“Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. And I always hated categories. Always. Never thought it had any place in music.” Miles Davis
“We’ve got to learn to stop thinking in terms of categories – “this is this and that is that”. No, there’s cross pollination all the time.” John Lydon.
‘Playlists are the new radio,’ a recent writer (Ari Herstand) confirmed. When people want to hear music of a particular genre, there’s an abundance of streamed playlists for them to choose from. In turn, artists whose music is of a specific style can target their audience. Here’s a thing, though: What if the music you make covers a variety of styles, or doesn’t fit neatly into the existing categories? Or, what if it ‘blurs’ genres to the extent that it makes categories misleading?
Playlisting by genre is convenient. From one angle it’s understandable as people want to have some sense of what they’re going to listen to. The down side to this is there’s far less sense of discovery and surprise, which is a big part of the pleasure of listening to music. We can all recall the first time we heard a certain song; part of the reason why it moved us was because we had no preconceived idea about what the style or genre was. In fact, we’d have been oblivious to those things.
It’s interesting that while the internet has given us access to a wider variety of music than ever, listening habits may be becoming more rigid. Radio stations set up to play 70s rock exclusively run the risk of disapproving listeners if they happen to slip in a track released on January 1st 1980 (at midnight).
Without wanting this to be one of those ‘it was better in the good old days’, let’s look at how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet music industry. The UK top 30/40 system was obviously limited and had its flaws; with one major radio station and tv station on offer for popular music, we were in effect ‘told’ what to listen to. Despite that, there was tremendous variety on offer. Long before ‘diversity’ became a corporate buzzword and a box to tick, you could hear a real mixture of contrasting artists one after the other. David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Kate Bush, The Police, Grace Jones, Prince. Punk, reggae, 2 Tone, post-punk, disco alongside pure pop. There was never a sense that it should be all separate.
Perhaps because of that, in Britain the blurring of musical styles by combining different elements was commonplace. Which is as it should be: History shows us that musicians combining influences of different styles of music is how we ended up with genres in the first place. In other words it’s a normal approach, without which we wouldn’t have soul/r&b, jazz, ska, reggae, hip hop and so on. Even so much that goes under the term ‘pop’ is hugely varied in its sound.
In his memoir A Cure For Gravity, the singer/songwriter Joe Jackson (whose work often cuts across genres) uses the analogy of chefs creating new dishes rather than just reproducing the same menu. Categorising of music by genre is always going to be with us, especially with the internet being as rigid as it is, but there should always be room for those artists going beyond labels.