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Labelling Music

Lisa Ward


Having recently read an article, which described Seth Lakeman as ‘nu-folk’, I was reminded of a thought I once had about the categorisation of music. After much deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that labelling bands as specific genres is at best pointless and at worse downright stupid. You’d think as someone who listens to a lot of music I’d find it relatively easy to categorise bands but the reality is the exact opposite. It is in fact something I’ve come to loathe doing almost as much as ironing. Whilst for ease of categorising posts on the site we have made an effort to find a loose category that each artist might fit, there are still many times when we sit and wonder if we’ve got it wrong, or if we should put artists in multiple genres because they fit so many.

Firstly there’s the whole indie problem. Indie nowadays doesn’t mean much, or at least it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. You get bands who sound indie signed to commercial labels, which pretty much makes the definition defunct and then you get bands signed to indie labels, who don’t sound a bit indie. So which do you use as the definition of an indie band? The original assumption, that the musicians in question are signed to an independent label, or the more mainstream acceptance than indie means your band consists 99% of the time of all guys, most of whom play guitar and cite Blur and Oasis as their inspiration? To be fair in my opinion, current indie sounding bands are in fact the boybands of the 90’s albeit with less romantic lyrics and the bass turned up.

Then there’s the pop bands. Pop technically means to be popular, but that being said the likes of Justin Bieber would be branded pop and I’m not sure I know many people who’d admit to liking him. Perhaps pop nowadays means to be produced, probably from some reality TV show in which you’ll get your 5 minutes of fame, before being banished to the pages of heat magazine. Though this definition then discredits anyone with even an ounce of talent who makes it into the top 40, since not all of those bands are managed by Simon Cowell or Louis Walsh. Equally by branding anyone who makes into the charts as pop, it means bands such as Nizlopi who crept in with their JCB song have to be labelled pop, when the rest of their music show’s they are anything but.

I figured defining rock might be easier and my search took me surfing the internet, when I stumbled upon a music ticket website. However, this is where the problem became even greater than I’d first anticipated. To start with, they split the artists into three categories, rock, pop and dance, before sub dividing it. The pop category almost makes sense, splitting down into things like boybands, girlbands, female solo, 90’s, 80’s and so forth. They even go some way to solving the indie dilemma, by creating an indie-pop category. Their rock subdivisions however are somewhat less convincing.

Within rock, you get the obvious punk-rock, classic rock, emo, ska etc, which whilst at times are a bit lucid, do make some sort of sense. However within rock, the website designers have also seen fit to add blues, folk and country to the listings. Last time I checked, Katie Melua didn’t really tally up with Meatloaf in any sense other than they’d both be filed under ‘M’, yet according to the website in question, they are both (even if in some very liberal sense) now categorised as rock. It’s no wonder perhaps by now my brain is getting somewhat confused as to where to draw the lines.

With this in mind, I decided it was perhaps in my best interest to look at what they put in their dance sections. Thankfully, this has more sensible subdivisions with the likes of garage, drum & bass and electronic all having their distinct sections. Forgive me for a moment then, if I seem somewhat confused when Nerina Pallot pops up under the techno heading. Last time I checked, I would have filed her under female solo, or perhaps acoustic but never in a million years techno. It’s plausible I guess that she’s decided on a career change, but I think the likelihood of that is somewhere on a par with Guns N Roses deciding to do an Abba cover. I can only hope this is some sort of data entry issue, rather than a career change on Nerina’s behalf.

Still, it leaves me only to conclude that to pigeon hole a musician or band into a distinct category is a painstaking task, with little reward. Music, especially good music, goes beyond the realms of definition. I don’t choose what I like based on it being dumped in a category of folk or rock, I like it because it has something special, something a little different and something that keeps me engaged.

(Editor Note: the following musing was written back in 2008, since then we’re pleased to see that the music website used for the research no longer puts blues, folk and country in the main sub heading rock. They have however sadly abolished the folk category entirely, which suggests that the struggles even large scale organisations have in categorising bands means the discussion is still valid).