So I'm looking through the 288 local bands in the virtual community of Myspace.com, and a couple of things hit me. The first is that there is quite simply a mind-boggling amount of music out there. Probably most of the local bands I've heard of don't even have Myspace pages, and I definitely haven't heard of tons of the bands that are on there. I'd be willing to bet that there are more than 2,000 bands, solo artists, DJs and rappers working in H-town today, and that's just one big American city.
And rest assured that no matter how blatantly derivative and sound-alike the music of many of these acts, each claims to be utterly unique. Which brings me to my second realization: Genre names have gotten totally out of control. Today, it seems that there's a genre for not just every band but every fan of every band. Myspace itself lists more than 70 in its drop-down search box, and even that is not enough for some bands.
Houston band the Postcard View, for example, is content to be broadly filed under "indie/alternative," but when you visit their page for a more elaborate self-description, they are keen to point out that they are "not screamo, but singo." Both of which, of course, are riffs off "emo," which seems to have lasted as a genre for about four years before very few bands wanted to be described as such. Only 22 of the Houston-area bands on Myspace call themselves emo, and about half of those are bands from places like Waller and El Campo. Sound Exchange honcho Kurt Brennan has noted the trend. He says most of the erstwhile emo bands he knows are now calling themselves "post-hardcore."
Another Houston band called Played Out describes itself as "pop-punkcore." Which brings up another point: What the fuck does the ubiquitous suffix "-core" mean these days? Amateurishly played, distorted guitar bar chords behind screamed vocals would be my guess; in a word, punk. Brennan thought it just meant punk too, but when I told him about Played Out's punkcore, he was as flummoxed as I was. "I guess corecore is next," he said.
Rockers and dance DJs are the worst offenders. Indeed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the number of units a genre is moving and the number of subgenres it spawns. In hip-hop, there are only a few subgroupings -- there's rap, hip-pop, crunk, bounce and various geographical categories, but virtually every single MC would gladly accept being labeled as plain ol' hip-hop.
A far cry from rock and dance, both of whose sales are slipping compared to hip-hop and both of which are spawning offshoots of branches of subgenres seemingly every week. Take metal and punk, for example, each itself a subgenre of rock. Today it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Where does death metal end and where does the punk offshoot "grindcore" begin? Is it just the Cookie Monster voice favored by death metal vocalists? (Brennan thinks it might have something to do with the speed with which they are played.) In dance, what is the difference between progressive house and deep house and tech house and all those other houses on that block? Can the bands and/or the DJs themselves even tell you?
It wasn't always so confusing. Back about 40 years ago, there were often two or three bins in the record store: pop, classical and maybe jazz. Ten years later there were a few more: Add rock, country, folk, R&B/soul and maybe blues and reggae to the list. Today the typical big record store has about a dozen: Dance, world, Latin, oldies and others have all joined the list, and Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop says his customers are always requesting more. "People are always asking me if I have a separate section for this or that. The one we get the most is 'Do you have an Americana section?' But the problem with that is this: How do you take Johnny Cash out of country? It's really a fine line, and we try not to subgenrify too much."
How did it all come to this? Well, to paraphrase Moe Szyslak, you know what I blame this on the rise of? Technology. Technology and punk rock. Punk democratized rock. No longer did you have to be particularly talented or skilled to be in a band. All it took was lots of emotion, a little gear and a willingness to go on stage. Then came the rise of CDs and the relative ease of recording sessions. By the turn of the millennium your act could be its own record company. You could cut the CD on pretty cheap equipment at home, easily burn the CDs, make the artwork; in fact, you could do everything except sell and distribute the suckers, which, come to think of it, you can now do through your Web site or Amazon or Myspace.
And so everybody is doing it, and there is a tremendous glut of CDs out there right now, and the more CDs that come out, the more people think, "Hey, if that loser can make a CD, then so can I." Thus the need for all these bands to appear unique -- they have to stand out from the crowd somehow. And if they can't quite pull off sounding exceptional, the next best thing is to come up with some kind of one-of-a-kind genre that they alone inhabit. Like punkcore.
My ilk contributes heavily to this madness as well. There's not a one of us who doesn't dream of coining a universally used term like "heavy metal," "grunge" or "hip-hop." Record companies and other marketing types weigh in, too -- they love to put trends in boxes. Then the music nerds chime in. They decide that some band -- let's call them the Death of My Aunt -- isn't really post-hardcore at all but would be better described as "avant nü-screamo" -- and they get on their blog and tell the world why this is so.
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But no matter how many hairs you split with these inane genre terms, it's still just rock, or dance music, or punk, or metal. "The stuff that kids listen to today isn't that different from what I listened to when I was younger," says Bishop. "It's that they call it by another name, and next year they'll be calling the same stuff something else."
Brennan agrees. "People will ask me what some band sounds like, and I'll say they sound like Love. Well, maybe that person has never heard Love, so I'll start throwing all these adjectives and bands and genres at them. Basically, every time it all comes back to the Beatles. All rock sounds like the Beatles."
Meanwhile, the rock of 2005 is all about recycling trends. There is no mainstream anymore. Today, rock itself is but another subgenre of rock. "Rock and roll has been around for so long that now every trend is happening at once," Bishop says. "It's not like the '80s, where everybody was rockabilly for a while with their white T-shirts, Fonzie jeans and chain wallets, and it's not like that paisley underground phase where there was this modern kinda '60s Sgt. Pepper kind of look. Now it's all happening at once -- there's so many subgenres. It's kinda cool. Actually it's real cool, but it is very confusing."
So what we need is an academy, a credentialed body to bring some order out of this madness and bestow the correct credentials to each band or DJ. We're taking the first step right here, right now, with the Genremaster, my list of approved genre nouns and adjectives and suffixes and prefixes. It's in the early phases, so I may be missing a few, but it's a start, so let's get to the -core of the matter. To select your act's genre, first -- and this one is optional -- pick a geographical adjective if you feel it is vital to your sound, for example Texas, Tejano, Southern or Dirty South, et cetera. Next select a word from the adjectives column -- let's say you picked "ambient." Then pick a prefix from the second column and a suffix from the third -- let's say you chose "electro-" and, of course, "-core." Last, pick a catch-all genre descriptor or two from the last column (you may double-barrel them and/or supplement them with options from the others columns if you wish). Let's say you chose "techno" and "metal." And presto, you have "ambient electrocore technometal"! Or let's say you picked others and came up with "Gulf Coast ethereal spazzjazz" or "acid riff-pop ska." Sounds pretty cool to me. And so unique!