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On the use of Categorizing and Labels

When I see a spade, I call it a spade - The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

[Author's note: This was tossed off in an afternoon. That's why it's an informal essay.  I can write serious essays, believe me.]

There has always been a pretty strong desire by reviewers (myself included) to categorize artists or albums in order to tidy up the music world.  But there are inherent problems with this approach, one of which is that some artists wind up encompassing some many categories that one winds up with polysyllabic nonsense that convey nothing at all, or nebulous terms like "art-rock" or "world music".  To help get to the bottom of this, let's look at why reviewers like myself use these labels, and then some of the problems that go along with this approach.

Many web sites generally lump artists into various categories in an attempt to help the reader (not yet a listener) discern the general movements in music.  This is the most basic reason that one uses categories - the category conveys what these groups have in common.  For example, try the blues.  In general one is going to expect a certain general chord progression (in a lot of cases 12-bar), a certain attitude present in not only the lyrics (something bad's happening to the author), but generally the vocals and playing as well (traditionally more gritty).  These are some of things that are implied when the term blues is applied to a artist/album.  A category is a sort of Venn diagram for a group of artists - where each artist is it's own circle what is the area where they overlap?  In other words, what do they have in common?  Here's another example - in looking at Yes and ELP - what are their similarities?  Technical precision, reliance on classical motifs and forms, pretentious/vacuous lyrics, gratuitous synthesizer use.  This forms the basis of "prog-rock".  So, in using a label for an artist the reviewer points to shared characteristics in order to inform the reader.  Similarly, this is how an artist is also marketed as well.  It's much easier for a record label to slap some designated genre on a band in attempt to capitalize on fans of that genre, plus it makes the record company's own reporting system easier.  How would one describe Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets in the 1930s?  In many cases,  labels are rather appropriate.  By definition musicians have some sort of musical background and influences.  In a lot of cases this turns up in that artist's music.  Many artists consciously stay within the boundaries of their influences.  Go back to the blues for a moment.  Modern blues artists (for the most part) are not that different from blues artists in the 1960s.  After a genre has been established other groups try to follow the rules - making sure that they also have those overlapping characteristics of the category.  Where the Nice established the pattern for "prog-rock" other groups like Kansas and Barclay James Harvest modeled themselves within the same  mold.  So, many people are consciously trying to be a certain group - a pop group, a "prog-rock" group, a blues group and so on.  In summary, labels are used to show a shared of things that artists have in common, and in some cases are consciously adopted by artists.

However, there are many problems with these categories.  What does one do with an artist that fits into multiple categories?  Welcome in the hyphen, or dash, or slash, or stroke or simply nothing at all until you wind up with an artist that is a bluesjazzprogbluegrasspop star.  Does Soft Machine fit under rock or jazz?  What happens if it's discovered that the Beatles had recorded a album of electronica?  The obvious answer is to drop the idea of artist labels and then go to individual album labels.  But then what about songs that don't fit the label?  Granted one can dismiss ELP's "Are You Ready Eddy?" as an R&B joke, but what about Billion Dollar Babies' "Mary-Ann" a perfectly normal piano ballad sung by Alice Cooper?  Move to individual song labels?  How about songs that have more than one part?  Of course this can spiral into near infinity.
In terms of rock and roll here's what I perceive to have happened.  Early on artists based themselves on earlier forms - R&B, the blues, doo-wop, folk etc.  This period one could refer to as the "cover song" period, although not too seriously.  After some cross-pollination (the Beatles adopting the Byrds folky ways on Rubber Soul comes to mind) then came psychedelia which helped prod groups out of simply continuing the old ways.  The period around 1967 was essentially a mixing of any style that happened to be on hand.  By the time it had passed the seeds for many new genres had been sown.  Returning once again to the Beatles, think about the sheer variety of musical styles that appear on the infamous White Album.  One could (and I am sure it has been done) claim that that album provided a blueprint for years to come (probably not true).   After this point, for a lot of groups new genres/categories/ways of thinking came about.  Many artists don't follow in a set pattern thinking, well we are X type of group so let's play X.  Instead they evolve, they change, they are fluid.  Think David Bowie.  The result is the mess I described in the previous paragraph.

Aside from this tenuous generalized history of rock, there exists problems with the terms themselves.  Before I chose rather concrete and large categories like "blues" and "prog-rock".  Fit "jazz" and "folk" into this as well.  But there are plenty of terms which don't mean that much by themselves.  As previously mentioned, "art-rock" seems to be something that embraces only part of the "prog-rock" philosophy, while "world music" apparently means anything that didn't derive from Europeans or Americans.  But if you aren't initiated into these terms than they don't help much.  The one I have a hard time with is "glam rock", which seems to refer more to the stage show than the music itself.  At present I can only boil it down to a playful tone and the presence of saxophone somewhere on an album.  But without a doubt the worst thing about labels is their use in the race division of music.  What does "blue-eyed soul" mean?  Evidentially that's white people sounding like they are black people.  Can a style be particular to a certain race?  I find the term "blue-eyed soul" reprehensible, but it's a mode of thinking that's hard to get out of.  When Elvis started recording it was rock and roll, was it rock and roll for the similar black artists?  Granted much of the history of popular music has been the popularization of the music of a disaffected group (a lot of times African Americans), but does this same process demand a new name for the music?  In most cases, no.  But still in America R&B is thought to be "black" while rock is generally "white", despite early White rockers base in R&B.  Thus, there are big problems with labels including potential for being overly ambiguous or even implicitly racist.

What to do then?  Certainly in some cases labels apply - those artists who are working within a well-known pre-defined frame.  But the level at which one should categorize depends on the work itself. I can feel confident writing that The Who Sings My Generation is an R&B album, and that the Beatles' "Yer Blues" is a heavy blues song.  Attempting to explain what these shared characteristics that make up a category explicitly instead of implicitly will also help.  Avoid terms that go beyond the music itself - "blue-eyed soul" and for me "glam-rock".  Categories are still useful, but thinking how a group is different than the genre is equally important (the part of the Venn diagram outside of the shared area).  In general, despite various pitfalls labels can help in describing music, but should not be ends in themselves.
 

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