The Taxonomy of Rock
In most fields of study there are systems of classification. Taxonomy, originally applied to organisms, helps differentiate between, say, an oak and a maple and an elm. Similar schemes can be applied to the humanities; hierarchies can be created within language, religion, movements in art, anything. This kind of classification is necessary because it helps those engaged in the study of a specialized area to communicate about that topic.
Pop music is not the most academic of fields, especially when compared with film, performing arts, literature, visual art and other forms of music. There is, however, a pretty solid system of classifying different styles.
Writing about music admittedly comes with its advantages, but there are annoyances aplenty. Of those, the primary one is not being hounded by bands and promoters, not routinely trying to find a different set of adjectives to describe the same guitar wanking, not being the target of vitriol, not the paycheck. The single most aggravating thing about music writing is talking to band after band that, when asked what it sounds like, or how it describes its music, replies "I don't want to be pigeonholed," or "We don't sound like anything; We just sound like ourselves."
You mean to say that among hundreds of thousands of bands all working with the same 12 notes, you are unique? What an accomplishment—how avant-garde. You must be one of the most creative acts that ever was. And to think, you live right here in Albuquerque and practice in an unfinished, spider-infested basement.
The truth is that very few musicians are so innovative that they sound like nothing else and can't (yet) be classified. Musicians who insist they're outside of established realms of sound styles are either insecure egoists, ignorant of the characteristics of different genres or just lazy. Like it or not, labels are a fact of life, and they help those of us in charge of assessing sounds communicate about them. I'm sorry if you haven't listened to enough music to understand the differences between garage, psychedelic, acid rock, heavy metal, thrash, prog rock, power pop, glam, glitter glam, proto punk, post punk, hardcore, new wave, new romantic, indie pop and whateverthefuck. (And I’m a total amateur compared to all of those tubby, know-it-all middle-aged guys of the world, sitting in dark rooms surrounded by thousands of records. They're real, and they'll rip you a new one if you ever even try to talk to them about music.)
Nowadays, what with the vast Internet, if you're in a band or interested in music, there's no excuse for not having a basic knowledge of its jargon and history over the last 60 years. If you want to find out what the hell big beat is, run a Google search and have a listen. When I was a kid I had to walk five miles in the snow to get my BMG order and copy of Rolling Stone from the mailbox.
Marietta Benevento • jazz at Albuquerque Museum of Art and History
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