Thursday, October 11, 2007

Labeling My Ass

[This is an article originally slated for a failed magazine, Sept. 2005]

I listen to a tape by a band from high school. It is called Rooftop Life, the music of Brooklyn teens. The music is very much in an expected and predictable structure. The songs begin with a single, clean chord progression that is easily imitable by the listener upon the first chorus of listening. It has a folky tinge to it, and the voice croons about loss of love and loneliness in the neighborhood park. The park can be any city park in Brooklyn marked by that prosaic maple leaf centered in the green plastic plaque. (or is that the leaf of a london plane?) The song progresses to an accented part, where the singer whispers, “I’m not alone/ I’m not afraid.” Cue loud guitar riff, ballsy bass fill and heavy bass drum and cymbal crash. The song follows nicely with a repeat of choruses, a blunt guitar solo, some feedback, and then a quiet coda featuring an acoustic guitar repeating the folky melody. All in all, not a bad song; I could just picture the singer sitting on a bench in the park creating this song, not caring about the old Italian men playing bocci or the young girls practicing their backhands in the tennis court. (maybe the later is somewhat distracting)

Of course, this seemingly simple tune has conjured up many images in my mind. Rooftop Life had been billed as a hardcore punk band during one performance at the ill-fated Spiral Lounge in the Lower East Side. Characterized with the reminiscence of sitting in the park and romancing the girl that got away, the tune sounds more adept to an emo tune sung by an urban hipster fresh from his flight out of the Midwest. (Transient-Nard Rock?) Yet, the writer has lived in Brooklyn all his life. No one has yet to mention the term “emo” to him, nor has the concept of the hipster as the new trendy urban youngster come to fruition. It is 1999. What a difference just four years will make on the way the local music scene will progress.

There are genres of music that have clear distinctions, yet the nuances and offshoots of a genre like rock & roll tend to meld together. While this is only natural, people will stand by a certain sub-genre and remain loyal to it. It may seem like a reflection of the high school clichés, yet it is manifest in popular culture, in magazines and TV. In the end, terms are thrown around a bit too freely to warrant any legitimacy. Rock music can be broken down into definitive genres itself. Metal, psychedelic and punk are all terms that have risen up at various points in the history of the music. The punk phenomenon certainly has had lasting ramifications on the music industry. One only has to look at the bands in the 90s who garnered success through releasing hit punk songs and albums. From this genre of rock music sprouted many sub-genres. Post-punk is a term equivalent with the likes of Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Gang of Four and Orange Juice, among countless others. Name dropping is only practical if one is familiar with the name mentioned. Otherwise, an intentional credence towards a band morphs into a mere recommendation; a person’s unawareness is sometimes the only thing separating them from becoming part of a music scene. In other words, ignorance can lead a person to hug the trend and never let go.

Post-punk obviously came after punk rock, yet what is the term exactly? calls post-punk a “more adventurous and arty form of punk, no less angry or political but often more musically complex and diverse.” Fair enough. If taking the term literally, one could then say the 90s revivalists of punk music are “post-punk.” Yet for any respectable music aficionado, calling Green Day post-punk could lead to heated ridicule and derision. Another sub-genre for Green Day was needed. Let’s call it pop-punk, or punk revivalist. This could be something Rooftop Life should aspire to. All they need to do is revive something. How about disco? (Just kidding)

I hesitate to say that Green Day consider themselves revivalists of punk. It’s not as if the genre disappeared itself after the 70s. It isn't the case either that post-punk was the first to incorporate adventurous or arty forms of angry politics into the music. Bands simply began to explore other themes and not limit themselves to a formulaic standard. New instrumentation incorporated into the music means a new genre, yet in whose eyes? Surely no new wave band is complete without a synthesizer. This is a reflection of the music industry trying to sell something new to the public with media to promote it. Musicians and bands do not create new labels, though perhaps A&R and managers do. The participants in these “genres” or “scenes” do not necessarily consider themselves to be part of it. An example is goth rock. Peter Murphy is quoted as saying he is a “post-punk” not a goth rocker. Yet, his band Bauhaus are considered being the founders of the genre. What one considers himself (in Murphy’s case) and what critics perceive his work as being, or what his work is being promoted as, tend to differ. A fabrication of that "new thing" is generated via media and people outside of the actual music scene. Once a new term has been established and a successful band is associated with that term, regardless of whether or not the members consider themselves part of it, imitators and copycats are abound. Copycats do not necessarily mean a bad thing, yet the whole meaning behind the term can become convoluted. Many times the imitators receive more fame and fortune than the progenitors themselves. More importantly for record companies, profit can be made from advertising a new genre through these imitators (dare I mention Nirvana?) This is where conglomerates such as Clear Channel and distribution giant Ticketmaster make millions. In the end, are the new genres a reflection of new creative output, or simply an extension of one big corporate commercial?

Some bands “defy categorization” according to critics and the record labels who release their music. They seem to shift in and out of all genres of music, yet remain principally a rock band. It has been difficult for critics to describe the music of Mr. Bungle and Mike Patton, instead opting to say that his music “genre hops” and is frantic, with conjured up images of Patton being a lunatic himself. In this way, Mr. Bungle defeats the entire notion of sub-genres and corporate plans of cashing in on the new music of the time, even though they were signed to a major label themselves. Mr. Bungle is still a far cry from being a household name, unless your folks watch a lot of Pee Wee Herman. Bands described as “genre hopping” do not necessarily try to break the mold and create a new genre. Instead, many of them appear to be reveling in the elasticity of the music itself. Rock music is one of the most elastic forms of creative output, owing a large extent of this to the blues. It is because of this that there are so many new bands out there to begin with. However, all bands still share the same roots. The classic Chuck Berry intro may be replaced by a wall of dissonant feedback before a yelling growl beckons the audience to spill the blood of the virgin into the chalice of catatonia. The spirit of getting the place rocking is still there, albeit, the production is higher, and the flames from the demons’ nostrils at the Rob Zombie show certainly put no one to sleep. In the end, a song that was released in the 70s which is currently being covered by a band with a big name could have very well been released in the 50s by a doo-wop group. Songs are recycled by new bands and the whole concept of a new genre becomes silly. There is no new genre. From the position of the artist, the music itself is a continuous progression of ideas. The position of executives and salesmen of the music, viewed as a product, dictates that a new genre is an easy way to make money off of something expected. There will always be a cyclic method to bring profits around again, as seen through the corporate eyes.

The music industry has been cashing in on the new music of the time since the introduction of Victor’s gramophones. The first jazz record was released by a band of white musicians claiming jazz music had been a completely white invention. Years later, a division of popular music into many categories means there is a little vitriol for everyone to invest in.



Post a Comment

<< Home