The debate over music genres and what they mean certainly isn’t a new one in the country music landscape. Heck, we announced last May that we would stop grading with consideration of genre, mostly because it was too difficult. We’re not the only ones either. Josh Schott of Country Perspective has noted that he believes genre lines are silly, whereas an outlet such as Country Exclusive has stated that while we shouldn’t let genre constrict what we like, genre is in fact important. I take the exact same stance. Heck, Grady Smith just offered another discussion of genre lines in his country music chatter video. While we’re throwing out other examples of outlets that have written on this subject, Kyle Coroneos of Saving Country Music has also taken a similar stance to the one presented by Country Exclusive.
Regardless of whichever stance you take on the issue, this piece is going to try to reach out to every viewpoint out there. Whether you’re someone who only likes their music to sound one way or someone who loves it all, hopefully you find something of value from this.
Anyway, I asked a question on Twitter recently that stated “is Rhiannon Giddens’ album Freedom Highway genre-defying?” What I meant by that was, if you were tasked with assigning just one genre to it, could you?
While we didn’t get a ton of responses to the question, it would seem most of you voted “yes”, we cannot assign one singular genre to Freedom Highway. It’s too hard. There’s country, there’s roots, there’s soul, there’s even hip-hop! You all are right, this is way too hard. Or is it?
See, we’re not going to be getting into quality until later, but for right now, I just want to point out that Freedom Highway is a perfect representation of music as a whole. Think about it – you really can’t call it one single genre. You can say it’s a country album, but “Better Get It Right The First Time” refutes that, as do other tracks. You can’t call it hip-hop because of songs like “Julie” and others. What do we call it? Who knows. We don’t have a singular genre we can assign to it. All of these sounds are living under one giant musical umbrella. I didn’t just describe Freedom Highway though, really I described music just in general.
Now, maybe you are like me and you like all the sounds present. Heck, there’s a reason I praised it so much before. However, one thing that I think gets lost in the genre argument is – it’s okay if you don’t. Guess what? As I say time and time and time and time and time again, taste is subjective, and there’s no telling why we gravitate towards what we gravitate towards. If the only song you like is say, “Julie” for that earthy banjo and overall more rootsy, country sound, that’s cool. Maybe the more soulful/poppier tones of the title track aren’t your cup of tea. That’s completely cool. I would ask that you at least give it a chance though (which of course means take a chance on something you think you may not like). You never really know until you try.
NOW, let’s talk about assigning labels to the songs themselves. Can it be done? Well yeah, I think so. I think “At The Purchaser’s Option” can easily be labeled as a folk song, and “Hey Bebe” is definitely soulful. Heck, I’d even say “We Could Fly” is a pure country song. Although I will admit, it would sound weird if all of a sudden we got this weird electric guitar solo in “Julie”, and can you imagine a song like “We Could Fly” with a rap breakdown? See what I mean? We’re assigning the labels to songs much like we can for whole genres even though we can’t classify the entire musical world. Some things fit, and some don’t. That’s not to say Rhiannon couldn’t have done those things if she had wanted, but it does go to show it would have most likely been a little off-putting.
Now I’ll admit, when I made the poll, I immediately realized soon after that there were other albums I could have easily substituted in, and there is perhaps no better example than Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde. I mean shit, it’s got everything except for hip-hop I think. Assigning one genre to this behemoth? Hell no! The songs themselves though? Eh, why not? “Mango Tree” is obviously jazz, and “Junkyard” is a hard hitting metal journey. Meanwhile, “Tomorrow Never Comes” serves the EDM crowd while “Dress Blues” is somewhat folk in nature. Much like before, it would seem weird if these songs deviated anymore than they did. I can’t exactly see the band copying the same metal breakdown that occurs on “Junkyard” or “Heavy Is The Head” and pasting it in the middle of songs like “Homegrown” or “Beautiful Drug”. It would seem that for the most part that while this is a genre-less album, the parts that encompass it are not.
That’s not to say every album follows this formula however. Hell, not even every song on Jekyll + Hyde or Freedom Highway fits this formula. I’m always going to be amazed at how Yelawolf pulled of a blend of country and hip-hop on Love Story, and the wonderful adventure that is Al Scorch’s country-punk-bluegrass-jazzy Circle Round The Signs blows me away every damn time. However, more often that not though, even when these artists want to preach about how they “aren’t bound by genre”, chances are they are somewhat. Heck, I thought Chris King’s “Animal” was a bold step towards ditching genre last year, and make no mistake, it’s excellent, but all it really is is a rock album with electronic influences in parts. It’s not necessarily not bound by genre.
Now obviously you could take an album like Jekyll + Hyde to battle by stating that it doesn’t belong in the country genre, and that’s fair enough, but that’s not the portion of the argument I’m trying to dig at.
Next, let’s take a look at quality. It’s such a stupid concept really, but humor me will you? When I say “quality” I will try to look at things from a more critical consensus point of view, not necessarily because I want to but because it brings up another great point. When it comes to Rhiannon’s album, you’ll notice I didn’t bring up a ton of genres outside of country, folk, hip-hop (and that’s one song), soul and pop (somewhat). Jekyll + Hyde though? Well, I already said it had essentially everything but hip-hop really.
One criticism that has always plagued this album aside from it being marketed in the wrong genre (again, not getting into that) is that it’s wildly inconsistent as a whole. It’s weird to go from a track like the jazz styled “Mango Tree” to something extremely heavy like “Heavy Is The Head”, and those jarring transitions are something you get all over the album. Again, this isn’t speaking on a personal level either. I like it, and I like the album, but I see the criticism nonetheless.
And maybe that speaks to something, because the issue isn’t “artists shouldn’t do this” or “artists should only make this type of music”. No. No. No. No. NO. The issue is that it often leads to incoherent results anyway. There’s certainly blends that can happen with genres, and I like when those happen, but to ever think we could live in a music world where we really aren’t bound by genre is insane. I can’t imagine going from hearing a twin fiddle melody to hearing a vibrant horn section to hearing all of these synthesizers to ending it all off with an electric guitar meltdown. It’s not to say an artist can’t try, because again, artistic freedom is the key to happiness, but it would seem that no matter what, genres can never truly die. They’re like boomerangs – they just keep coming back. That’s not to say one can only like country or only like rock or only like pop. By all means, expand and have fun, but just think, no matter what you’re most likely always listening to some genre whether you like it or not, if even for a three minute song.
And of course, there’s always the discussion Grady Smith brings up (link above) with his example of finding mislabeled products in the grocery store, but that’s been touched upon. I wanted to give another perspective. Really, I’m not advocating for either side here – just sharing an observation.
Did this become incoherent awhile ago or is it just me? Either way, if you got thoughts on this let me know.