“What kind of music do you like?” To me, that’s a big ask.
How do you answer that question? Is it a short answer? “I like country,” or “I like hip-hop.” Do you think it’s a simple answer? Or maybe you answer that you like everything. (By the way, you probably don’t actually like everything. Wikipedia itemizes over 230 musical genres as “rock” alone.)
Maybe your answer is more complicated. If so, you probably struggle with grouping your favorite bands into categories. You might even wish for a thesaurus to pin down the right adjectives. “I like progressive bluegrass, modern folk rock and Americana.” No, really. I do. And I’m ready for the blank stare response that my answer invites. It happens all the time.
Whether you answer the question simply or with some effort, the truth is that none of these answers seems to mean anything anymore. What is popular in the moment tends to define the broad categories of musical genres. In a way, everything is relative, because we familiarize ourselves with music we hear today in comparison to what we heard last year.
Media and a radio station design largely drive this kind of categorization. Even if you don’t listen to the radio, iTunes, Spotify and Amazon tell us what genres we listen to. A friend of mine recently stated matter-of-factly that I “like country music,” and she was surprised that I was offended. I suppose it’s funny, really, but “country music” today means country radio, which I generally find to be cheap and painfully predictable, if I’m being kind.
If there’s an album by a country artist that country radio won’t play, I probably want to hear it (see Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings”), but, alas, no country radio for me. Let’s try harder: alt country, outlaw country, classic country or new country. These variations may or may not help to explain your position, but something about trying to differentiate might make you feel better about it.
Simultaneous to the ongoing radio-designed categorization of music, popular culture creates new genre categories for us. The nature of popular culture includes an unstoppable push to set the terms of what everyone should enjoy. This drives a change in how we familiarize ourselves with the music we hear. Pop culture fosters fast-paced change that is focused on naming new genres intended to be accessible to everyone as well as pushing away old ideas. The end result is a variety of empty genre names with a forced artificial popularity value.
It’s always a little bland or watered down because it has to be one-size-fits-all, while consumers are supposed to believe that it’s all ground-breaking. In a recent conversation with friends, we were listening to a song that a family member described as “punk rock,” and a few of us balked at the use of the term, because it was clearly metal.
I mean, don’t insult punk rock. I Googled the band and found that they are described as “post-metal rock from California.” Let’s break that down. The name implies that metal is dead and the world has moved on, which is untrue. There’s an appeal to being part of something new and more evolved, like it’s postmodern. And California rock covers everyone from the Beach Boys to Haim. This category is one of many examples of meaningless labels and pandering to the masses.
Probably the most popular label that lacks substance is “indie.” Don’t we all listen to indie music now? I know I do. That used to mean something, but it now it’s severely diluted with overuse. It used to mean New York City’s Greenwich Village in the ‘60s and the early stages of Seattle’s grunge movement in the ‘90s. These movements stood out as organic musical phenomena. “Indie” also used to describe artists who operated without a record deal or contract, making recordings and tapes in basements. How genuine and original is it now when nearly everything is indie?
The change is the result of the pop culture influence. Many thanks to more pandering, an “indie” label in music is now just about as cool and genuine as a high school popularity contest. As consumers, we’re probably all a little guilty of this… After all, it takes consumers of pop culture to make the wheel go round—but these kinds of changes wouldn’t be possible without the pop culture blitzkrieg taking advantage of the increased number of access channels to consumers. Technological advances have made it easier to set the terms of what constitutes rock and indie music.
Another kind of change, evolutionary, is the reality of how music progresses, and it has been for centuries. This one takes time and happens without anyone really noticing, and it’s credited to the artists, composers and musicians.
I believe that evolutionary change is the real reason the big question is hard to answer. “What kind of music do you like?”
One of my favorite bands, the Punch Brothers, is talented far beyond the sum of the band’s members. With an understanding of their music and especially their intellectual process, it pains me to call them a bluegrass band, partly because they play more than bluegrass, and partly because of the simple connotation of what that genre entails. They move seamlessly from Brandenburg concertos to “Brakeman’s Blues” to smart and deliberately crafted originals. Bands like this don’t fit in a box. Real musicians as artists are always trying to grow and expand upon their vocabulary and bag of tricks. They will bend existing accepted confines of categories, rhythm and instrumentation in search of new limits. Evolutionary change is the result of creativity and talent coming together at the right time.
This, of course, is not a new development or occurrence. Jazz had a fairly quick evolution in the first half of the 20th century as it moved (literally) up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Chicago. Guitar replaced banjo, the brass section expanded and improvisational solos took the center stage over the ensemble composition.
Another great example of musical evolution is in the course of what most people generically know today as classical music. Between the years 500 and 1900, the medieval period transitioned to the renaissance period, then to baroque to classical and the Romantic Movement. Musicians couldn’t skip from medieval to baroque any more than the 20th century could have absorbed a single leap from Sam Cooke to Beyoncé.
Also important to consider, it seems unlikely that contemporary musicians in these earlier periods were overly concerned with labeling the genres in which they operated every year. They may have felt changing tides due to sociopolitical conditions or evolving means for self-expression, but labels didn’t matter. For modern artists, this is probably still true. What kind of artist willingly sets limits to what they can create?
So in the face of media pressures, if the artists making the music don’t care about fitting into labels, why is it so important for us to try and get the answer to the big question just right? Why do I feel the need to clarify things when someone says that I like country music? Big deal, right?
Well, it kind of is a big deal. Music makes up a large part of how we define and understand ourselves. We don’t want to be boxed or generic—we all think of ourselves as unique, one-of-a-kind individuals. If music at some level makes us tick, we need to be clear about what that is and why. Considering music as a form of self-expression, just like any form of art, we develop a better understanding of ourselves through experiencing these fragments of other people’s lives. There is a value in hearing something that speaks to our experience, and we hold it as a part of ourselves.
Think about a sad song that helped you through a breakup. Someone else felt just as hurt as you did, but you listened to the artist deal with it and come to terms, and then you held on to that song like it belonged to you. Maybe your friends identify you with that song in some way, because it made you feel better, so it’s really a part of you now. You want to have the ability to adequately explain that to someone in just the right way.
Think about how you feel at a concert. Maybe you like to be right up front at the stage like I do. When I see a performance that makes me feel something, I really want to be able to tell people why. I think it helps other people to understand me, and it’s a way that I understand them.
So what kind of music do you listen to? It’s not actually a simple question. Maybe there are better questions to ask like, “What bands do you like?” You’re entering into a conversation about how music defines and influences you at some level. Whatever adjectives seem to fit to the genre categories you pick, you’re trying to pin down something very personal. Telling someone what music you like is introducing yourself in a profound way.
Hero photo by Daniel White.