Pretty much everyone reading this article has had to contend with the worst question a music lover can be asked: ‘What sort of the music do you listen to?’ How do you even start to answer that question? Naming some artists you like, the confused look on the person’s face until you name Ed Sheeran or Adele? You can’t start saying things like ‘Music that makes me dance’ or ‘Music that allows me to escape from my own self loathing and pity for just a second’, because chances are you’ll make two people extremely uncomfortable.
Of course the only possible way to answer is to start naming genres, a pointless exercise as you either go too general, ‘I like Indie music with guitars lol’, or too specific ‘I listen to a lot of Balaeric House with interpolations of Techno and spoken word’. The reason this doesn’t work? Genres make absolutely no sense once you start actually listening to music, especially in a time when the lines are blurred so much.
The unavoidable viral hit that has become one of the biggest songs of 2019, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X caused mayhem over in the US when Billboard refused to include it on the country charts. Debating whether or not that song should count in the country genre misses the entire point. If you stick Billy Ray Cyrus on the song, that’s surely about as country as the ‘Dance records featuring country artists’ that make up that chart. At the same time, removing a song from a genre chart brings into question how a genre specific chart makes sense in the first place. If radio is playing a song, if people are listening to a song and streaming a song, the genre is all but irrelevant.
The genre messiness that irks me the most is the definition of Alternative. A ‘genre’ in which you’ll see the likes of Bjork being listed next to Bon Iver, next to Arctic Monkeys, next to Mitski, next to The xx. That’s a pretty great playlist from what I can see, but claiming a uniting ‘genre’ between any of them is ridiculous. I’ve seen it countless times at award shows, Florence and the Machine being nominated for Best Rock Song, Sugababes winning Best Dance Act at the 2003 Brit Awards, or The 1975 being included in a different genre at every award show they end up at. They’re a band who seem to be listed as Indie, Rock, Alternative, Indie Pop, Pop Rock, Electronic Indie and every other combination of words before the genre the band would actually say they were, which is simply Pop.
What makes all of this that bit more ridiculous is when you consider how music playlists on the likes of Spotify are generated now. It doesn’t matter that Noel Gallagher’s latest stuff sounds more like dance music than Oasis Indie Rock, but it’ll still get played in the ‘New Indie’ playlist. Because she’s not a ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of popstar, Christine and the Queens gets listed in every Indie/Alternative playlist going, even though a song like ‘Girlfriend’ has more in common with Britney than it does Kasabian. The idea of splitting artists by genres that they don’t even stick to themselves is just silly. Is To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar a Jazz album, because Kamasi Washington is on there? Is Hip Hop even a ‘genre’ at this point given that part of the appeal is how different everything can sound?
I’m not going to claim to be some ‘I’ll listen to everything’ idiot, as we all know you wouldn’t see me enjoying death metal any time soon, but I do try and not limit myself to something as tenuous as Genre for how I link my music tastes together. It makes trying to find something in a record shop near on impossible when you have to think, ‘are they counting David Bowie as Pop, Rock or Indie at this point?’. It seems like everyone cares about making sure something is true to its genre, when in fact I bet none of the artists care in the slightest.
Words by Sam Atkins