Mark Fraser: Day One Hundred and Twenty Two – On Genres

Posted on May 12, 2011 by

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Or, why genres matter.

One of the things you’re taught when studying Film and TV is the use of genres, the purpose of genres and the process of genreficaction. Primarily, we use genre to identify and compare works. More specifically, on a social level, it allows us to compare tastes with other people – if you like film X, then you’ll probably like film Y as they both belong to genre A.

The process of genrefication, then, is one that we use often in order to search for media of a similar kind, and allows us to swap or recommend things to other people and vice versa. Genre’s also give us a taste of what kind of conventions we ought to expect from a particular kind of film, TV series, book or piece of music.

Some genres.

Today, I read an interview with folk/punk singer Frank Turner in which he says that there is a “whole economy of people sticking labels onto bands”. Now, before I continue I must say that as someone who runs a music website/webzine of course I’m going to be interested in this “economy”, because it is the currency that makes not just my site, but all music publications work. I will also say that it’s possible that I’m taking him out of context here. At any rate, there is something to be said for his comment.

There are those who believe that pigeon-holing stuff into genres is a silly thing and that we shouldn’t do it. Moreover, there are many bands out there who completely object to being labelled and categorised in any fashion (My Chemical Romance and the whole ’emo’ thing immediately spring to mind – here we have a band who basically come as close to being the ideal representation of a genre, denying that they are anything like it). Although it’s commendable for people to take a stand against the genreficaction of music, perhaps those who hold such opinions haven’t quite understood why they’re used in the first place.

I’d be the first to admit that the process of placing bands into genres can become silly – there’s potential to create new sub genres every time a band arrive with a distinctive, hard to pin down sound. The aforementioned emo genre is a good example. As bands like Taking Back Sunday and such like started to emerge, many “purists” of what has probably now become an older style of emo (one that had been slowly evolving for years) took umbridge that such pop punk bands were being labelled in such a way. Indeed, there is even a website which explains what “emo” really is. In fact, I’m going to come clean here and say that even I took the same attitude toward such bands, hurling that website at people when they called Taking Back Sunday an emo outfit. However, one of the key things about genres is that they change over time. Old conventions are replaced with new ones, with new conventions often borrowing elements from other genres in order to categorise things in a familiar way

(As an aside, the posts I made on sitcom actually highlights the changing of genre conventions. The sitcom is/was defined as a generic form, but as new comedy shows start to incorporate elements from other genres of TV, they leave behind the conventions of old, creating new ones and redefining whole genres of TV in the process. If a sitcom, like The Office for example, does away with the multi camera, studio audience setup – staples of the traditional sitcom of old – and replaces them with elements of the documentary/docusoap form, is it telling us that it shouldn’t be considered a sitcom? No. It’s simply pushing this boundaries, questioning the genre conventions of old and perhaps even redefining it in the process.)

But without categorising artists into neat little pockets, it’d be exceedingly difficult to talk about music in any meaningful away. And I’m not just saying that because I write about music because even between friends it’d be very difficult. Band A sound like band B who sound a bit like band B mixed with bands C and D. As you can see, it’d start to become ridiculous. Band A are a punk band, so if you like punk music you’ll like band A. See – simple.

Alongside this, it helps people identify the influences that other bands from other genres have on some artists. Sure, we could still put on festivals with a whole bunch of artists who are influence by certain bands/people, but having genres allows us to go beyond this and create more diverse shows that allow the artists to compliment each other, rather than just putting on gigs or festivals where every artist sounds the same.

But I digress.

Genrefication is not a silly process. Without it, communication between people and publications, academics and even each other would be difficult. It’s also a process that helps immeasurably with services like last.fm, which allows you to search by genre to find artists of a similar nature to the ones you like. Even allowing the service to make recommendations to you on what you might like to hear next, based on your listening habits. Without genres, this process would probably still work but might perhaps lead to strange recommendations or worse, recommendations that of artists you already know about and like.

So no, genre is not silly. It is not pointless. It is vital for communicating what we like to other people. Embrace it. Love it.

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Posted in: Mark Fraser