Another blog on Americana and categories of music, such as they are
(Not sure this post arrives at a solid point, but it seemed too long to post in anyone’s comment thread.)
I’ve never been good with answering the question, “What kind of music?”
When this question was asked of me regarding songs I’d written myself, I’d throw out random qualifiers: folk, acoustic, contemporary, narrative, quasi-political, navel-gazing, quiet, bangy.
When the question comes up regarding the music I write about these days, the same qualifiers come out. If I’m in the mood. If I’m not in the mood, I just name artists I’ve written about. Usually a name will strike a chord, and then we can move on to more interesting topics of conversation.
Answering “What kind of music” is like being asked to describe a person. No adjective ever covers it. Songs, melodies, rhythms, individual people, poetry, good films, dance, storms, sunsets, waves on the ocean…these are all things which are better experienced than described.
Nonetheless, I’ve taken it upon myself to be a writer, so I’m frequently tasked with putting words to things. Part of what keeps me sane is recognizing the futility of the task. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best a writer can do is to word something well enough that the reader might put down the book/blog/whatever (even if mid-sentence; even if they never return to what we wrote) and seek the actual experience for his/herself.
And so I’ve been reading blog post after forum after comment thread about what constitutes Americana, folk, XXX, purple monkey music… (the latter has yet to be ascribed to any style I know of, but give it time).
Mind you, I come from classical music – perhaps the most rigidly categorical music I’ve heard of in my 33 years. But, even within classical music, you have differences in style, function, intention. Consider the gulf between Mozart and Tchaikovsky; between Haydn and Bach and Chopin. It’s not the same. None of it. Not even close. Not even comparable. You can hear influences, you can suppose inspiration, love or hate it, group it in your head next to something else you know; but that doesn’t make it any more “classical” than “punk rock” (I’d argue – and I have – that Mozart was as punk as John Lydon, if that word means anything).
I imagine folks who don’t come from that world see some kind of connection between Chopin and Mozart (piano-driven instrumental music, perhaps), but the musical similarities between these writers are about as close as those of Tori Amos and Billy Joel. As close as AP Carter and Garth Brooks.
An instrument and a formula do not a “style” make.
I recognize that this XXX thing is to give artists who don’t have a place on country or rock radio a place, but that’s the same place from which “Americana” was developed. As such, I’m confused about why we should not build where we are, rather than going somewhere else to call it the same thing by a different name. Nonetheless, I respect Shooter and Adam’s dedication to the cause, and I don’t at all mean to poo-poo their efforts. I simply want to add my voice to the speculation over the point of musical genres in the first place.
And to repeat that I find them irrelevant.
Few musicians work toward a specific style. Creativity just doesn’t happen that way; naming it seems to me only to point out the unfortunate chasm between artist and fan, rather than bridge it. Similar to the way we define our points of view on the world – our sympathy for each other, our concern for each other’s well-being, our dedication to peace and personal safety – by choosing to call ourselves Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents. The result of that kind of categorization only takes us further from the things we have in common, rather than closer. As we’ve seen.
It misses the point.
Yes, we need words (and, by extension, categories) for the sake of discussion. There is some kind of a natural human compulsion to organize. We group things by color, by class, by alphabetical orientation, by style, by shape. But music is separate from that. The arts in general are separate from that. We are all informed by tradition. There’s no getting away from that. We are all creatures of this world. Joe Shmoe or Britney Spears or Shooter Jennings or Barack Obama.
I listen to music because it helps me understand myself. It spotlights beauty. It commiserates with my loneliness when I need commiseration. It reminds me of things I’d forgotten to pay attention to. It teaches me about people who have led lives different from mine. It keeps me privy to the fact that most people’s lives are the same as mine, in some way. It separates me from the moment. It connects me to the moment. It makes me laugh and dance. It makes me stop short and concentrate.
I don’t care if it’s a drum machine or a cello or a screaming voice. The good stuff all comes from the same place. The good stuff is all motivated by the very human compulsion to get through life. After all, that’s the very thing we all forget to do when stuck in traffic or broken hearted or watching CNN or walking down the street. It prioritizes us. It brings us back.
Calling it anything other than music serves nothing other than some business aspect. But I assure you it has nothing to do with the actual music.
All that said, as a marketing wording gizmo, I’m happy to go with Americana. Sure, nobody can agree on what it is. How many of us agree on what America is?
Is it surprising that music which so embodies the spirit of our nation (pulling in elements of jazz, blues, rock, folk, country) is itself kind of an indefinable sonic collage which leaves scholars and critics scratching their heads? Is that a problem? I would say no.
These days, I work in folk/roots/Americana music. What’s generally agreed upon as “folk music” comes first from oral tradition. Its origins don’t fit into what we’ve come to expect about where a song comes from. It comes from everywhere and nowhere.
Where it comes from depends on who you’re talking to. Just like the definition of America depends on whether you’re standing in 42nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, or on Town Mountain Rd. in Asheville, or on Ballard Ave. in Seattle, etc.
Folk music and Americana music (two phrases which strike me as interchangeable at this point), far as I’ve been able to discern, is that which talks about all those things; which makes sense in all those places. Not that it matters at the end of the day. The only thing that matters: does it move you?