Psst . . . Your Genres Are Lying to You

Categories make reality more comprehensible by blurring its components.


Alone Amidst the Pink  (2011). Photography by  Dionne Hartnett .

Alone Amidst the Pink (2011). Photography by Dionne Hartnett.

A clunky children’s record player sat on the bedroom floor. I recall that it was rather boxy and had two speed settings, and I think it was orange and tan. Memories can never fully be trusted, but I can picture the scene as I crouched on the carpet over that machine to load a disc and set down the needle.

I was three or four years old. And this is what I remember about it most of all:


I went through a phase where I would play “Rocket Man” pretty much every day. The song appeared on some old Star Wars album my parents had — I’m pretty sure it was this one. First I’d play “Rocket Man,” then the Star Wars theme, which my young self thought was cool, especially the beginning, though it kind of went on too long. I think I disregarded all the other songs completely. The real wonder was in “Rocket Man.”

I still love it, too. But what type of music would you say “Rocket Man” is? Rock? Pop? Seventies Arena Rock? Piano Rock? Space Rock? Piano Jam Space Rock? Glam? Classic Rock? Maybe Elton John warrants his own category. (Update: Notable musicologist resource Wikipedia files this song under “Soft Rock” and “Space Rock.” I honestly thought I was joking about Space Rock.)

To me, that song is a type all its own. There is an ethereal quality to the recording. It doesn’t really sound like any of his other material, either. Some songs are just sui generis. (E.g., how would you describe In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry? Ah, Wiki says its Skiffle. Why do I keep bringing up 70s music?) Anyway, before we start diagramming the trajectory of popular music and Sir Elton’s contributions to Space Rock, the point is that it doesn’t matter. We have this need to endlessly categorize everything around us, but every genre is a mask.

When looking back to those afternoons spent in my own little world with a toy record player, its impossible not to attribute to the music the various things I now know about it. No three-year-old can really know who Elton John is, what style of music he plays, or how he measures up against other Space Rock artists, let alone understand how any music gets recorded and released at all. There are just these songs that you hear and songs that you know and some that you love, as if they were floating around in the ether and happened to swirl by and arrest you. Just songs. I guess it’s impossible to experience them in that way again, which is sad, because that’s what they deserve.


“Each Work of Art Is a World in Itself”

I recently stumbled upon an old critical essay by Richard B. Sewall, who Google informs me was a well-regarded professor of English at Yale. In this essay, tucked away at the back of an old beat-up paperback from my college days and titled “The Tragic Form,” Sewall mentions another critic who is new to me but evidently even more consequential: the Italian philosopher and writer Benedetto Croce. I mention all this because according to Sewall, Croce “would have no truck with genres.”

Croce himself put it this way: “Art is one and cannot be divided.” Here’s some more of Sewall on this interesting thinker’s views (all emphasis mine):


For convenience, [Croce] would allow the division of Shakespeare’s plays into tragedies, comedies, and histories, but he warned of the dogmatism that lay in any further refining of distinctions. . . . Each work of art is a world in itself, “a creation, not a reflection, a monument, not a document.” The concepts of aesthetics do not exist “in a transcendent region” but only in innumerable specific works. To ask of a given work “is it a tragedy?” or “does it obey the laws of tragedy?” is irrelevant and impertinent.


As Sewall goes on to say, “Nothing is more dreary than the textbook categories; and their tendency, if carried too far, would rationalize art out of existence.”

Well then. Those dudes are all well and good up there in their rarefied tragedian air. But their point is relevant to all creative endeavors, including Elton John, ’90s rock, death metal thrash, rap, country, films, graphic novels, comedy, industrial design, web design, whatever. “Nothing is more dreary than the textbook categories.” Let’s all scream it from the rooftops!


Oh, We File That Under Alternative Hillbilly Gangsta Emo

Imagine four people: a Nirvana fan, a Tori Amos fan, a Snoop Dogg fan, and a person who really loves bluegrass. (Of course one person could be all of those, but for this exercise there are four individuals.) When presented with a varied list like this, it’s natural to use mental shorthand to differentiate the components by their most obvious traits and to define each in relative terms against all the others, which in this case then leads to filling in gaps about the fans too. Everything gets placed in a neat little box. Our boxes might look different based on individual experience, but we all construct boxes just the same.

Now that we have our tidy boxes lined up just so, where should we put this?


Amos’s rendition has a starkly different arrangement and style to the original — slower, more brooding, more delicate — and she skips a pretty solid verse. Yet the differences (in tempo, instrumentation, tone) are superficial, and the essence of each recording (chord progression, lyrics, melody) is essentially identical. In other words, it’s really the same song. It’s not like any Nirvana fan would struggle to identify very quickly what they were hearing. 

As for our Snoop Dogg fan and bluegrass aficionado, what if we played them a bluegrass cover of a Snoop Dogg song, like this? (Language warning — they did not bowdlerize it.) The arrangement is so foreign that until the lyrics kick in it’s unrecognizable, but they stayed true to the spirit of the original. You can insist on placing each version in a separate bucket if you must, but in the ways that matter most, their genres are meaningless. Deep down they’re the same song. Perhaps there is a Platonic ideal of “Gin and Juice” and both of these recordings are its mere shadows…

Regardless, in each case the key is to judge each as an individual recording — not by the genre of the original, the genre of the cover, or the genre of the cover as related to the genre of the original. William Shatner’s cover of “Rocket Man” might qualify as Space Rock too, but that doesn’t convey anything relevant about it. At all.

Anyway, this is just to say that we shouldnt get too hung up on our buckets, whether it’s our Pandora stations, our Netflix categories, our reading material, our food preferences, or our politics. Author and critic Kevin D. Williamson has written about a related phenomenon he calls the Mapmaker’s Dilemma:


If you wanted to make a map of Houston that was entirely accurate and complete, the map would have to be the size of Houston — which, at 600 square miles, would be difficult to fold. To make a map manageable, you have to leave some things out, to simplify, to oversimplify, to reduce, to condense. . . .
Reality is not on the map.


It is impossible to navigate the world — or even your living room — without some sort of mental map. It can be comforting to file everything away in its proper place, and doing so to some extent is necessary for making sense of reality (both memory and language would be impossible otherwise). But we should all try to look up from our crude maps every so often and make an effort to appreciate art and people and ideas on their own termsAs we use categories, maps, and other abstractions to make the world as a whole more comprehensible, they tend to make individual qualities blurrier. Its like saying that all the snow blanketing Buffalo right now is the same, which is sort of true on a large scale but famously inaccurate at the micro level.

Snowflake  (2008). Photography by  Liz West .

Snowflake (2008). Photography by Liz West.


Think of something you love that someone close to you rolls their eyes at, perhaps for a silly reason, like that they dismiss all Space Rock as filth. Part of you is probably convinced that they’re just misunderstanding that one individual thing, that if only they could see it in its proper light and stop lumping it with all that other more trashy Space Rock, they’d come around.

Maybe there’s something you dismiss. Or some entire category of thing you avoid altogether. What might you be misunderstanding simply because you’re refusing to see it in its proper light? OK I’ll go: Count me among these people, who are surprised to find ourselves thinking that everything about this is awesome. The very fact that our tastes evolve should tell us that we’re each individually mistaken about a boatload of stuff, even based on our own personal terms.

The human mind will always make use of shorthand maps and sequester our infinitely varied creations (and ideas, and persons) into brightly labeled categories. But using categories as tools does not necessitate relying on them as crutches.

The challenge is to resist mistaking superficial style for substance and to not reflexively dismiss entire categories of stuff, because the categories are imaginary — theres only the stuff. And for artists or anyone else who has ever felt constrained by labels they never chose, its not an easy problem to crack, especially since people can react rather unpredictably when their expectations are challenged. Sometimes all you can do is shake it off. Or you know, just try to kick a little something for the Gs and make a few ends as you breeze through. 



Posted on November 19, 2014