Let’s say I’m bored. Let’s also say I like soccer, and, because of the immense time on my hands, I decide to start a soccer league. Because I’m bored, like soccer, have time on my hands, and am a stickler for organization, I decide to start multiple soccer leagues. The first one I start I call ‘Soccer League’, because in this scenario I am also , apparently, extremely lazy and creatively impaired. Soccer League uses MLS (Major League Soccer) rules. My second league I name ‘Christian Soccer League.’ This league is intended for Christians who enjoy the game of soccer. My third league is called ‘Atheist Soccer League,’ and is intended for those who don’t believe in God (I was skeptical whether or not to include agnostics here; but I guess I won’t really ever know for sure why I didn’t). My final league is called ‘Football League,’ because it is intended for foreign immigrants seeking community and a league that doesn’t have the word ‘soccer’ in the title.
This organization sounds fine and dandy, doesn’t it? Soccer League will play solid MLS style soccer, the Christians can have their hedge of protection and a minimum of seventeen ‘Father God’ utterances in the pregame prayer, the atheists will get to scoff at said prayers, and the Football League may or may not even speak English at any point. Everybody seems happy. Organization! Yay!
Unfortunately, I seem to have overlooked a key part of organizational structure. Of the four leagues, only my first league has any indication of what kind of soccer is going on. I can’t very well say that Christian Soccer League is playing ‘Christian’ soccer, can I? That’s absurd. That tells me nothing and gives me no indication, no information about the core event that’s going on. There isn’t ‘atheist soccer’ or ‘world soccer’ going on. Just soccer. My logistical decision to divide the leagues this way is not valid if you are interested in what kind of soccer is being played.
A genre is, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” It is a classification tool we use to navigate through the sea of creative enterprise. Without genres, we would be aimlessly lost, searching for Kenny Loggins and ending up with Metallica.
The most popular software platforms on the planet use genres to classify music. For instance, iTunes uses quite a few genres in its database. Open up an iTunes store and you’ll see a few dozen genres by which you can search: pop, rock, hip hop/rap, dance, R&B/soul, alternative, singer/songwriter, electronic, country, Christian & gospel, world, reggae, classical.
What should spring to mind as you read this list is that some genres are not equal. Rock, pop, country, and the like specifically describe the music. These genres are giving you relevant, important information about what are about to hear. They are like the first league–Soccer League–organized by style, by form, by content. Then there are oddly weird genres: World? Christian & gospel? Classical? These labels tell you nothing important about style, form, or content. Rather, they are giving you ancillary information that, while interesting and informative, is not of prime importance if you want to actually organize the music.
Simply put: there is no ‘classical’ genre, no ‘Christian’ genre, no ‘world’ genre. They don’t exist. As much as Christian music is a profitable enterprise and a legitimate musical community, it is not a legitimate genre. Legitimate musical genres are formed through the sharing of similar musical properties. In other words, the music itself is judged. What does it sound like? What instruments are used? What sorts of songwriting is preferred? Lyrical content, religion, or place of origin are not sorts of qualifications that should be used for genres. These sorts of genres are bad genres because the core content, the music, is totally overlooked in place of emphasis on other random qualities. For musicians in these genres, it forces them into a warped interpretation of their craft and can they can sometimes be subjected to a minefield of bizarre judgment. Didn’t reference Jesus enough in your new album? Well, then, you’re not a real ‘Christian’ band. Off you go.
Unfortunately, there’s not much of a solution. Spotify and iTunes genres are so well-entrenched that an overhaul of the system is not likely. This is even more of a problem for genres like ‘classical,’ as our society revolves so mightily around popular music that classifying art music amongst it is extraordinarily difficult. The last movement of Beethoven’s 9th lasts about half an hour and cannot be broken up into happy little chunks without destroying perspective and, therefore, the piece itself. So, it gets lumped in with Palestrina masses and Copland fanfares, all of which are radically different from each other, because of no good reason. If, at random, you take two pieces of music from the classical genre pile, they are likely no more alike than a cat and a blender. However, the previous two are lumped together, while you better hope the latter two are not.
So, what can you do? I, for one, would love to banish the ‘Christian’ genre forever. Art is art, and it should be judged as stuff. It’s ridiculous to do use a similar banner for other activities. “Hey Carl, let’s go Christian Drive to the Christian Mall where we can Christian Shop for Christian Music. Afterwards, we can go play in the Christian Soccer League against our opponent Tribulation Force!”
Genres are sometimes nonsense. Evaluate art based on what is most relevant, and you’ll be all right. Who knows, you might glean some interesting insight along the way.