Weird Music Wednesdays #1: Weird Genres

I recently happened upon on an internet page entitled “Lists of music genres.” It included, of course, “rock,” “pop” and “country,” but as I progressed deeper and deeper into this list of all lists, I began to pick out smaller, more obscure types.

There was “lowercase,” a style of minimalist ambient music which involves minute sounds and extended stretches of silence.

The list included “aquacrunk,” (also known as “wonky”), a short-lived electronic movement that does not involve Lil Jon in a fish tank.

And we can’t forget “complextro,” a name given to a certain approach to electro-house that inexplicably sounds a lot like the rest of electro-house.

Popular culture has developed an obsession with dividing up the musical world into arbitrary little pieces and calling them genres. What practical utility do all these genres, sub-genre, and sub-sub-genres serve?

Whether we admit it or not, genre divisions have a central role in how music is marketed to consumers. It helps define an audience. It gives consumers something to latch onto, something to look for on the CD rack at Best Buy and some order to how they organize the iTunes Store. But this technique only applies to genres with more established consumer bases — there is no such market for the likes of teutonic thrash metal. No advertising agent worth their salt will market a musician under an obscure sub-genre tag with no sticking power.

Many artists see genres as both a blessing and a curse. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an artist deny the standard genre they’ve been put in and say they want to avoid categorization and, by default, restriction. For these artists, genres form a neat palate of stylistic elements that musicians can use and borrow from as they please, often rendering the genre tag mostly useless.

The existence of genres helps us to chop up the musical world, to mentally group it and label it. It’s human nature to analyze and categorize in every area of life. It’s this attitude that lies as the root of the point-and-shoot genre classification frenzy we find ourselves in today. The Internet has accelerated this process, making it possible for bloggers and writers to christen full fledged sub-genres out of regional scenes and small movements. You may remember the “chillwave” craze in 2009 fronted by Washed Out and Neon Indian. You may also remember that nobody knew what that genre was by late 2010.

While it’s tempting to don the sorting hat and put a given artist or song in a genre bin, it is important to remember that in the real world, genres don’t really exist in the way that we think of them. They are an artificial and often inaccurate way of looking at things, and if we put too much stock in them, we may be led astray.

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