Last night, I met a genre pig. To look at, he was like any other pig. He wore oversized glasses and hadn’t washed in weeks, but that doesn’t set anyone apart any more. I don’t think I could spot him again in a crowd if I tried.
But pigs aren’t built on looks alone; you have to have an ideology.
And his ideology revealed itself thus to me: in his view, I wasn’t allowed to put Nina Simone on a blues comp I was making, because Nina Simone wasn’t really blues.
So who is really blues, then, mister?
Oh, Hungry Joe Washington and Big Texas Willy and all those finger-pickin’ nigger folk, of course.
And John Mayall and Rory Gallagher and Johnny Winter, that lot, are they blues too?
Well, yes, they are, but they’re white blues: their music traces back to hard-times music from the delta, but infuses it with electricity and youthful aggression.
(Let’s not forget: Johnny Winter is about three thousand years old now, and a huge, ear-shredding gazillion watt amp isn’t the same as youthful aggression. But never mind.)
This was followed by me reeling off a list of names, and the genre pig pronouncing judgement on their blues-ness, or lack thereof:
Muddy Waters? Blues.
Jeff Beck? Not blues.
Bloodwyn Pig? Not blues.
Lonesome Jimmy Smith? Blues, without a doubt. (But how? I just made him up!)
The Fiery Furnaces? Not blues.
Billie Holiday? Not blues. (?!)
Stevie Ray Vaughan? Blues.
So now I know how it works. Like everybody else in the world, the genre pig needs boxes to put his artists in, and all of those boxes need to be labelled and stacked in their correct place. He’ll be lost if he doesn’t do it this way.
But good art isn’t tidy, and good artists don’t think in those terms. And not grasping that leads to most of the idiocy about genres you see in the music press, and elsewhere.
People fight all the time over how much of Nina Simone’s music takes from the blues, and how much is jazz, or soul, or gospel, or pop. All of them miss the point by a mile. The really important things to know about Simone are, she’s twisted and intense, she’s exceptionally gifted, and she fights demons in her head which show up in the songs she writes.
Genre pigs, in all their forms, won’t be satisfied until they’ve reduced the fundamentally organic to a sterile set of catchwords, at the expense of everything that is actually valuable about art.
Fight it. Don’t let anybody’s narrowness of vision determine what you hear. Don’t worry about whether it’s punk, or post-punk, or new wave, or trip-hop, or synth-pop, or any of those other names which critics trap themselves with. If it works for you, it works.
If it doesn’t, fuck it.
Everything else is just clutter.