Deadbeats: The Persistence of Sub Genres

February 12, 2015

One of the biggest rules of the internet is “never read YouTube comments.” Often bigoted and hate-filled, YouTube comments are the world’s new-age heckling, where one can find the loudest, most ignorant people on the internet. I recently made the mistake of scrolling down and reading the YouTube comments on the music video for “Rose of Sharon” by Title Fight. Some of the interactions are jaw dropping, with fans cursing each other out and making ad hominem attacks all in the name of defending their stance on whether the indie rock band’s newest material lives up to their older style.

Looking past all the rude and abrasive language, however, it’s clear that one kind of argument in particular underlies a lot of the disagreement. Most of the commenters seem very concerned about genre labelling.

“Rose of Sharon” and the rest of the tracks off Title Fight’s newest LP, Hyperview, are quite unconventional. With its multi-layered musical ambience, spacey guitars, and ample reverb, Hyperview is a sonic departure for Title Fight, who earned their fame as an intense, more or less straightforward post-hardcore band. But rather than discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Hyperview and what it stands for as a musical work, all anyone wants to talk about is what music label they should slap onto it, and how they can rank it among Title Fight’s discography.

Based on the comments on Title Fight’s YouTube, anyone who’s ever listened to My Bloody Valentine is some kind of expert on shoegaze and is going on and on about how cool it is that Title Fight made a “shoegaze album.” On the other side of the argument are the old school Title Fight fans, the ones who like the old “aggressive” and “hardcore” Title Fight and want to stay in that comfort zone. They feel betrayed by Hyperview’s genre shift and dismiss it almost out of hand for being different.

Any time a band puts out a new album, there are fans who embrace it and others who reject it. However, in the context of indie rock music this sort of argument is an especially dangerous problem because of how inextricable it is from genre labelling. I find that placing too much importance on genre labels only distracts a music community from the real discussion at hand: the specific merits of an album itself.

Independent rock bands are as diverse as they are niche, and often what attracts people to a band’s particular brand of indie rock are their similarities to previous, perhaps more easily identifiable bands. This is where sub-genre labels come in. Rock music sub-genre labels give music fans an unofficial shorthand for describing a band’s music. “They’re a pop punk band” is a an easier idea to convey than “They’re upbeat and loud with simple chord progression, punk music instrumentation, and pop-style melodies like Blink-182.” Labelling saves time.

But the labelling game has gotten out of hand, and every online fan community obsesses over what to call a new album so much so that it overshadows whatever elements of an album don’t fit neatly into just one sub-genre. Sure, Hyperview is more or less a shoegaze-y album, but that’s truer of some songs than others. By labelling Hyperview as a shoegaze album and by focusing their discussion on the qualities of shoegaze, Title Fight fans miss the point and avoid exploring the album’s unique themes and style.

Additionally, an overemphasis on genre-labelling leads members of the indie rock community to treat rock music sub-genres less like helpful descriptors and more like a sports team, whereby fandom is exclusive and unconditional. Fans of this nature only follow bands when they conform to whatever their favorite sub-genre label is—any sonic departure from that label is treated as a grievous betrayal. Bands aren’t expected or even allowed to evolve.

A sub-genre is just a way to describe an album or a band at a particular point in their career. It is not a 100 percent accurate encapsulation of that album, nor should it be. That’s not a problem. The problem is in caring so much about a genre label that it prevents a listener from truly experiencing an album.

In the end, Hyperview is supposed to sound like Hyperview, and it’s what the album actually sounds like on its own—just as it is for any other album—which matters most.

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