16 September 2015

On genre

Surf and power pop are not what they say they are.

Surf music is only called that because—at the time it was named—it was popular among surfers. You can claim that the dimed reverb is meant to sound like the waves and such, but I remain unconvinced. In any case, most surfers today probably aren’t surf music fans, and most surf music fans probably aren’t surfers.

Power pop has never been popular. Of course the “pop” refers to the elements of pop music—at the time that power pop was named—which power pop uses. “Pop” here isn’t saying that power pop is popular; it is simply referencing other music that was popular.

Some people are very strict about genre.

It isn’t surf if it isn’t played on white Fender Jazzmasters with 11-gauge strings through a dimed Fender spring reverb tank and a vintage Fender amp. And if a voice appears at all, it is not surf.

(Note: While the Beach Boys and similar vocal acts are similar to surf music, the genre applies to instrumental music. I think most reasonable people, however, would call Wipe out surf despite the words.)

It isn’t power pop unless it has crunchy guitars, melodic vocals and vocal harmonies, minimal guitar solos, and no influence from the blues.

Such strictness is understandable, if overzealous. It is really hard to draw the lines between everything that is in the genre and everything that is outside of it. (And that’s just with songs. It’s even harder to classify bands into genres.) In reality, there will always be gray areas. But saying “I know it when I hear it” doesn’t really help anyone know what you’re talking about.

But, the point is: These labels helped me discover music I might not have otherwise. So, I’m not willing to dismiss genre as useless.


KenHR said...

As a loose collection of signifiers and stylistic elements, genre can be useful for finding material similar to that which you already enjoy. But the edges are hazy and permeable, and almost no artists remain "pure" in the sense of staying true to whatever label they are given or take on.

Wire, Television, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, X, Blondie and the Talking Heads are all labeled "punk." I can identify some commonality between all of them, but they all sound very different from one another. Each band also incorporates a number of other influences (Wire with prog/art rock; Ramones with teen pop; etc.) that gives them a distinct identity.

So yeah, a long way of saying I agree with you. Useful for categorizing and finding new music, but not something to use in pigeonholing artists or holding them accountable for staying true to a sound or aesthetic.

Robert Fisher said...

“almost no artists remain ‘pure’”

Yeah. Reading about power pop, I was tempted to conclude that—given how some define the genre—there could never be a power pop band; only power pop songs.

KenHR said...

Cheap Trick might come close, though they do exhibit some diversity on their album cuts.