By The Landlord
"I think this whole division between the genres has more to do with marketing than anything else. It's terrible for the culture of music." – Tom Waits
"Funk could very easily be called jazz, but you call it funk. Does that really matter? People dig that they associate themselves with certain genres, but the genres to me are made-up things, like an imaginary world." – Kamasi Washington
"I hate the idea of genres." – Billie Eilish
We all want to escape labels, but yet like to hang them on others. Categories, terms of reference, genre definitions, identity tags, in whatever form they come, are useful forms of reference. "What kind of music do you like?" is possibly the worst question anyone can fire at me, but if I'm called upon to define what kind of music something is, I reach for a variety of adjectives and nouns in an instant. But no artist really wants labels. As Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys titled their debut album, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not".
Perhaps this was inspired by the great northern hero Arthur Seaton, from Saturday Night And Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, played in the film (1960) by the wonderful Albert Finney, who sadly passed away recently. RIP, Albert. “I'm me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me.”
Yet record shops, record companies and radio stations love genres. It shapes a brand they can sell. And it is partly how the brain works. If you're a shapeshifter, a chimera, a mystery, a strange mixture of different qualities, it's the best way to be, but it can also be the most challenging at school and beyond. We're encouraged to offer a hook for others to put their coat on, and fit in. That ultimate shape-shifter, David Bowie, took a long time to find his breakthrough identity, Ziggy Stardust, before dramatically killing it off and moving on to something else. Before then he spent several years wanting to be a comedy vaudeville-type singer, in the mould of Anthony Newley, but with a 'cockney' twist but it was a flop.
Not everyone uses genres. I once had a girlfriend who had a pile of cassette tapes labelled only as 'Music'. I was flabbergasted at her utter disregard for, or even knowledge or any reference term - she didn't even know the names of artists or bands she liked. And yet I was fascinated, in secret admiration and slightly amazed by her languid, carefree perception of 'stuff'.
It was in stark contrast to a later college friend who was some form of ranting, muttering, tortured twitching genius. He had a photographic memory, but on any taped cassette he made, including ones for me, he inserted a folded-up piece of A4, on either side was crammed with minuscule handwriting with a detailed rundown of every element of every song, not only terms of structure, genres and sub-genres but also all personnel. His favourite artist was Miles Davis, listing every player in the band on every track, as well as other tiny detail.
While some performers could be admired for being the purest classical artist, the most elevated of jazz or funk player or the most punk of punk rock stars, this week we're looking for the opposite. So the challenge is to dig out music and artists who defy definition via genre, and to push the music envelope, and ideally find stuff that has yet to grace our vaults, and when nominating, also try to define what it is. Newer, or never before mentioned artists are especially welcome.
What defies a genre, but also what defines it? Clearly the most obvious method is to undermine or mix up genres into a non-discernible hybrid or cross-pollination. One way to do this, with no lack of skill, and yet perhaps a some amount of cheating, is to create a mashup. And yet while mixing the theme from Grange Hill with Slipknot with Shirley Temple doing The Good Ship Lollipop with Vivaldi and a few dance loops might be fun, is it really genre-defying? Perhaps we're really only looking for original music.
Certain kinds of music have spawned hundreds of sub-genres. These may well come into play this week, but new combinations would be even better. So let's also have a discussion about reference terms that we like or dislike. Alt- seem to appear in the late-90s, for example, as a catch-all prefix for any music that was a bit like an established genre, but not. Alt-country, alt-rock, alt-folk, anyone? Or lo-fi for anything that mixes with more acoustic instruments? What does this really mean, and does it really capture Lambchop anymore, who have now gone a bit alt-electronica? Or folktronica? Is experimental a real term, or a nebulous phrase? It will certainly come in handy this week on all forms of the avant-garde, from musique concrète to drone and noise genres, if that’s what they are.
Perhaps another genre-mixing and genre-defying cross-categorisation can come from from mixing with different cultures, such as from Asian, Africa or Arabic countries. Bangra rock? Palm-wine prog? Igbo rap? Rara tech? J-pop, P-pop or K-pop? Kawaii metal or gamelan folk?
Another genre pattern is to add in place names to give a flavour of culture. So while conventionally there is Texas country or St. Louis or Delta blues, or Memphis soul, could there also be other place names to indicate style, or where a genre was created or adopted? Chicago house? Northern soul? Scandi jazz?
Sub-genres have spawned at a rapid rate in the last few decades, and perhaps the two most inventive, at least in marketing drive, is pop, dance, hip hop and electronica, almost to a point of absurdity. Christian pop? Operatic pop? Vispop? Crunkcore? Chopper rap? Mumble rap? Cloud rap? Chap hop? Electrohouse? Hard house? Witch house? Balearic trance? Electroclash? Chillstep? Trapstep? Monk hop? Space rock? Synth pop? Psych pop? Skwee and splatune? They are all a thing.
"Dance music is like a virus: it has affected so many different genres," said Avicii, aka Tim Bergling, the Swedish electronic and dance music DJ and producer, who tragically killed himself last year for reasons far more serious than genre-splitting.
But let's hope our genre-defying music can not drive us to destruction, but be fascinatingly creative. And here, as ever, a crowd of visitors have come to the Bar to add more perspective to this topic. Some like genres, others, as we've already seen, hate them.
Here's David Byrne: "I certainly agree that putting everything into little genres is counterproductive. You're not going to get too many surprises if you only focus on the stuff that fits inside the box that you know."
And his sometime collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto agrees. "The global view of cultures is part of my nature. I want to break down the walls between genres, categories, or cultures."
Damon Albarn, a serial collaborator with all kinds of artists, is now here to explain why he created Gorillaz, and to escape marketing restrictions. "The cartoon is a metaphor really for the fact that it's almost impossible in our celebrity obsessed culture to move around genres and sort of change you ideas, change your face."
Constantly travelling to do talks as well as perform, Public Enemy's Chuck D always has intelligent things to say, here on the formation of hip-hop: "Hip-hop is a part of rock & roll because it comes from DJ culture. DJ culture is the embodiment of all genres and all recorded music, if you actually pay attention to it." Flavor Flav agrees. "You tell 'em, you teach 'em, Chuck! Ha ha! Boyyzz!"
Henry Rollins is now here to muscle in and highlight another area: "One of the most prevalent and undermentioned genres of music is what is known as noise. You can find it all over the world happening in basements, small venues and even some festivals. Often blown off or belittled by critics, the form for the most part goes unheard and unnoticed."
And here's that brilliant innovator Herbie Hancock, explaining his starting point. "Jazz has borrowed from other genres of music and also has lent itself to other genres of music."
"Well," says pop star Jessie J, taking no notice fo Henry or Herbie whatsoever, "I see my music as Emotional Therapeutic Pop music that bleeds into loads of different genres."
"Well, for me," says country pop star Taylor Swift, "Genres are a way for people to easily categorise music. But it doesn't have to define you. It doesn't have to limit you." Not unless the record company says otherwise.
But we don’t have to limited ourselves here, nor indeed do I, in in this intro for a genre-busting topic just to talk about music. Some other creative people are here to talk about film and books. Beck is here, but he wants to talk about movies: "Growing up, a film was an action film or it was a comedy or it was romantic, but you don't really see such stark lines between genres nowadays."
"Always changing genres, making very different films is a good idea. It's a way of making yourself feel vulnerable again, getting back to that innocence. As is working within a circumspect budget." says director Danny Boyle.
And here's the more controversial director Todd Haynes. "Films like 'The Godfather,' 'The Exorcist,' 'Klute,' 'Chinatown,' 'Network,' and 'The Parallax View': They were drawn from the genre tradition, but they dressed down the stylistic telling of those traditions and genres." So perhaps the key to all great creativity is to start off with a genre, and then subvert it.
And lastly, here are a couple of writers having a bit of a row in the corner. "I am not interested in genres. I am interested in doing the best work I can in whatever medium," says Jeanette Winterson. But Italo Calvino says "I detest this contemporary trend to destroy the traditional hierarchy of genres." And yet his work most brilliantly undermines genres in all forms!
So then, over to you with your genre-defying song and instrumental music suggestions, ideally pushing the envelope into new territory. Appearing from the Song Bar's magic lantern, this week's genie of genre-defiance and innovation is the fantastically knowledgable and nimble-minded Nilpferd! Place your nominations in comments below for deadline at 11pm on Monday UK time and he may grant your wishes with playlists published next Wednesday. Whatever they say it is, then perhaps it isn't.
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