Music and the Myth of Genres

Genres exist to make it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for.

Genres are like a map with labels, arrows, and a legend. Thanks to genres, we can expect a country song to sound this way and a jazz piece to sound that way.

But what about the bands that don’t easily fit into a genre? What do we do with them? What do we do with all the Mammal Hands, Radioheads, and Dirty Projectors?

One solution is that we can put a band like Mammal Hands into a subgenre. What kind of music do they play? They play jazz music. But they sometimes play their jazz music slowly. So we can put them into the “ambient jazz” subgenre. But once we start talking about subgenres, things get complicated.

Here’s a detail of the list of electronic music subgenres from Wikipedia.

Free Tekno? Bouncy Techno? Skweee? Intelligent dance music? Yeah, intelligent dance music. We can look no further than Richard D. James, the father figure of “intelligent” dance music, to understand how silly things get when we worry too much about categories. He says,

It’s basically saying ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.’ It’s really nasty to everyone else’s music.

Richard D. James on Perfect Sound Forever

So what kind of music is Aphex Twin actually making, if it’s not what the Board of Genres says it is?

It’s music.

Richard D. James is making music.

Daniel Handler is writing novels.

And Sofia Coppola is directing movies.

Genres are categories. Categories make it easier for us to put things into boxes and bins so that it’s easier for us to find what we’re looking for. So what’s the problem, then?

The problem is that we rely on genres to tell us what we should look for.

Country music has a style that puts people like me off from listening to it. But Fleet Foxes is a band that you could sort of call a “country” band. But if someone were to tell me that it’s sort of like a “country” band, they’d convince me to listen to anything but.

And so this brings me to the idea of motifs. I can’t give you the textbook definition because I’m not classically trained in music. I’m trained in my own taste. I know what kind of music I like, and why. So a motif, to me, is a theme – kind of diction – expressed through the music no matter what genre. I like music that’s dramatic, powerful, simple in category, but technically complicated and difficult to appreciate. Kind of like a Dostoyevsky novel.

We like genres because they’re useful. Genres point us in a direction. But motifs are what bring our souls into an ephemeral trance when the players hit that orgasmic key and tempo change. A motif is how music invites our senses, in the words of Nietzsche, “to enjoy themselves.”

Genres organize.

Motifs materialize.

The Penguin Latte Podcast #17 – Marketing as Self-Expression with Arielle Kimbarovsky

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Are advertisers evil? Are marketers the scourge of the earth, hell-bent on stealing our attention and selling it off to some nameless corporation? Yes, and no. It’s every good marketer’s job to capture our attention. And advertisers get paid to understand what makes people want to buy things. But to call either evil would be like accusing your grandma of being a Satanist (unless she really is one). The best marketers get us as excited about products and services as grandma makes us excited about fresh chocolate chip cookies.

In this episode, I speak with one of the most delightful and creative marketers I’ve ever met: Arielle Kimbarovsky (@ariellekimbar on Twitter). Arielle Kimbarovsky is the head of social media and marketing for M1 Finance. Her spec work portfolio (got it right that time) is full of an exuberance that reveals her eye for color choice, words that evoke powerful emotions, and stories impossible to forget.

If you’ve listened to my episode with Robbie Crabtree, then you know how much I value communication. Design is a form of communication. Some of the most difficult problems I’ve had with the blog and podcast were to pick the right words, color choice, shape, and names for titles. What you say matters less than how you say it. This episode serves as an opportunity to learn how to express yourself through multiple mediums: painting, writing, talking, music, video— nearly all the topics we discuss relate to communication. We also discuss reading, being introverted, taking breaks, being yourself, and thinking big. It’s a wide-ranging conversation full of possibility and delight.

So, please enjoy my conversation with Arielle Kimbarovsky!

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