Text by Ricard Martín
Illustration by Alice Meteignier
Omnipotent Spotify, that pleasant oceanic millpond that finally settled after years of shipwreck through gigabytes of illegal downloads, have turned us music fans into small digital audio deities. Fed-up and saturated little gods convinced we have the understanding of pop universe’s flow (to call it somehow) and its connections at our fingertips. Before the multiplicity of sonic paths that bifurcate, music journalism, back in the seventies, set up the mechanism of inventing musical genres, the madder the better. This flourished during the golden age of the music press. As Ursula K. Le Guin said in the Earthsea stories, knowing the true name of something means exercising power over that entity. Becoming a penpusher demiurge that comes up with musical genres means exercising stupidity. And despite all that, some of the most stupid labels we can imagine have fossilised in the collective imagination. The most difficult thing in music criticism (as in film or gastronomic criticism) is to explain well why a work is worth the while and establishing connections with other items in the same orbit.
Journalist to be: suffering from blank page panic? Use a stupid label! I’m sure in the space between techno labour and grindie you will find your inspiration. Making use of your pop library is also a wonderful way of proving your musical knowledge against a rival. Cataloguing and pigeonholing are better for boasting -and more bombastic- than reflecting. Throw labels as knives, position yourself as an erudite. Stupid musical genres, as redundant and empty as possible, are a direct passport to authenticity (whatever that is) that still abounds today in the most short sighted modern spheres. I will only say two words: northern soul.
The paradigmatic example: dark soul and pop Motown songs became the favourite tunes of the Northern England mod revival in the mid-seventies. “A British fantasy of American negritude”, as Simon Reynolds says. Or when the guy DJing determines the genre of what is being DJed: as it became a race to find the strangest and less-known song it went from being called rare soul (a sensible and descriptive adjective) to northern soul, a smart-arse label for an imaginary genre that pronounced with enough pride justifies tons of contempt towards those of us who do not base our lives in Lambrettas and Fred Perrys. Had Chimo Bayo and his tribe discovered Amon Düül while high, maybe krautrock would be now called bakalarock.
Impossible not to think about prefixes, that unmissable element when it comes to the creation of musical sub-genres. My favourite (I’m not very original, but I’m no expert, sorry) is post-rock, paradoxically coined by Reynolds, a titan of sensibleness. Post-rock unites two of the essential elements of a stupid label: when you utter the word, you say something very obvious with a transcendent air that morally positions you above other genres. Post-rock, Reynolds dixit: “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, guitars as tone colour and texture facilitators more than of riffs and power-chords”. I guess that rock purposes are rocking or communicating: thus, the moral position of someone declaring himself a fan of post-rock is three metres above Bob Seger or Big Star. The subtext of saying that you are a fan of post-rock is making clear that you don’t give a toss about fifty years of a despicable tradition that starts with Bo Diddley. The paradox being that when you listen to Mogwai or Hammock, you remember why you left the most experimental Pink Floyd, the Meddle era ones, on the shelf: because they were a pain in the ass. Post-rock is the retrieval of experimental tediousness twenty years later, taking advantage of the fact that people have already forgotten it was a pain in the ass. Stupid label through recycling.
And if post-rock is one of the most solid genres formed with a prefix, imagine the absolute irrelevance hidden behind many other derivations formed in the same way: unblack metal (extreme Christian metal, same mouse squealing and potato sack thrown on the drum kit as black metal, but no Satan adoration, a key cool element), nu-gaze (a revival of shoegaze, a stupid label which was never recognised by the solid and vibrant bands which were labelled as such, like The Jesus & Mary Chain or The Charlatans, but admitted by most boring ones such as Ride) or nu-metal. Is that band worth listening to? You will know if it has transcended an artificial genre. Who remembers the NWOBM – New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (pronounced “newobm”, as with a muffin in your mouth) now? But no one beats the Maiden when it comes to filling a stadium. Little shits such as Linkin’ Park, despite their commercial success, are pigeonholed 100% in the bloody nu-metal category.
The accumulation and archive of almost seven decades of rock and pop have turned passed times into a giant wardrobe in which Frankenstein bands such as Animal Collective or Ariel Pink combine clothes with more or less colour and inspiration. The same combinatory freedom and vast archive is available to any stupid label-monger; with the obvious difference that his work is a lot easier, of course. I’m sure that accepted labels such as nintendocore or reactionary bluegrass were coined after a massive alcohol binge.
Other labels of almost imaginary genres such as lowercase -extreme minimalism in which inaudible sounds are amplified to the limit- were probably created by their first practitioner, who thought he had invented something new. In other cases, deformation of reality is key: taking the whole for the parts, like a wild Eduardo Inda. See for instance the sublime label Latin metal (“heavy metal with rhythmic and percussive influence of genres such as salsa and mambo”), including bands such as… Barón Rojo and Obús.
As Daniel Clowes predicted, prophetic, twenty years ago, the devaluation of the cultural object has made possible that even a recording of your mother cutting her nails can have fans. And for that sound, you bet, they will find a label too.