Friday, April 17, 2009

Music Labels

This post is a response of sorts to one of Dave's comments on my Labels post

I have always thought that labels within rock music, especially within punk rock, served no useless purpose and consider them, like Dave said, nonsense.

Take for instance the genre "alternative." This is a ridiculous label and whoever thought it up should be hung upside down by their shoestrings!  I hate this label! It does not describe a single thing in regards to music. Alternative to what? When I hear the term "alternative" in regards to music, I have to ask "What do they sound like?" because that term is a meaningless term. 

Alternative is used way too often. Alternative rock. Meaningless. Alternative clothing. Alternative to what clothing?!? Alternative life-styles. Are we basically just saying this as a more gentle way of calling some one's lifestyle not normal? 

Yeah, alternative doesn't describe a damn thing to me and people should stop using it.

Grunge rock is another stupid term. I think this was originally used to describe a cross breed of heavy metal and punk. Just what we need. Words to describe hybrid music and to further darken the issue of what a band sounds like.

I do agree that SOME of the labels do well to describe a particular style of music. "Soul" or "rap" for instance. You have a pretty good idea what you are about to listen to when you hear these genres.

But labels like "rock" "hard rock" "heavy metal" you really have no idea what you could be getting yourself into.

And the punk rock sub-genres. Some of them are completely useless. I don't understand the difference between "street punk" and "crust punk" and "hardcore." I have no idea of how a person distinguishes an "emo" band from an "indie rock" band or a "math rock" band.

And "surf punk" or "skate punk." Aren't these basically the same thing? Do I have to be a surfer to like "surf punk?" And weren't the Beach Boys considered "surf rock?"

A lot of times you can't always tell if a band is punk rock or just rock. Take the Descendents for instance. They are not necessarily what I would call a "punk rock" band. There is a lot of pop music in their style. So thus, they get lumped into the "pop punk" category. Which of course serves to further confuse the issue.

Whenever someone asks me what type of music my band plays, I usually respond "I dunno. punk maybe. indie rock maybe." What type of punk? "I dunno, maybe pop punk."  Then to try and make it easier to understand I tell the person that some of our stuff sounds like this band but other songs sound closer to stuff done by that band. I try to make it simple by saying any punk or indie rock which of course does not help.

And the more I think about it, the term indie rock is almost as stupid a term as alternative. It doesn't describe crap. "What type of band are they?" Indie rock. "Ok but what do they sound like?" 

That is the problem with these labels. Practically all of them. If I have to ask someone more than one question to get an idea of what a band sounds like, the label(s) isn't working!

Heck, even with country music these days you need to add a modifier to what an artist or band sounds like.

Come to think of it, even rap has sub-genres. Gangsta rap. East coast rap. West coast swing. Hip Hop. WTH?!?!

Oh and electronic music! That is a crazy one I will ever figure out. Industrial. Rave. Trip hop. Electronica. Synth pop. And some of these even cross over. Industrial can fall under heavy metal. Trip hop can cross over into rap. Come on! Do you really have to make this MORE difficult? No crossing over! Pick a genre!

Just for grins, I thought I would check out my iPod and go through a general breakdown of what genres I have on it (iTunes assigns a genre to music). So here is what I came up with:
Christian - there are 43 songs in this genre
Christian Hardcore - 150 songs
Hard Rock - 3
Indie Rock - 142
Metal - 28
Pop - 4
Punk - 507
R&B - 7
Rock - 436
Rock/Pop - 22

iTunes is not helping this issue!

And now here is a list of some of the genres and subgenres with a very short description of what each one means and an artist or band that someone has assigned to that particular genre. I used several resources to get these descriptions and thus did not bother to quote any of them.

rock - a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure.  That's a pretty non-specific, generic definition.

heavy metal - very loud, brash rock music, often with shouted, violent lyrics. Couldn't this refer to punk too?
Bands: Black Sabbath, Kiss, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden. hmmm...i never thought of Def Leppard as a band with violent lyrics

hard rock - the original form of rock'n'roll, basically dependent on a consistently loud and strong beat.
Bands: The Who, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Van Halen

soft rock - a comparatively unaggressive, melodic style of rock'n'roll in which the arrangement and lyrics are emphasized more than the beat.
Bands: Air Supply, Billy Joel, James Taylor...

rockabilly - a form of popular music combining features of rock'n'roll and bluegrass.
Bands: Amazing Royal Crowns, Hot Rod Lincoln, The Stray Cats

pop music - a genre of music that features a noticeable rhythmic element, catchy melodies and hooks, a mainstream style and conventional structure. Mainstream? huh?
Artists: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Police

Pop rock - a hybrid of pop music and rock music that uses catchy pop style with light lyrics over top of guitar-based songs.
Artists: Rod Stewart, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Chicago..

alternative - a genre of rock music consisting of various subgenres that emerged from the independent music scene since the 1980s. Absolutely ridiculous definition. means nothing as I have said about this genre.

punk rock - aggressive form of rock music marked by a fast, aggressive beat, loud guitar with abrupt chord changes and nihilistic lyrics.
Bands include: Black Flag, X, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys.

pop punk - a fusion genre that combines elements of punk rock with pop music.
Bands include: Ramones, Descendents, Buzzcocks.

hardcore punk - subgenre of punk rock that is generally thicker, heavier and faster than punk rock where songs are usually short, fast and loud.
Bands: Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat.

emo - rock music typically characterized by melodic musicianship and expressive, confessional lyrics.
Bands: Sunny Day Real Estate, Embrace, Rites of Spring.

screamo - evolving from hardcore punk, this subgenre applies to a more aggressive offshoot of emo using short, chaotically executed songs.

ska - genre originating from Jamaica that combined elements of Caribbean music and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues characterized by a walking bass line accented with offbeat rhythms.

ska punk - a fusion genre that combines ska and punk rock containing
Bands: The Specials, The Beat, Operation Ivy.

indie rock - a subgenre of alternative rock oh great! that refers to rock musicians that are or were unsigned or have signed to independent record labels. so...that would make Black Flag and Bad Religion indie rock>.
Bands: Aztec Camera, The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Husker Du.

Oi - working class street-level subgenre of punk rock with simple musical structure.
Bands: Street Dogs, Dropkick Murphys, The Business.

street punk - working class subgenre of punk rock that emerged from the oi style characterized by single note guitar lines and short solos.
Bands: Sham 69, Angelic Upstarts, UK Subs.

skate punk - originally a derivative of hardcore punk, it is fast and aggressive but focuses more on melodic and harmonious vocals and usually more technical.
Bands: JFA, Agent Orange, Suicidal Tendancies, Pennywise.

math rock - rhythmically complex, guitar-based style of rock music that is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures including irregular stopping and starting, angular melodies and dissonant chords.

rhythm and blues (R&B) - was originally called "race music" or "black music" it refers to any music made by and for black Americans combining styles of jazz, blues, pop and gospel. this sounds damn racist if you ask me.

soul - combines elements of gospel and R&B using catchy rhythms and an intense vocal sound.
Artists: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight.

rap - music characterized by the rhythmic spoken delivery of rhymes, wordplay and poetry delivered over a beat.

hip hop - consists of a rhythmic vocal style accompanied with backing beats. term is used synonymously with rap.
Artists: Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang.

gangsta rap - genre of hip hop that reflects the violent lifestyles of inner-city youths. 
Artists: Ice T, NWA, Boogie Down Productions, Ice Cube.

industrial - music comprising many styles of experimental music and electronic music characterized by an abrasive and aggressive fusion of rock and electronic music.
Bands: Throbbing Gristle, Front 242, KMFDM, Ministry

rave - consists of forms of electronic dance music including some forms of trance music which features samples, loops and synthesizers.
Bands: The KLF, 808 State, DJ Scot Project

trip hop - refers to a music trend of downtempo electronic music characterized by breakbeats and a sample-heavy, moody sound.
Bands: Massive Attack, Portishead.

new wave - emerging from punk rock, it incorporated various influences such as electronic music, disco, and funk.
Bands:  Talking Heads, Television, Blondie.

synth pop - subgenre of new wave and pop music where the synthesize is the dominant musical instrument.
Bands: Kraftwerk, Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet.

So there you have it. Does that help you at all to describe a band's music? Not me. These descriptions seem to confuse me more often than they help.

My brain is starting to hurt.  

It is time to go back to the drawing board on the naming of music genres!!!


  1. Labels are frustrating when you have a band, or you are a producer trying to make a unique statement. I always had the same problem when trying to define my music to the people who asked me my style.
    On the other hand, there is so much music out there that there needs to be alot of genre/subgenre or else it will be chaos to wade through it. It is a blessing and a curse. It is good, because it can introduce you to new music based on it's classification, and bad because it might turn you off of a song if you don't like the classification. I think keep an open mind, and take it all with a bit of skeptisism. Good article...

  2. I agree that it can be useful when trying to introduce a person to new music. The problem occurs when the classification makes no sense.

    For instance, if you meet someone in a band or someone is telling you about a band and you ask them what kind of music they are, 2 things can happen: (1) the person can say they are heavy metal or rap (for instance) and you will have a pretty decent idea what type of band it is; or (2) they will say alternative or indie rock and you will have no clue what they sound like.

    I think these 2 music classifications are probably the ones I have the most problem with because they are both meaningless terms.

    Thanks for visiting. Come again!

  3. Hmmmm…where to start? :o)

    First off I tend to agree with LP Music Producer that music labels serve a purpose but I also agree with you Steve that things have gotten ridiculous. I’m going to touch on a few different genres that you have listed.

    Alternative – This was a term that originally was used as a catch-all / umbrella term for all of the genres and sub-genres that grew out of the punk scene in the 1970’s. When I first got into the scene, the term used to describe it by the kids in my school and the local scene was “progressive.” I first saw the term “alternative” used in the record store Camelot Music (they had an alternative section that was a collection of punk, industrial, ska, techno, indie rock, and so on) and on MTV’s 120 Minutes (which was an excellent show back in the late 80’s & early 90’s). The term I think was used by those in the industry as a place to put all of the non-mainstream stuff that was listened by the kids with the weird haircuts and combat boots. After the explosion of “alternative” music into the mainstream in the 1990’s the term has become pretty meaningless. I still think of it as a catch-all term though.

    Rockabilly – Rockabilly actually predates rock and roll and was a mixture of R&B and country. Most early rock ‘n’ roll folks (Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, etc.) were actually playing rockabilly.

    Ska punk – I’d have a hard time classifying The Specials as ska punk. They were (or are if they are still together and playing) a second wave ska band. They were part of the Two Tone ska scene in England in the 1970’s. Ska punk would be bands like Operation Ivy (who you mentioned), The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Skankin’ Pickle, and Fishbone just to name a few.

    Indie rock – This is one of the more confusing ones admittedly. Originally indie rock was a term used to describe bands on independent record labels that took after bands like The Replacements and Husker Du (and British bands like The Smiths and The Jesus & Mary Chain were given this label as well). The term didn’t really take off until the 1990’s with bands like Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, Superchunk, and Pavement. Most of the early indie rock bands (like those aforementioned and The Flaming Lips) were originally considered punk bands but as the scene grew and developed, this sub-genre reared its ugly head. When I hear the term indie rock I tend to think of stuff like the bands that I have mentioned and also newer stuff like Rilo Kiley and Bishop Allen.

    Oi and Street punk – Oi is often known as “skinhead rock ‘n’ roll.” The term street punk was used a lot in the late 1990’s to describe bands that were basically oi or oi-like/oi influenced but that wanted to avoid the skinhead stigma. I wouldn’t label the Street Dogs or the Dropkick Murphys as oi though. They are highly oi influenced but not straight up oi. The Business are a great example of an oi band.

    Grunge – This is another label that completely changed from its original meaning. Originally grunge was used to describe punk bands like Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies and the bands that they influenced like Buffalo Tom, Teenage Fanclub, and Nirvana. After Nirvana broke, the term came to mean “anything from Seattle” and was thrown on bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

    You also forgot to mention one of my newly favorite genres, power pop. :o)

    This does get a little crazy and things like alternative really have lost any usefulness that they once had, but overall I think a lot of these labels are helpful.

  4. "Alternative"

    I agree Dave that this was a catch-all term. The problem is, when I hear the term "music genre" I am thinking that this word the person is using is going to describe to me what a band sounds like. And to me, the "alternative" genre does not do that.

    You are right though, I think we can blame MTV's 120 minutes for that stupid label.

    I would say that same for "indie rock." I really just don't think it serves well to describe a band's particular music style or helps me distinguish a particular band from another.


    I hate this term too, although not near as much as I hate the term "alternative." It is interesting however that all bands from Seattle got stuck with that label in that particular time period. Bands like Queensryche were never, are never, and mostly likely will never, be a "grunge" band. To me they are closer to progressive metal.

    I will be doing a sequel to this list soon in order to catch the genres I missed in the first post.