Ask Charlie...

Style or Genre?

Hello Troubadourians! I may have written about this before, but it has been on my mind of late so hopefully this take will be different enough to be engaging and informative. Language—and the words that comprise it—can be funny things. At once misused and misstated it is still understood by those hearing or reading those words because of the context. Over time, the misuse becomes the norm and context becomes irrelevant because we now interchangeably use two different words to mean the same thing—even though they don’t. Such is the case with style and genre. Genre is the stronger of the two as its usage is still understood to define a specific category of something, in this case music. I think it’s safe to assume that if we refer to country music, or blues, or rock, or hip-hop as genres, we’d get no argument and there would be no misunderstanding. Where I think there is a problem is when we refer to them as styles. Even though we frequently say things such as “blues style” or “country style” in reference to music and it is understood what we’re talking about, style is generally associated with, or created by, an artist.

But what difference does it make? If people understand it, what’s the problem? I submit that genre, as the stronger term and less likely to be misused, paints with a sufficiently broad brush and encompasses the multiple individual artist’s styles within a genre. Further, a genre is the accumulation and culmination of all the individual styles of those artists who are creating the music that defines it. The reverse is not equivalent. To refer to a genre as a style diminishes the efforts of those artists who created the genre in the first place. While thinking about this, it occurred to me how close the word “genre” was to the word “generic.” So, I looked it up… While there was not the directly stated root-word comparison that I expected, there is some similarity in the definitions. The definitions according to Webster; Generic: relating to or characteristic of a whole group or class; Genre: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content, are remarkably similar. Then the basic premise of my argument appears to have merit as style is used to define genre. And genre could be considered to be a group or class of human expression, which in turn makes it generic. The point? Style defines genre and with that act of defining, it helps prevent genre from becoming generic. And in doing so, style claims the position as the most personal form of human expression and merits defending it against misuse.

It is the cumulative styles of practicing artists that create and define genres. There, I said it. And that applies to all artists whether you make a living creating music or rarely perform. If you participate in making music, you have a style that is yours. That may not be particularly welcome news to players and performers in tribute bands who make a living trying to be someone else, but it is a fact that you are you and there is no escaping yourself. To be clear, I have no problem with tribute bands, especially if they are good players and singers and are convincingly accurate in their presentation. The fact is that popular touring acts can only be in one place at a time. Please allow me a tangent; the majority of tribute bands play music that skews to, shall we say, an older demographic. The artists whose music is being represented may not even be alive. Yet their music is still valid. They have a style that transcends even death. And people want to hear their music performed live. The interest in, and demand for, live presentation of their music exceeds their availability and performers who are willing and able to deliver a facsimile of that music have a legitimate place in the musical landscape. Still, and with all due respect, they all ultimately sound like themselves.

There is nothing more personal than playing or singing a piece of music. And while we are all an accumulation of our influences, we are physically unique as human beings. We can imitate those artists we admire by emulating their vocal style or playing style, sometimes coming unnervingly close, sometimes comically distant, but regardless of the success or failure of the attempt there is always an element of ourselves in any performance. Our hands are uniquely our own as are our voices. It is always our hands playing the instrument and our voice singing the song and there is no other person in the world who does these things exactly the same way. And that is the very definition of style. That doesn’t mean that you have to like it. In fact, you may really dislike your voice or tone or the way you play. So what? At one time, even those musicians we look up to didn’t like how they played or sang. But they accepted the challenge of making themselves better and working on their playing and singing until it was something they liked or aspired to be.

And that is the real reason for this essay. Sure, we can go “full-metal-librarian” and make a big deal about style vs. genre, just like we can about tremolo vs. vibrato in Fender amps and guitars. (We all know that Leo goofed but there’s no going back now…) My desire is that we recognize and celebrate style for what it is—a very personal expression that is as unique to every individual as a fingerprint and forms the building blocks of genre.

Finally, while style can live comfortably within a single genre, style can also exist across many genres. Think of all the players and singers you know of who can and do play many genres but their style is instantly recognizable. Artists like Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, and Los Lobos have a knack for crossing genres seemingly without effort but always manage to sound like themselves. That their music works in so many genres is not surprising, they all have a style that is conducive to inclusion rather than exclusion. We should all be so talented… That’s where I want to be.

So, while genre is the stronger term, without style, genre becomes generic and loses its identity, and perhaps its meaning. Celebrate your style, and build a genre…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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