What does a musician do about genre?

Love or loathe it, genre has been typifying art since ancient Greek literature. It was originally a form of classification, but now, genre has become a qualification of art, and a sinister tool for pigeonholing the work of musicians.

“So Brae, I hear you’re a ‘Jazz’ musician,” my girlfriend’s father said. He didn’t mean to offend or interrogate me, and this is the first we’d met outside of a karaoke bar.
“Maybe, I guess so. I mean, I’m a musician really. I am influenced by jazz, but I wouldn’t call myself a Jazz musician.” This is a standard, albeit fumblingly nervous, response from me. Most of the musicians I know, at least those which don’t embrace the typification and limitation that genre allows them, have similar silver bullet responses. Why? Musicians get told what they are all the time.

John Zorn is a saxophonist. John Zorn is a multi-instrumentalist. John Zorn is a Jazz musician. John Zorn is Rock musician. John Zorn is a performer. John Zorn is a composer. John Zorn is… what isn’t John Zorn? Rather than list his polymathic contributions to music, John Zorn is a musician – it could be argued that he has worked across a variety of genres throughout his illustrious career, but he never belonged to any of them. “The people who listen to what we put out into the world have to be open-minded. Because we’re so pluralist,” states Zorn. He is right, but pluralism means there is genre and a need for genre so that musics isn’t ever a single ‘music’. The Beach Boys are equal to Beethoven, but they’re not the same to Fear Factory fans. My head aches.

“So Brae, what kind of music do you listen to?”
“Ummmm… I don’t know. I mean, I listen to all music really. I am influenced by rock, but I wouldn’t call myself a rock listener.” Every time a friend of a friend introduces you as a musician (and not a Jazz musician – solid move, friend) this question inevitably comes up (assuming I’ve avoided the “what style of music do you play?” question, which usually elicits the same response as the “you’re a Jazz musician” accusation). Without rattling off my iTunes artist list, it’s hard to say who I listen to, let alone what I listen to, other than music.

Herein lies the big marketing efficacy of genre – who we listen to. I google ‘country music legends’ just to see what comes up; and there they are – Hank Williams, Barbara Mandrell, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn. I visit the fan sites and there’s neat trinkets and information including a Where’s Willie link which gives me a giggle. But the one fan site which stands out is Dollymania – the internet’s most popular Dolly Parton fan site. No rhinestone is left unturned on this website; questions about Dolly’s artistic practice, political views, family life, and of course how much she weighs, are answered on Dollymania’s FAQ page (http://www.dollymania.net/faq.html). Webmaster Duane Gordon states on his site “[Dollymania is] done to honor (sic) Dolly and to provide the best source of news and information on Dolly to her fans.” You’d assume Duane would be a fan of the

Country music genre, but a quick sift through his list of links and I find 9 to 5: The Dolly Parton Musical. I wipe the vomit from my mouth and exclaim “a country music fan can be a fan of musical theatre too?”

So what are the chances Duane likes Willie Nelson? Surely, he in some way is linked to Dolly Parton (they’ve actually recorded together several times), but no links? Give Willie props, Duane! It seems likely Duane does actually listen to, and maybe even enjoys, Willie Nelson and all the other Country artists; but he could also be line-dancin’ to Dre’s new joint this afternoon for all I know. So, the who is important, it takes a real fan of an artist to find out and publicise what they weigh. But who isn’t a genre, and even then, the who can skip over many genres (sometimes in the same piece, a la Zorn). Who we listen to is meant to inform the genre(s) we like – but you don’t have to like Bach and Handel or Willie and Dolly or Coltrane and Miles or Zorn and Zorn.

We’re all familiar with genre as a way of compartmentalising music. Musicians want to reject genre because they want their music to belong to them. But musicians have to be at peace with this; music is intellectual property, but once it begins to hang in the air as an audible vibration, music belongs to the listener as well. The layperson doesn’t really care about what genre it is, and to be honest, they don’t even know if they like it unless they have been told they do OR they have an image they can marvel at. Maybe I am cynical toward the layperson’s judgement, but genre isn’t to blame for the state of contemporary music; the people who use it are and the only people who have a substantiated problem with it are musicians.

“So Brae, what do musicians do about genre?”
“Uhhhh… let’s see. I guess, really, ummm… maybe, what does genre do for musicians?”

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