February 1, 2011
What’s in a Name?
Newly-coined genre names have long been the subject of heated debate and disparagement amongst musicians and fans alike, and the arrival of James Blake’s hard-to-place debut has opened the floor once again. But can we get by without them…?
It’s somewhat of an understatement to say that some genre definitions can be misleading, but there is no denying they are often also useful. Essential, in fact. They help us to discover new artists based on current favourites. They categorise award ceremonies. They distinguish our musical royalty (The Godfather of Soul, The King of Pop). They used to point us in the right direction in record shops back when they still existed. True, some are cringe-inducing, almost nonsensical (chamber pop? No wave? Ritual ambient???), but others helpfully describe musicological features (thrash metal, glitch, doo wop), or have geographical or subcultural connotations (madchester, Merseybeat, surf rock, skater punk). Steve Lamacq may have had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek during his NME days when plucking ‘scenes’ such as Fraggle and Camden Lurch out of the air; sitting back chuckling to himself as the wider music media reported on their activities, but he was demonstrating the power of the rock critic at a time when grunge was restructuring music’s mainstream; much the same way as its crossover antecedents such as punk had before.
The mid’90s saw British bands turn to the nation’s forefathers of pop for inspiration (after a couple of decades cross-pollinating across the Atlantic), and the crassly-named Britpop was born. US house music was imported and pulled through the ringer of trance, acid house, breakbeat, and into 2-step and UK garage, absorbing and metamorphosing, while all the time documented and categorised by those with a need for defined demographics and target markets.
Into the ‘00s, and British electronica splinters into countless sub-genres like a single-cell amoeba – the spread of the internet speeding up mitosis significantly – until, just into the next decade, we find ourselves confronted with an organism such as the self-titled debut from James Blake. The imminent release from the forward-thinking Londoner has not only impressed the critics, but is unique enough in style to have had them frantically trying to label his sound.
The popular starting point appears to be dubstep. Well, reports are that Blake’s bass tones have been causing structural damage to venues up and down the country, and it is true that his productions do contain the airy spook of Croydon’s finest – especially the EPs CMYK and Klavierwerke. But the stylistic gap between first single Limit to Your Love and a classic of the genre such as Digital Mystikz’ Haunted – a track Blake cites as definitive in his love affair with the sound – is too wide to pair the two together under the dubstep banner. Some early alternatives have included dubpop (too misguided), soulstep (too Jamie Woon), and minimal pop (too modern kitchen layout). One thing that music journalists are reluctant to do is backtrack, which is a shame as perhaps trip-hop might be a better reference marker.
Blake is – in the literal sense – a singer-songwriter, but this vague descriptor has been claimed by introspective guitar-strumming guys and girls with a thing or two to say about love, heartbreak, and the various bland shades in between. To this day, infamous musical-chameleon Neil Young is branded with the term, despite spending a whole career constantly reinventing himself with almost every one of his numerous albums. In his BBC Sound of 2011 biography, Blake is described as “post-dubstep”, which is as useful as any suggestion so far, but the whole thing is in danger of descending into farce; a situation summed up perfectly in grime artist Wiley’s 2004 hit Wot do U call it?, in which the rapper bemoans the ambiguity bestowed upon the various underground club sounds of the time.
The former Roll Deep man wasn’t the first to feel restricted within a genre pigeonhole. Boundary-defying collective Funkadelic’s 1978 hit Who says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?! tackles the issue head-on, the self-explanatory question of the title backed up with snarling guitars over syncopated funk rhythms. Musical u-turns towards a more commercially viable style are commonplace throughout the history of pop, with recent example Plan B’s switch from hardnosed street rapper to slick soul man an indicator of the success this can bring.
Genre tags do have their upsides. Some recent categories have inspired new music instead of merely labelling it. Chillwave, the genre du jour of the last couple of years, has such a strong emotive tie to its sound (sun-bleached guitar lines, washes of lazy reverb, a Californian sensibility) that its name alone has been the basis for many a new artist’s sound. Drum n’ Bass’ arrival in the early ‘90s had such simple and structured parameters, that producers of any skill level were able to build on its blueprint.
Often though, things aren’t quite that simple. The problem is that musicians tend to have a wide variety of tastes, and the music that inspires them quite often comes from numerous corners of pop history, leading to a blurring of the edges of old genres into new ones. This may cause problems for those wishing to archive, organise, chronicle and categorise new music, but is necessary to sustain development and progress. Settling on James Blake’s place in the wider musical cannon may have caused a few headaches amongst the critics, but his music certainly hasn’t.