July 30, 2021

This newsletter continues the meditation of the previous newsletter about the role of labels and categories in human life, the way in which we understand both the world and ourselves through classification.  Last time, I explored our ambivalence about labels of gender identity and sexual orientation.  This time I want to examine the role of categories and labels in the arts, particularly popular music and popular fiction.  

My point last time was that labels and categories, those constructs of the imagination, are what we make of them.  They can be used reductively and coercively, but, I believe, they can also be used to expand our range of appreciation by sensitizing us to finer shades of similarity and difference. In expanding our range of appreciation of the possible modes of gender identity and sexual orientation and style, we begin to realize that human nature is in fact polymorphous, capable of enormous range and variety, and also capable of change.  What we call normative is not innate or “natural” but the marking off of a part of the human spectrum for social approval.   At times there may be genuine reasons for that approval:  what I am implying is not relativism.  There are real perversions, ways in which sexuality is corrupted by selfishness, coerciveness, and exploitation.  But such corruption is just as common in normative heterosexuality as anywhere else.  All too often, normative labels have been used reductively, and at times hypocritically. We have a curious tendency to be skeptical any type of social progress, but one of the hopeful social changes in my lifetime has been the slowly expanding acceptance of difference in the areas of gender and sexuality. 

What is remarkable is that during my lifetime we have also witnessed a parallel expansion of the categories of popular music and fiction, resulting in a similar awareness that the arts too are polymorphous.  It can take ten minutes to scroll down the categories of the Grammy Awards, and the labels just seem to keep multiplying, perhaps to the bewilderment of some of the audience.  I have a shaky grasp of the Grammy distinctions even in an area of music that I know:  the difference between “Roots” and “Americana” somewhat eludes me.  We may say—especially if we are a critic of Marxist bent—that these categories are not aesthetic but economic.  They are not formal but commercial categories imposed by a “late capitalism” driven relentlessly to expand its market.   There is of course considerable truth to this, but we should be wary of single-cause reductionism.  You do not need a degree in cultural studies to see that there is something else going on at the same time, often at odds with the commercializing tendencies. 

The old idea was that every society has a particular style of music that is part of its cultural identity.  If you are Polish, you like polkas, right?  The discipline of ethnomusicology was founded upon some such assumption, which is true up to a point.  But the deeper truth is likely to be polymorphous.   Consider the African American community:  in the early decades of the twentieth century it had two forms of music, gospel and blues, that were considerably at odds.  Gospel was God’s music, but, to some African Americans, the blues was “the devil’s music.”  Legend was Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads at sundown and sold his soul for the ability that made him the greatest Delta blues guitarist in the tradition.  But the gospel-blues binary contrast is itself inadequate:  beginning with ragtime, there was also jazz.  Ma Rainey, whom many people heard about through August Wilson’s play about her, recently filmed with Chadwick Boseman, was a kind of jazz-pop performer of the 1920’s who had to learn about the blues through hearing a stranger performing it at a railway station.  In short, there has never been a monolithic musical marker of African American identity, but instead a polymorphous and shifting series of categories. 

And through the years the forms and their labels proliferate:  in the African-American tradition, for example, R&B, soul, funk, rap.   Sometimes new labels designate sub-categories (roots, Americana), sometimes hybrids (folk-rock, country rock).  Sometimes they seem to designate oxymorons (pop punk? really?).  Like their gender and sexual orientation counterparts, they are capable of expanding into epic catalogues that might seem to call the whole notion of categorization into question.  A glance at the Wikipedia article on “heavy metal genres” gives us the following: alternative metal, funk metal, nu metal, rap metal, avant-garde metal, crust punk, blackened crust, death metal, death n’ roll, doom metal, sludge metal, symphonic death metal, folk metal, Celtic metal, pirate metal, glam metal, grindcore, Goregrind, pornogrind, grunge, industrial metal, Kawaii metal, metalcore, deathcore, mathcore, power metal, progressive metal, thrash metal, black metal.  Believe it or not, that is only about half the menu, because I ran out of patience, especially since I have no idea what any of these sound like.  Some of the labels strike me as witty, possibly tongue-in-cheek (death n’ roll, blackened crust), others as anything but:  there exists a sub-genre of “National Socialist black metal,” countered by the genre of “unblack metal,” which is of course Christian. 

I am not trying to make heavy metal seem ridiculous.  I am sure that an equal embarrassment of riches could be discovered for any of the genres of popular music.  Is there a point to such hair splitting?  There is if you care about whatever is being classified.  Such an overflowing cornucopia of labels exemplifies what Abraham Maslow, the humanistic psychologist, called “love knowledge.”  When you love something or someone, you focus more passionately, and thus see more than a so-called objective observer might notice.  Finer distinctions, the awareness of subtle shades of similarity and difference, lead to deeper knowledge and deeper appreciation. 

We live in an unprecedented time.  The egalitarian tendencies of democracy combined with the electronic revolution in mass communications have resulted in a breaking down of cultural barriers.  All musical types, not just in our own society but in the world, not just in our own time but in the entire history of music, not just in concert but in our homes and on our phones, are available to us, and available not just to the audience but to musical artists as well.  However, to a lesser degree, this was always true: the past insularity of musical taste has been exaggerated.  To the dismay of some (often white) blues purists, the early blues performers did not just know and play “pure” 12-bar blues.  They were what were called “songsters,” musicians with a comprehensive musical repertoire that even included the latest Tin Pan Alley hits.  And the better popular musicians today, whatever genre they may be situated in, listen to and are influenced by all of the other genres around them, including classical music.

And may even perform it.  Rhiannon Giddens, recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” was first widely known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which performed early African American folk music of all types, even from the minstrel shows.  But she is also classically trained in opera, and seems determined to prove that there is no musical genre alien to her.  My own older generation eventually has eventually come to appreciate what was of value in our parents’ music.  I do not think we foresaw that someday Willie Nelson, that “outlaw country” guy, would ransack the Great American Songbook, that Bob Dylan (though of course who could predict Bob Dylan?) would on one album write a 12-minute song about the Titanic that pays homage both to Leadbelly’s famous ballad about the same tragedy and to Charlie Patton’s epic eye-witness account of the historic Mississippi flood of 1927 but on another album sing Frank Sinatra.  The great English folk singer-songwriter Richard Thompson went even further with a tour de force called 1000 Years of Popular Music that starts in the Middle Ages, runs through the repertoire of folk, English music hall, and early rock n’ roll, and ends with Britney Spears, perhaps as a humorous comment on the endlessly performable quality of the best popular music. Oops, I did it again. 

The parallel with popular fiction is fairly obvious:  it is, after all, often referred to as “category fiction.”  Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries, detective and police procedural novels, spy novels and thrillers, romances, historical romances, Westerns (however revisionist):  the list has actually remained fairly stable for over a century.  The genres of film and television mirror those of fiction, with variations, such as romance expanding into the rather more flexible genre of romantic comedy.  And these main genres fission like amoebas into sub-genres.  Fantasy, for example, includes high fantasy (epic fantasy in the line of Tolkien), sword and sorcery, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, the ghost story, satiric fantasy, the literary fairy tale (traditional or revisionist), animal fables (from Aesop to Disney), and so on. 

Like popular music, popular fiction is based on certain fairly simple conventions and formulas, which “literary fiction” is supposed to avoid or satirize.  The writer of popular fiction is thereby caught between immature readers who want the same formulas repeated over and over, who regard any departure from them as a betrayal, and high-culture types, including many critics, who disdain the formulas as simplifications and falsifications of reality.  Genuine art, it is claimed, deconstructs or subverts all conventions, categories, and labels: if it uses popular formulas, it is with a self-conscious post-modern smile of ironic detachment.  The attitude can be liberating for those who feel trapped by the formulas.  The label “slipstream” has recently been coined for works that elude the conventional boundaries between fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction (or “mainstream”).  Such a term is a literary equivalent of “non-binary” or “gender fluid,” an assertion freedom from confining labels. 

But the best readers are those who know the difference between the creative and uncreative uses of the conventions—between Tolkien and his mindless imitators. The same is true in music:  there is a difference between haunting simplicity and commercial-formula banality trying to cash in on the latest trend.  As popular artists mature, they move from repeating the formulas to individualizing them, and so come into their own.  Presently, we may see this happening with Taylor Swift, who is not so much abandoning as making a deeper use of the pop formulas that made her famous.  

We delight in the forms, with a delight that we learned in childhood.  But we also delight in their endless, inexhaustible transformations.  Some critics contend that we have exhausted the possibilities of Western culture.  There is indeed a kind of art, or anti-art, based on that premise.  I think rather that it is not art and its conventions that are exhausted but a certain attitude.  It is equally possible to see a polymorphous ferment of possibilities.  The purpose of labels, classifications, genres is not to pin down and master reality:  as the poet Wallace Stevens says, the squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.   Their purpose is not aggressive but empathetic: it is rather to sensitize us to the minute particulars of experience, whether sexual, musical, or literary, to enable us to become more conscious of their shadings and variations, to expand thereby the range of our taste and sympathies, and thus to participate more deeply in both life and art.