Labeled to Death

Having finally tackled my issue of loading up 40 albums of the past year into my iTunes, I am now able to take a listen to what many people view as some of the best of 2008. Many of these acts are on independent labels, self-promote their shows, and often ignored by major music publications. By definition, they are "indie" bands. Labeling a style of music is always tricky, because it is an attempt to define, categorize an art form that can take any shape it wants. Bands are labeled for the purpose of marketing and organization, and to give the customer and general idea of what they may be getting into ("rhythm and blues" is the only genre label I can think of that was more social political in its origins, since people may not have listened to "blues" music played by those colored folk).

Even though labeling such a liquid art as music is a little silly, it used to give you a good idea of the music you would hear, with the idea there would be a bit of wiggle room. Rock and roll was Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Elvis, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Little Richard (who coined the term, as well as invented Velcro and Restless Leg Syndrome), etc. Jazz, punk, folk swing, gospel, blues, l all were pretty consistent in the music that fell within them. However, as time has gone on, as technology evolves and art grows, we are getting hammered with so many labels it veers into micro-management: alt-core, dance-rock, funk-rock, post new-wave, chamber-rock, rap-rock, garage -rock (that's been around for awhile), and all of the varirations of electronic music (jungle, house, big beat, trance, blah blah). Hearing a band describe their sound begins to appear like a dinner recipe:

"Well, we're post-industrial, with a few cups of reggae funk and a pinch of R&B."

It seems that the majority of these micro-labels do exist in traditional (here's another label) rock realm. You don't see this in other genres. Rap is rap, even with your wide variety of styles that fall within-from The Roots to Warren G. Jazz is jazz (yes you have free form and what not, but it all falls in as being jazz. A jazz musician is a jazz musician. I don't hear them go off on how they area little retro jazz with a dash of post-Miles funk).

Why is this? I think part of it is the desire for bands to be unique, yet since everything can now be defined, they might as well just make it difficult to define them by taking up half a page to describe "their" sound.

It would be nice to ditch all of this, but now that we can shop online by genres and listen to online radio BY 9,000 subgenres, it's not going to happen. All of this means very little in terms of the music itself- you either like it or not, but all of these labels can affect whether or not you look into a particular band's music. I have seen several descriptions of Vampire Weekend being "afro-reggae dance rock".

Huh? When I first heard them, I was expecting island music, and instead I heard rock. Great album! But if I was to go by their labeling by people, I would never have picked up, because my initial thought was "I don't like reggae". Labels can ultimately take people away or scare them off before they ever hear it. If I'm on lastfm.com, and I have 9,000 labels to choose from, I'm going to gravitate to the ones that I'm most comfortable.

What if there was just a rock label? Think of the true mix and variety you could get with that little search running? By throwing up all of these labels, we're throwing walls around music and preventing it from running wild in the world.

Finally, as a little irksome detail, no band should be ashamed of being labeled "pop". Pop used to mean popular, but what it really means is catchy, and I always thought that was a good thing. In honor of this label, hear's a weekend video for you all! I challenge you to get it out of your head.


Matt said...

I agree about the Pop music label. There is nothing wrong with being labeled Pop and I label bands with that all the time. Usually I use that label as a compliment as well.

About that video, is that someone trying to replicate a bad 80's video today? It looks just too well done to be authentic. If that is the case I see your cheesy 80's wannabe video and raise you an authentic, horribly cheesy 80's video (perhaps it's the video/song that your video is imitating). Check it out!

Anonymous said...

It's from the movie "Music and Lyrics" Average movie with Hugh Grant, but the video is awesome..