I’m sure it began with the best of intentions. The rebellious child of Blues and Country, Rock & Roll was a complete departure from the Hit Parade. New, different, shiny, this music needed its own name. Then, like Protestants after the reformation, the splits just kept coming.
In the first wave of these changes, the new names made sense: Motown from the studio that produced the signature sound, Acid Rock from the drugs needed to enjoy the music, Disco for the place where you would hear and enjoy the music. With the exception of Prog Rock (Progressive Rock, the granddaddy of unclearly labeled music) most genre labels were straightforward.
The shift began in the 80s, when American pop culture went to high school and stayed there. The Breakfast Club, Saved by the Bell and other teen focused entertainment had the world thinking in terms of cliques, with clothing and music being the chief markers for identity. The pop tarts did their best Madonna impressions while the metal heads wore T-shirts emblazoned with flames, skulls and large angry fonts, which nicely complimented their unwashed hair. Alternatively, the new wave kids listened to the Smiths and wore their fan club buttons as badges of honor. New wave, referring to exclusively to music—not dreadful fashion mistakes—was the designation for music not in heavy rotation on MTV. The B-52s, The Violent Femmes and The Cure, having little in common, have been lumped together in this category. As with Alternative in the 90s, or Indie Rock today, it was essentially a catchall term for music outside the mainstream. The labels said more about the music than what it actually sounded like. Subsequently giving rise to the use of sub-genres.
Since then, sub-genres themselves have gotten less and less helpful in actually letting people know what to expect from their music. Grunge, Goth, and Emo are better at describing fashion trends than the music that inspired them. Not to say that this is a new phenomenon. Swing Kids, Bobbysoxers and Glam Rockers could attest to the fact that music is the fuel of subcultures, without which these cultural movements would be sad costume parties.
A crucial difference between subcultures and sub-genres: The former is challenging a widely held cultural belief or practice while the latter challenges other sub-genres. Typically with a thinly veiled sense of superiority derived from its new hyphenated adjective. This leads to increasingly sincere value placed on the superficial: Good Taste = Intelligence = Worth. Suddenly you’re a better person for liking the Shins. Next you’re referencing obscure films just to explain them and subtly secure your place in high culture. Soon you’ve got German philosopher tattoo, a blog and 1,500 MySpace friends solely based the ability to quote Kafka, Depeche Mode and Family Guy. The proliferation of sub-genres may be little more than another means of demonstrating how very clever we are.
Then again, the rise in sub-genres could be more than modern youth carving out identity through listening habits. More optimistically, it may reflect the constant splicing and fusion of musical styles that out-pace the vocabulary we’ve formed to describe them. Artists like Beck, M.I.A. and Sufjan Stevens are creating increasingly sophisticated music that is often better heard than discussed, perhaps then proving that all us music writers should be out there dancing about architecture after all (in which case, I’ve been working on a lovely tap number about the Hirshorn Museum).
Whatever the reasons, let’s not let the words get in the way of the music.