Column: A less descriptive description

“I just heard this great new band, you’ve got to hear them.”

“Yeah, what are they like?”

“Well they’re a mix between rock, bluegrass, blues and some of their stuff is really jazzy.”

What does that mean? Really, what does it mean? I know what it is trying to describe, but does it really accomplish anything?

Yet this is inevitably how most people, myself included, will describe a new band. We rattle off a list of four or five musical genres to try and paint a picture of a band that plays a type music most people have never heard before.

The fact is that there are so many “descriptive genres” that any attempt at description merely devolves into a confusing mess.

Genres harm music for two reasons. First of all, so many different types of music now influence musicians that genres have become obsolete and actually make describing a band or song even harder. Granted, musical genres are extremely helpful for organizing the music section in Borders, but that’s about it.

Moreover, because there is so much “crossing over,” when it comes to an actual description, these genres simply muddy the water. Genres are supposed to serve as categories, but most current bands belong in multiple categories, or even new ones altogether.

Second, categorizing music has become so subjective that the genres themselves have become meaningless.

Can anyone tell me the difference between an acoustic song about pain and suffering by, say, Dave Matthews and an “Emo” record? The fact is that they are both just a guy whining into a microphone (albeit really talented and harmonic whining).

Take the genre “jam” or “jam band,” i.e. Phish or Dave Matthews Band. What does it mean? Does it mean they jam? If it does mean they jam, then all that tells us is that they like to play long, improvisational sets. Just like jazz or bebop or blues.

Granted, when someone says “jam” we pretty much know what the person is talking about, but that isn’t because of any sort of descriptive value. It’s because we are comparing one band to another. Our thought process pretty much goes like this: I know Phish is a jam band and these guys sort of sound like Phish. So I guess they must be a ‘jam band.’

What about rock? The first rock n’ roll single was Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock around the Clock,” which sounds nothing like the Rolling Stones, which sounds nothing like Nickleback. Is Incubus a rock band? They do use hip-hop beats, but can we look past that and just say they play rock? What about The Strokes? They have got to be a rock band. But they sound a lot like The Ramones, who were definitely a punk band. Look at Sublime. They play “Surf Rock”, mixing rock and reggae. Hold on though. Sometimes it is just acoustic stuff which sounds eerily familiar to folk, which sounds like some Dave Matthews stuff, which I thought was suppose to be jam.

Confused yet?

If not, then you are smarter than I and this probably isn’t interesting anyway.

Whether or not music has learned to “cross over” into different styles, or our generation with our Palms (to organize our lives) and our iTunes (to organize our music) has become so anal retentive that we need to organize everything, doesn’t matter. Putting music into genres does not help to actually describe the music. Music is not something that can be described through words; it has to be heard. Take Tim McGraw and Johnny Cash: two musicians, same genre, very different styles. But this essential difference is not distinguished by the word “country.”

So what do we do? We inevitably make up more genres or combine the ones we already have to articulate the difference. This simply serves to either make the description more confusing, or since we’ve made up more genres, the categories themselves become increasingly meaningless.

My solution is we stick with two genres: good and bad.

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