Monday, June 18, 2007


What’s in a word? When the same band is variously described as alt rock, progressive rock and punk metal by music critics, you’ve got to ask yourself who’s speaking to who. I’ve said it before. By nature of its wide-winged interpretation, pigeonholing genre can be a serious disservice to musicians. But perhaps not to their audiences and potential fans.


Ask people what a truck sounds like. a rare few will say something like, ‘a dinosaur with laryngitis’. Some will shrug their shoulders and maybe try to make the noise for you. And others will just say, “like a truck, haven’t you heard one?” But that’s just the point. If you haven’t heard, and you want an approximate idea of a sound, who’s going to help you? Not the dinosaur with laryngitis.

A velve (er, valve) for exasperation

Here’s an example : I recently heard what a music journalist i respect calls a mix of indie-disco, kwaito-rock and acoustic Drum & Bass. i was intrigued by the description, but not gratified by it. I couldn’t hear the disco. I couldn’t hear the kwaito. I could hear a lot of passion, and perhaps that's what all these words are trying to describe.

Untie yourself

Words cannot do music justice. But in some cases, they’re all we’ve got. Words about music need to be music to the ears. It’s an odd interface, language. We’re fluent in it, but it often betrays us. We’ve been using words since we could crawl, but sometimes, eish, they make your skin crawl. And the thing is that music was there first. We hear rhythm and rage before we ever say a word; think of heartbeats. Anguish. Crying. Mumbling. The things babies do. Well, we’re babies when words won’t work. But you try telling someone that a band sounds like another band they haven’t heard. What are they going to do? Rush out and sample it on myspace? (nope, facebook doesn’t do that. yet) No. they’re going to look at you blankly and sample something else. And by the same token, try explaining recent visitors, Evanescence – operatic emo? Gothic clit-pop-rock? Huh? Exacty, ek sê...

In with the old?

Sometimes I think we should go back to the days and ways of yore, when we had fewer genres, maybe keep three or four or five definitive groups names, and then relate that to some quintessentially human experience (preferably sensory, for absolute understanding) like seasons, or colours. It cuts down on adjectives, expletives, and might save us from reaching that critical mass that loses the point entirely. ..- sorry, what was the point again? Well, let’s just say that slimming down the genres might help The Sleepers feel less like their amazing music is creating semantic schizophrenia in the media, and rather a tempered excitement that making hard, melodic sounds with lots of light inspires. But what would we describe them as, then? Well, how about a clever bassist(and fan)'s suggestion of “dark rock”?


  1. The more you listen to good music, the more it becomes apparent how pointless this notion of genres actually is. Sometimes it's more of a crutch for those who seek the familiar and the immediately gratifying rather than any degree of adventurism.

    I have often played certain kinds of music for others only to be met with comments like: "I don't know what to think of it because I can't place it in any particular genre(s)"

    This is a particularly South African syndrome - the need to calssify things before we are prepared to accept them. I would even suggest that its obvious alignment with our recent political history is the scariest thing of all...

  2. Categorisations around music has always been and probably always will be problematic. At the heart of the current genre identification problem is the huge variety of descriptions and so called genre's available for use in describing a band or form of music as you pointed out. This normally results in a nonsensical description which is unlikely to make me go out and listen to an LP or band as I may not like one of the genre's used in the description and so thereby limit my exposure to potentially interesting bands who probabl don't even fit into the genre anyway. Using other similar sounding bands as an alternative descriptive also has its problems if they happen to have not been heard before, although in general its far easier to associate to bands than genre's as not necessarily all bands in a particular genre are good. Also in categorisation there is the issue around personal definitions, as what I class as potentially heavy could be classed as light by another listener. The real concern with all of this is that you have a number of great bands who basically defy categorisation, an example being Kid of Doom who for want of a better definition you could call prog rock but thats not what they're really about, and how do you therefore get new audiences to come and support when they can't really identify what they're going to listen to. This is a particular issue in SA with its limited audiences at live gigs and the great difficulty most bands have in attracting new support outside of those who actually know and appreciate them. In essence as pointed out by djf if the music's good should the genre or description matter. What this does though is link you to specific reviewers whose tastes you trust thereby creating its own limitations in expanding one's horizons, although the trick may be to have multiple sources of reviews and comments to alleviate this.

  3. thanks, shaun. astute points and sound advice.