content – I’m asking whether or not it’s possible to redefine the most basic of genres.

What is ‘rock’ music? A serious take on ‘rock and roll’ – itself coming from twelve-bar blues and the combination of American instrumentation with black rhythms in the early to mid 20th century. None of that information is contained in the word ‘rock.’

I thought it may have been possible to replace genre classifications – excepting ones like ‘Baroque’ or ‘Romantic’ which refer to a type of music produced in a clearly defined period. Then I realised that the same thing will likely happen to the music of our time – it will all be classified as ’20th and early 21st century music’ later anyway, until something significant happens that changes the structures of songs or the inspiration for music entirely. It’s all a matter of framework – my complaint is that the current framework is confused, garbled, and frequently categorises songs in ways that make no sense. Tell me, in a way that communicates the difference in sound, the difference between ‘Art Rock’ ‘Symphonic Rock’ and ‘Psychedelic Rock’ – the most you can say is probably that psychedelic rock has more ambient keyboard work.

This is likely a wholly useless rant which could be disassembled by one simple argument which I haven’t yet thought of, but it led me towards a wider point (as these topics are wont to do) as I came across a small controversy on Youtube. People want to classify things by instinct, but we often do it in error, especially when it comes to ourselves.

A relatively well known ‘booktuber’ – a person on Youtube who discusses books in a small, almost self-contained community on the website – made a comment about ‘fake readers’ who only made the videos they did in a desire to be part of the community and get attention without actually enjoying reading. Of course, much of the community being made of that exact type of person (which is immediately apparent from the amount of time many of them spend talking about things that aren’t books) the Online Acceptance Army descended upon the poor booktuber with all their liberal might; being a person of principle and class, the booktuber gave absolutely no shits. Steve Donoghue continues to make videos to this day.

But he still made the same mistake that many people make, which is to define people by what they consume rather than what they do – believing that there can be such a thing as a ‘reader’ at all, I feel, is the true mistake here. Maybe such a term was useful in the Middle Ages, when the local priest was the only person who could read, and the only book he read to his local village was the Bible – but no longer. Most of the western world can read. It’s analogous to referring to oneself as a ‘breather’. Defining oneself by what media one consumes always opens the floor for criticism, simply because they might not spend much of their time doing it but want to belong to the community anyway (i.e. the booktube controversy). Or perhaps because they haven’t consumed the landmark works in that medium – perhaps they call themselves a film connoisseur but have never watched Citizen Kane, or anything by Hitchcock, for example. Better, in all cases, to define oneself by what one creates.

Stop referring to yourself as a ‘reader’ if you want to command any sort of self-respect or real class. (That goes for ‘gamer’ as well – a term I was disgusted by since I was fifteen.) “But, since we were talking about musical classification before,” you say. “What about ‘metalhead?'”

‘Metalheads’ are a subculture. Subcultures influence what you do and who you are. There’s a difference between saying ‘metalhead’ and ‘reader’. The problem with identifying yourself too strongly with something innate, something uncontrollable or commonplace, like being a reader, is that you become trapped by it and unable to really act as yourself.

Recently, I read a collection of short stories by Australian-Greek author Angelo Loukakis. Most of them were average, but there were a few standouts, including ‘Barbecue’, a story about a Greek man in Australia who has been ‘typecast’ by everyone he knows into a different role – among his friends he’s the ‘wog’, to his parents he’s the scholar, his acquaintances believe he’s the Mediterranean curiosity…he knew nothing about Orthodoxy but learned about it in a week to please his wife, etc etc. The man is essentially trapped by classification, by frameworks.

Of course, self-definition in itself is a whole other discussion, a whole other trap, a whole other mistake.

I suppose the wider point I’m making here is, don’t trust artistic or personal classifications and definitions as ironclad, especially if they’re self-made.

(When it comes to anything else, you should, obviously, because that’s how language works.)


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