Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Musical genre problems

What is "pop"?

Does the Eurythmic's "Here Comes the Rain" count as "pop"? What about Depeche Mode? Or is that "alternative"? Can you retroactively apply a genre classification that wasn't around when the song was recorded? What about "folk" – how can you tell if a song is "folk" rather than "alternative"? What genre do you assign to a 30 minute recording of eskimo janitors taking over a Canadian radio station during a strike and dj-ing? (honest: here) Or Van Morrison's contractual obligation album – "crap"?

All this is has been occasioned by the purchase of a new iPod nano (since the unfortunate accident with the trusty iPod). The fact that I cannot simply copy over my entire music library (the nano being 4 GB small, and the library being 20+ GB large, and growing) has awakened in me an obsessive need to organise my music, so that I can sort and choose by categories.

I started last night, when I realised that the genre categories assigned to some of my tracks were off, simply because I've been using iTunes' automatic feature to pull down track names and categories from an online database. The quality of the service is patchy at best: typos in track names are common, and the genre assignments are completely off. More importantly, since iTunes allows you to only assign one genre to a song, it's left me struggling with the task of deciding what category a song fits in.

If it's one person on an acoustic guitar (say, Dan Bern or Ani DiFranco), is it folk or acoustic? Does it matter if s/he's a singer songwriter? What about two people on guitars (Lawrence Juber and Preston Reed) – instrumental? folk? acoustic? If you put a new age(ish) musician (Pierre Bensusan) and a jazz(ish) musician (Didier Malherbe) together, what do you categorise their live performance as? Do live versions of the same song take on the same category as the original – and if they're acoustic versions, should I change the category? When some one does a folksy cover of gansta rap, (Nina Gordon, Straight Outta Compton) which category does the song take – the original (rap), or the reinterpretation (... er ... girly folk)?

And for that matter, why is NWA's Straight Outta Compton categorised as classical in my music folder?!? Since when is Leonard Cohen rock? And (to come back to my original question) what the hell is pop anyway? And what does alternative mean when there's no definitive mainstream to be an alternative to?

These are the dilemmas that have occupied me for a night and a morning.

All this, of course, could be easily solved if iTunes used a tag system, in recognition of the fact that few things in this world fall easily and only into one category at a time. A system that assigns tags, each describing a quality (for example "live", "acoustic", "folk" etc) would be more precise and useful. On Fridays I could simply decide to fill my iPod with songs tagged "happy", and on Mondays songs tagged "moody", "bleak" and "instrumental". And possibly "rain".

(and it may be a symptom of this increasing obesssion with taxonomy, but the new nano is now named Ariel, in accordance with the same naming convention that has my two external hard drives named Titania and PuckOberon being reserved for a MacBook Pro somewhere in my future)

(oh, and though I didn't know it, yesterday was 5 years to the day the original iPod was launched, which lends a nice symmetry to the whole affair. Happy Birthday iPod: I couldn't begin to describe how much I've depended on you these 5 years to shelter me from garrulous cab-drivers, unwanted conversations, and the distracting noises of that thing called the Rest of the World)

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1 comment:

Tym said...

On Fridays I could simply decide to fill my iPod with songs tagged "happy", and on Mondays songs tagged "moody", "bleak" and "instrumental". And possibly "rain".

I guess that's what playlists are for? Although I agree that some sort of tagging system would be much more versatile and user-friendly. I'm sure they're working on it in Apple HQ :)