About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post suggesting that genre labels should be abolished, and that we should get a “genrectomy“. But having mused on this since then, and reignited by Bob Boilen’s NPR post “Can you imagine a world without genres?“, I have to refresh my position.
1) Genres employ people. Genre gives niche industries such as “world”, “classical” or “jazz” a bone to pick, extra fundraising ammunition, their own conferences, a few extra Grammy categories and Billboard charts, a dedicated blogosphere, and, ultimately, performances of music you want to hear that won’t sell out on its own. We all lament this, but the genre thing helps. Each genre has its own cheerleaders and doomsayers. The “genre-death” industry is just as rich as the “genre-lives” industry.
2) I find it hard to believe that artists, journalists, and fans all want to be pigeon-holed by genre. Everything seems to suggest the contrary — more and more, everyone is crossing the hypothetical border between genres and getting lost in the fun. This is how it should be — but there are good reasons to keep genre labels around as a rough frame of reference. Like any topic, a one-word answer is very likely to oversimplify, inspire discussion and further inquiry. It’s just an icebreaker.
3) What kind of music do I make? After all these years, I’m still unable to vocalize “it’s a mix of influences from Eastern European folk music, classical techniques and jazz improvisation” without getting indigestion. And yet, each one of those words means something, each of those terms has a historical context, a sonic identity, a passionate fan club. (And conversely, each one of those terms has its own haters.) It’s impossible to accept a fixed definition of who you are or what your music stands for — immediately these words become merely a point of departure, a point of rebellion — but offering a short one-liner to a stranger may sometimes prove convenient.