Genre Study - 6.4.2010

I recently embarked on one of my periodic efforts to give every song in my music library a proper ID3 tag, and in the process I discovered some rather odd data on some of my songs. Winamp's Auto-Tag process, which queries the reputable Gracenote music database, is generally reliable for basic information like year of release, publisher, and other such fields, but their genres are... odd. Bizarrely specific tags like 'Original New Wave Scene' or 'General Alternative Rock' are the norm, despite their bizarre ambiguity. What does 'General Alternative' even mean? Is it somehow different than 'Alternative'? These posts endeavor to further investigate the topic.

Queried Album: The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
Gracenote Genre: Original New Wave
Wikipedia Genre: Rock, proto-punk, garage rock
My Genre: Proto-alternative
First off, I should point out that no one really knows what New Wave means. The term was invented as a marketing gimmick in order to avoid using the word 'punk', and it's generally used as a catch all for bands that would now be called alternative. The term gradually shifted from groups like Television to the burgeoning synth-pop movement, and then died off all together in the mid-80s.

The original, I suspect, is based on how some modern groups, like Franz Ferdinand, are being called 'New Wave revival'. The idea of reviving a New Wave is laughable as is, and demonstrates just how incurably lazy people are getting with genre names. Or maybe it's just the opposite and music is getting incurably lazy. I don't fucking care, the point is that 'Original New Wave' should be truncated to 'New Wave'.

However, note that Wikipedia, the ultimate internet reference in front of which I daily debase myself, seems to disagree with Gracenote's assertion. God knows why Wikipedia is calling this band proto-punk; their album was released in '76, right at the onset of the punk movement. Can't be right all the time, I suppose. 'Garage rock' is a pet peeve of mine, and the only professionally released album I'd put under that label would be the re-release of Raw Power.

From my personal perusal of The Modern Lovers, the group's only album, I'd put them in the same boat as Television in terms of their sound, which would lead me to put them into a new genre I am creating right now: proto-alternative. New Wave, for me, refers to bands with a lighter sound, such as the Talking Heads or Blondie. The Modern Lovers aren't that poppy.

Queried Album: Tom Waits - Blue Valentine
Gracenote Genre: Alternative Pop Singer-Songwriter
Wikipedia Genre: Blues-rock
My Genre: Nicotine blues, nicotine jazz, jazz-blues
Well shit, I don't even know where to begin! The fuck is going on over in Gracenote's offices anyway? Alternative Pop is a misnomer, and Singer-Songwriter tends to describe solo acts like James Taylor and early Leonard Cohen; artists who accompanied their signing with a guitar and very little else. Tom Waits does play the piano, but he doesn't even do that on every track! You could possibly lump his first album under the singer-songwriter label, but even that doesn't work all that well.

A good rule of thumb is that no genre name should ever exceed two words. Three's pushing it, and four is right out. I'll admit that the Gracenote genre is roughly descriptive, and you can get a decent idea of what Waits is up to by looking at it. Still, you could easily truncate it to 'Alternative Singer Songwriter'. Alternative, in it's musical use, suggests anti-pop in-and-of-itself, though that itself is a very vague description. Painfully, Gracenote uses the same genre for Waits' later avant-garde work, where it's even more inappropriate. I can't imagine anyone calling Swordfishtrombones a singer-songwriter album, even with a bunch of extra words thrown in for good measure.

I coined nicotine blues as a vague catch-all, as no one genre really accounts for all of Waits' output. You could call this album, as well as most of his early period, nicotine jazz just as easily, or maybe jazz-blues. Blues-rock, Wikipedia's take on the album, isn't quite there, as the term can be used just as easily for roots rock groups like Creedence. Jazz-blues is probably the best one to use for general reference.

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