Humans have an innate need to put things in boxes. My guess is that the first two categories were: (1) Things that are Me and (2) Things that are Not Me. It may have progressed to (1) People; (2) Animals; (3) Plants and (4) Inanimate Objects. Then we probably began subdividing. People became: (1) People from My Cave and (2) People from Other Caves. Animals became: (1) Animals I Eat and (2) Animals that Eat Me. Plants subdivided into: (1) Plants that Taste Good and (2) Plants That Make Me Sick. This categorization habit, which appears to be hard-wired into our brains by evolution, has served us well. It allows us to make decisions quickly by simplifying complex sets of facts. On the other hand, it is probably the source of much violence, cruelty and prejudice, because sometimes when you oversimplify, you miss the point.
At some point, the first art critics and theorists began to separate the various works of human creativity into categories. At first, I imagine, they distinguished among works of architecture, decorative art, literature, performance (including dance and theater), sculpture, painting and music. Over time, the critics and academics developed categories for styles, which could cross boundaries. A medieval mosaic could be made in the Carolingian style, as could a statue, a church or an illuminated manuscript. The term ‘post-modern’ could apply to a skyscraper, a novel, a piece of performance art or a piece of music. New styles developed for many reasons: changes in geography, economics, technology, government or religious belief, for example. Sometimes artists sought to distinguish themselves from what came before by doing something entirely new; sometimes they sought to reinterpret some beloved past time. Some artists sought to be different for difference’s sake; others felt that there was nothing new under the sun and the only legitimate option was to pastiche prior styles. All the while, the audience – particularly the critics and theorists – were putting names to the new styles, creating ever-more categories, to the point where now the proliferation of categories is overwhelming.
To better understand the categorization of the arts, an analogy from the biological sciences may be useful. Taxonomists in biology – those scientists who determine the nature of living species and the organization of those species and their relationship to each other – are generally categorized themselves into lumpers and splitters. Since every species contains variation within it, one of the jobs of the science of systematics is to decide when the variation is merely intra-species and when it is significant and meaningful enough to designate a separate species. (We won’t even discuss subspecies, varieties, etc.) A lumper is someone who sees two species that are very similar and decides that they really constitute just one species. A splitter sees one species with significant variation and decides it really should be divided into two (or more) species. Over the years, the lumpers have won some, and the splitters have won some.
From what I can tell, most (if not all) art critics and theorists are splitters. They are never happy with one category when they can have two (or twenty-two). The proliferation of categories seems to have reached a point of overload in the case of music. When I first made my music lists for Make Lists, Not War, I chose five categories: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Blues; (4) World; and (5) Everything Else (pop, rock, country, hip hop/rap, folk, electronica, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, etc.). Naively, I thought that was enough. (I realize the World Music category is suspect – I am willing to listen to any reasonable alternatives.) But I have had some complaints from readers about the lack of this or that music category, so I decided to figure out whether to add any more. The problem is not where to begin, but how to stop. Take electronic music, for example. The Wikipedia page “List of Electronic Music Genres” contains approximately 180 different styles of electronic music, some of which are also considered classical music. There is a style called ‘trance music’ that has 11 sub-styles (one of these sub-styles, Psychedelic Trance, has its own sub-style, Suomisaundi). Of the 29 sub-styles of “House Music”, one of them – “Electro House” – has five sub-sub-styles, one of which is Moombahton, which has a sub-sub-sub-style called “Moombahcore.” The website musicgenreslist.com lists 41 “top genres”: Alternative, Anime, Blues, Children’s Music, Classical, Comedy, Commercial, Country, Dance, Disney, Easy Listening, Electronic, Enka, French Pop, German Folk, German Pop, Fitness & Workout, Hip-Hop/Rap, Holiday, Indie Pop, Industrial, Inspirational – Christian & Gospel, Instrumental, J-Pop, Jazz, K-Pop, Karaoke, Kayokyoku, Latin, New Age, Opera, Pop, R&B/Soul, Reggae, Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Soundtrack, Spoken Word, Tex-Mex / Tejano, Vocal, World. Each top genre has a number of sub-genres.
If anything, the website’s list shows the difficulty involved in categorization. Anime seems like more of a visual arts style than a music style, while Comedy and Spoken Word are not music at all. Folk is not included except as a sub-genre under Singer/Songwriter, which seems strange since so much of true folk music consists of ballads and public domain songs that have been sung for generations. Why is Opera a separate “top genre” and not a sub-genre of Classical? Why aren’t various kinds of “Pop” music (Indie Pop, French and German Pop, J-Pop, K-Pop) listed under “Pop.”? Or, why not include the German, French, Japanese and Korean music under World? Why not put Tex-Mex/Tejano under Latin? (Or Latin under World, for that matter?) Is Alternative really a genre? Alternative what? Shouldn’t there be a noun with that adjective? I could go on, but I won’t. I’m actually impressed that the folks at Music Genres List took on the project, and I don’t want to discourage them.
All this talk about categories brings me to my latest music lists. I have decided to take the plunge and create some “Best of” lists for additional music genres, specifically Hip-Hop/Rap and Country. I don’t know how far I’ll go with this, but I can guarantee I won’t be doing a “Best of Moombahcore” list anytime soon. The links are below:
Best Country Songs of All Time
Best Country Music Albums of All Time
Best Hip-Hop and Rap Songs of All Time
Best Hip-Hop and Rap Albums of All Time