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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Column: Genre-Jacking

You hear a sound, and you enjoy it. It doesn’t belong to the wind or the footsteps or the chatter you’re used to hearing throughout your day; it rises above them, maybe a reminder of the familiar or something entirely different. Either way, it’s made just for you. You’re listening to a song.

Of course, when we hear a song, we don’t make a conscious effort to categorize it, but we do almost immediately recognize it as something we either love or loathe. When we do step back from our enjoyment and take a moment to scrutinize the music, we find the answer in a genre, or a subgenre, or a collection of genres, all of which emphasize much-debated qualities.

The genre, in terms of music theory, is actually a very complicated tool that most of us don’t try to understand because we already assume we do. A catalogue of songs belonging to each of the genres we are aware of is buried in our subconscious so that we can use them as an identifier of the genre and add to the broken system of improper categorization.

Every so often, there’s a guy or gal who, when the question of music taste arises in normal chit-chat, replies, “I don’t like pop.”

Well, that’s absurd.

This defines the industry: categorizations used to mass-produce sounds that appeal to the most common demographic. For example, pop — literally short for popular — is used to distinguish sounds.

What this person literally means is that his or her taste in music is defined by the amount of people who listen to it. Not an unlikely scenario, but I think we’ve lost sight of something here.

“I prefer indie music.” Well, you prefer cheaper music. “I’m a big fan of singer-songwriter.” I understand, you like people who are talented enough to write and sing their own music. “I’m in an alternative band.” I have no idea what you do, but I imagine that when you fill out a multiple choice form, you always check “other.”

We use and understand genres to identify sounds, but use them interchangeably, throw them around willy-nilly without thinking how a little consideration will cause people to interpret our categorizations in an entirely different way than we intended.

It’s odd to think we can associate a sound to a genre such as indie or pop, but we do. I spent all day asking everyone I talked with to describe pop music. An overwhelming majority said it was upbeat and catchy. When asked who embodied the pop genre, many said Taylor Swift.

I was just as shocked as you.

A country singer, a singer-songwriter, a musician made famous for break-up songs is considered the poster-child for pop music?

It makes sense; her music is, in fact, popular. However, although a lot of her songs follow the pattern of the associated sounds of pop music, several of her still-popular songs don’t.

Pop, therefore, is at the very least a majorly-flawed categorization of sound. Many songs with mass appeal cover a broad range of sound styles, with overlap from many other genres. Elements from songs or whole songs falling under R&B, soul, rock, hip hop, etc. are put under the category of pop by record labels and radios and the audience, despite them skewing drastically from the sounds people identify to distinguish pop as a genre.

Indie is worse off, systematically reminding people of slower, laid-back, quieter music, while in fact encompassing absolutely every known genre of music, even pop.

Certainly, genres have the potential to categorize music and make it easier for us to find what we enjoy, but many of them are inappropriate and counterintuitive. We need categories that adhere to a sound, not to a number or a demographic of listeners and certainly not to a cost of production.

Genres in practical use are meant to narrow a search, not narrow minds. We should never hear “indie music is just too slow for my liking” or “I’m not in the mood for pop music, how ’bout something more laid back.”

Ask yourself, what sounds do you enjoy? What is it about this category of music that makes the sounds worth repeating? Do you like the loneliness of a single acoustic guitar? The sadness of a slow piano or the excitement of a fast one? The strong vibration of a repetitive beat? You know what you like. Don’t let a genre tell you what to do.

NICK FREDERICI would love to see your onomatopoeias; message him sounds at nrfred@ucdavis.edu.


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