what the heck do we even call it?

So in the “extensive” research I’ve done for my thesis so far (listening to music in pubs, going to gigs, etc), I’ve come across many different labels being applied to the underground/punk/hardcore/independent/alternative/grunge music scene in America (from the late 70s to the early 90s).  And usually, if someone calls it one thing, they are quite adamant about the negative connotations of the other terms, especially if used to describe the music and/or scenes they were personally involved with. 

The main danger I’ve noticed in applying an umbrella term is that, by doing so, a nuanced understanding of a particular scene or the bands within it becomes a challenge. For example, in labelling anything that came out of the Pacific Northwest (in the late 80s-early 90s) as “grunge,” acts as strikingly different as Nirvana and Pearl Jam* are lumped together in the same category. 

So, dear friends and readers, I humbly ask for your thoughts and feedback on the issue of “labels.” Are they good? Bad? Do they even matter? And what the heck do terms like: underground, punk, hardcore, independent, alternative, and grunge mean to you?  

*I mean, of course, they are different musically.

Explore posts in the same categories: Matters of Debate

5 Comments on “what the heck do we even call it?”

  1. Lime Says:

    I think you’ve identified a problem that is unavoidable in the collection and management of all human knowledge. Politcs, art, literature, psychology all have these same kind of labelling and categorising problems; when is a political party a ‘right wing’ party, or a ‘far right wing’ party, or when is a novel ‘post-modernist’ or ‘magical-realist’. In the scientific disciplines, it’s solved to some degree simply by the establishment and enforcement of an authoritative system (platypi are mammals, because that is how it has been classified, and now everyone just agrees), though this sometimes breaks down too when new discoveries are made, or sometimes when enough authority is gathered by someone who wants to change something (like how Pluto got demoted.

    The labelling of bands and everything else is naturally limiting, but its also inescapable for the purposes of communication. If you want to study more than one band, you’re going to have to place them within larger organisational frameworks (probably would even if you only studied one band too). Ultimately, as you’re the academic authority, or working towards establishing yourself as the authority on this, this labelling is going to be responsibility, and really your most important one.

    One thing that’s interesting though with the area you work on is that the current system of labelling for rock music that people use has probably only been moderately influenced by academic authorities; with far greater influence coming from record companies, journalists, and the subjects themselves. It’s also likely that even if you are established as the ultimate academic authority in the field, and, for example, try to split Pearl Jam and Nirvana into two separate genres, you’re going to be in competition with record companies, journalists, and many other popular writers for acceptance of your view. This sort of thing wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if you studied, oh say, Greek philology or seventeenth-century China.

    I think therefore that academic specialisation in Rock ‘n’ Roll history (probably also in any other kind of popular-culture history) is going to be a tightrope walk between simply accepting the categorisations that have already been established and may not be at all useful for bettering our understanding of the subject, and creating brand new ways of labelling and categorising bands that may be more useful, but may also just be ignored by other non-academic writers who continue to use the already established labels.

  2. Maybe it is all called folk music? Drums are the best instrument though, no need for debate there.

  3. phil Says:

    I hate labels and I use them all the time. I don’t really believe in labels because I know that in every music there’s the influence of so many different genres. It might come across as bluesy, and theoretically might even be blues. But the influence behind the playing might be from umpteen backgrounds. I’ve never written umpteen before, said it a few times but that’s it. The person playing the “blues” solo might listen to rock or country the majority of the time.

    There’s another issue I have. To me blues music means a good time. Blues to some people means survival, and a way to cope, blues to others means appreciating that you’re not the only person going through something. So the issue with labels is peoples association to the genre. I call two hours traffic “pop” because they call themselves “pop”. When I compare them to Brittany etc. who I also call pop, I get confused. I like two hours traffic. I guess that’s a probblem with language more than genres though, you’re always going to have an idea what something means to you but it has a different connotation to everyone else. Sometimes I’ll write off music that I haven’t heard based on it’s genre description alone.

    I do see the point of labels though. On the whole I don’t like much ‘punk’. So if I’m searching for music that I like, I’m probably not going to start there. But if I’m feeling really patient and in the mood for punk I might try.

    I guess I see labels as necessary but that people should be cautious when using labels and maybe more importantly when hearing them.

    Hope that makes sense, I’m enjoying your blog

  4. […] Matters of Debate on 2010/03/08 by the.past.is.unwritten As mentioned already in the post what the heck do we even call it?  there is a considerable amount of danger in applying labels to music scenes and the bands involved […]

  5. “Genre busting: the origin of music categories”


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