During the winter break, while discussing music with my family I casually mentioned the genre “math rock.” There was instant derision: what the hell is that? Why do categories need to be so specific? Why do you listen to such obscure trash?
I get it, genres can sound pretentious, especially if you haven’t heard of them before. And those prefixes like post-rock, post-hardcore, and basically anything else with “post” in front of it? “Needlessly complicated,” they’d say. “Whatever happened to the good ol’ days when everything was just rock ‘n’ roll?”
Prefixes can be useful though. They help contextualize a related group of artists based on their shared history and influences. A song could be considered post-metal by one person and emotive hardcore by another, but by classifying it as one genre over another we are implicitly comparing it to others of that genre and bringing attention to how that sound developed.
Humans are good at pattern recognition, and it’s instinctive to categorize everything we come across. We evolved with the ability to quickly determine danger priority by sorting threats, and sorting the pleasurable sounds we discover is just the most recent manifestation of that ability.
From a practical point of view, categorizing music lets people efficiently find more music similar to bands they already are familiar with and enjoy. In this world where there is a surplus of information pushing on us from every side, it is hard to cut through the mass of mediocrity to get at the gems. With music genres, one can easily narrow down what they’re looking for.
Musical genres still have a remarkable depth of variety to their sounds. Researching a genre can give an intriguing look at how different bands approach the same style of music while retaining their individuality. In these days where Spotify and Soundcloud algorithms give listeners tailor-made playlists of similar music, it can be nice to explore the fringes of a genre instead of just the computer-determined list of hits.
On the other hand, music genres can definitely lead to tribalism and elitism. The lines between metal and punk are blurred, yet certain fans of each consider the other their enemy for no good reason. There is also a certain class of snobs who gatekeep music genres and set themselves up as the only authority on what counts as what. However, rude people will use anything as an excuse, and if people restrained their knee-jerk response to pompous-sounding genres, they could jump into a world of interesting music waiting for them.
Graphic above by Timi Bello