Fifty Shades Of Blue – Why Genre Does Not Matter

If you are one of those people who argues about music genres then you are a moron.

I probably sound judgemental, but to be honest I’m letting you off lightly. I see no real problem with judging those who use musical genres as a means to justify their own snobbery, a means to create conflict, or who wear them as a badge of honour, or identity. As Dara O’Briain once put it so eloquently – “Music snobbery is the worst kind of snobbery. ‘Oh, you like those noises, those sounds, in your ear? Do you like them? They’re the wrong sounds. You should like these sounds.’”

Do you remember that scene from Father Ted, where Ted and Dougal are discussing the point that only priests wear truly black socks, whilst everyone else who thinks they do actually just wears very very very very very very very dark blue ones. Even if you’ve never heard the argument, you can probably imagine that it’s a pretty silly one.

Well, if you’re one of these genre terrorists with delusions of grandeur on some Genghis Khan-like crusade to raise your flag as the saviour of your music, guess what? You’re basically Father Ted, ranting about the colour of socks.

Oh no! I hear you cry. You can’t say that! How dare you! The blood is probably pumping in your ears as your rage builds, adrenalin surging as you prepare to answer your calling and defend your music from this arrogant naysayer and his twisted ideals. You’ve probably already started to compile the argument in your head as to how you’re going to shoot me down in flames, before you’ve even heard what I have to say. Because it MEANS THAT MUCH to you.

Congratulations. This means you have an actual passion about music. This would be a good thing, if you weren’t so pig-headed about it.

The effort that goes into the world’s collective arguments about music genres depresses me more than I could ever really convey here, in this blog, with meagre words. This, in itself, is a prudent point I will explore later.

You could say it’s hypocritical of me to be here at all, arguing about this whole subject, and I respect your right to think that. I suppose you could say I view myself more as a kind of Matthew Broderick in WarGames (showing my age here too, I guess) frantically trying to teach the out-of-control machine gone mad that the only winning move is not to play. I guess my reason for writing this at all is to try and draw a line under the whole godforsaken sorry business.

So anyway, think back to Father Ted, and the very very very very very very very dark blue socks. You’ve probably seen a colour spectrum before – here’s one:

– and here’s where you’d locate very very very very very very very dark blue:

Everything on this colour spectrum can conceivably have a name of its’ own. Most of them do, in fact. Simply looking up “blue” on Wikipedia lists an incredible variety of shades, at least half of which I didn’t even know existed until I looked them up on Wikipedia just now. Some of them are quite ridiculous, but what you can’t deny that they do all share a common theme. The theme of blue.

Whilst I was at university, I can remember someone asking me how I’d describe colours to the blind. I did a writing course – you get all sorts of artsy questions like that. It’s pretty much impossible anyway, because all you can really do is use a visual frame of reference. But I can remember the idea fascinating me, how someone blind from birth would even try to perceive of colour as an actual concept itself, let alone the various shades and combinations.

As any young scientist knows, the sky is blue not because it is made of blue material, but because the light waves react with the atmosphere in a way that makes it blue to us visually. At some point in human history, when language was first being developed, there will have come a time when things that were the colour of the sky started being described with the word “blue”. There will have no doubt been various incarnations of this down the centuries, and most likely there will be more of them in future too. Language does evolve, of this there is no doubt and it can be tracked and traced throughout history. The word “blue” is simply the name we currently give to the underlying concept of blue-ness, in the English-speaking world, anyway.

Tell me if you’ve heard about the “static unchanging concept” before?

The word “blue” is incidental – it’s simply a word and could just as easily be “green”, or “ski-jump”, or “coffee”. What is important is not the word itself, but that underlying concept, the visual point of reference that we have for what exactly “blue” is.

We can define it by light wavelengths, or by show and tell, but the concept of what the colour blue actually is is a fundamental and universal truth. It is its very own entity that has existed as long as the universe has in itself, perhaps even longer than that.

You can illustrate this with a little thought-experiment you can call The Blue T-Shirt Principle.

Let’s imagine that tomorrow morning, you wake to the news that aliens have landed on Earth. They’re super-intelligent, politically ethical, and generally all-around nice aliens that you’d be more than happy to welcome to Earth as your new ruling Overlords. As always though, there is just one small catch that’s a deal-breaker for them – these aliens are psychotically offended by people wearing blue T-shirts. It sounds daft but given some of the crazy shit that people on this planet believe, we’re hardly in a position to judge them. For all we know, blue T-shirts are exactly where we’ve been going wrong all these years.

Maybe it’s something in their alien religion, or maybe it’s just a personal vendetta from the ones who landed here, that’s not important. What is important is that these aliens put their best engineer on the problem, their super-super-intelligent engineer who’s as superior to his own race as they are to us.

This engineer builds an elaborate device using all his super-super-intelligent wisdom that promises to end the scourge of blue T-shirts once and for all. After a big parade with lots of pomp and circumstance, it all builds to a crescendo when the engineer presents the alien leader with the device, and the alien leader pulls the lever on the side, cackling like some mad scientist.

The device switches on, and in a single moment, everything is changed. All across the universe, the multiverse, the ether inbetween, across all temporal and special dimensions – on every single planet in every single galaxy throughout the whole of existence itself. The device reaches all these places and in this one moment, every single blue T-shirt spontaneously combusts and disappears without a trace.

Some people in green T-shirts manage to escape the horror, as do those rebellious folk wearing purple. Everyone else inbetween, suddenly they’re naked from the waist up. They look in their wardrobes for a new T-shirt to put on, but all the blue ones that were in there previously have also now gone.

Some people try to get round it by dying white T-shirts blue, but as soon as they do, the shirt spontaneously combusts. Even photographs of people in which they had been wearing a blue T-shirt have now changed so they are naked from the waist up. It’s an international scandal, quite frankly, but the human race ultimately decides that it’s a small price to pay in exchange for the benefits of having super-intelligent, politically ethical aliens at our disposal.

The Blue T-Shirt Principle really just amounts to one simple question – does any of this in any way change what a blue T-shirt actually is?

Of course it doesn’t. Even if every blue T-shirt in the universe was to be destroyed, you could still picture one in your mind, even without any physical examples to look at. Even if you’d never seen one, you can imagine it because of your combined knowledge of the concept of the T-shirt and the concept of blueness.

These underlying concepts transcend all of the petty differences of humanity. They’re like mathematical laws – building blocks of the universe that we attempt to convey into our collective understanding via the means of language. And by language I mean words, body language, facial expressions, gestures – the full spectrum of human communication.

Whilst music is a language of sorts, its purpose is somewhat different, in that it is used more for the expression of emotions than the conveyance of information. Ultimately music (and art in general) runs on a two-point principle:

1. Express emotional state.
2. Replicate emotional state within others.

You can, however, combine music with something else to make something entirely new – words, for example, which creates song. What humans love to do once a distinction like this is made is to then start giving everything a name, and then we get lost on that merry-go-round of wordplay again.

If they sing it, it’s a song, yes. OK, but if they shout the words aggressively, what is it then, is that hip-hop? Or some kind of heavy metal? What’s that? It uses classical music as a backing track? Oh right, well, that makes it classical then, does it? What happens if they speak the words then, like Faithless? Or Shatner-style when he just reads them like it’s a weather report, is it a song then? Well, erm, no. Is it rap? I don’t think so… Erm….oh, shit, what are we going to DO?

Maybe there is a name for what William Shatner did to Rocket Man, maybe you call it a song, maybe you call it post-modern poetry, maybe you call it Exhibit A in the Case For A Shatner Intervention. But, you know what? Whatever you call it – call it “Jeff” if you really want to – it doesn’t matter. Giving it a name cannot change what it is.

Words can only do so much – they cannot provide the full picture, and to become obsessed with the semantics and definitions behind them for the sake of an argument is just futile. Where I come from, the word we use for alleyways in housing estates is a “snicket” but as little as five miles away on the other side of town, they use the word “ginnell” (pronounced either with a G or a J, depending on who you ask) If you’ve been around long enough you may have heard people from all over England arguing about what to call a bread-bun, whether it be a butty, a cob, a bap, a barm, a roll, or all manner of other weird and wonderful names. And what about all those wacky Americans who can’t tell the difference between trousers and their underwear when it comes up in conversation?

All these linguistic nuances change nothing, really. I can quite happily go across town to visit a friend and go for a walk with them through a snicket whilst in their mind they’re walking through a ginnell. Whatever we call the action in our minds makes no difference to the actual act.

The point is this – the names we give to things are ultimately irrelevant.

By now you might have started to cotton on to the fact that I’m not really talking about the colour blue, or bread buns, alleyways on housing estates, or American trousers. This is a musical website, after all.

The musical spectrum is vastly more complex than the colour spectrum. The colour spectrum has three primary colours and three secondary colours along with the extremes of black and white. In comparison, the musical spectrum, with a historic legacy of centuries of cross-pollenisation, is like some vast, extra-dimensional multiverse, the permutations of which are pretty much (although not quite) infinite.

Despite all these possibilities, as I’ve already gone into at great length, one thing that music does not do is evolve. This could be the biggest fallacy about music that there is. Musical genres do not evolve any more than colours evolve. What actually happens is that there will be a virtual cut-off point within the spectrum where blue eventually becomes green. Colour pedants throughout history will have started arguments about this, no doubt, until some helpful linguist decided that hang on, we’ll not call it blue, we’ll not call it green. We’ll call it turquoise instead. He could have just called it Jeff, as I suggested, but no, turquoise it is.

In theory, this colour-definition process could go on and on and on forever, until every single shade of every colour throughout the spectrum has its’ own name. Colour pedants still wouldn’t be happy, though – they’d probably just spend their time arguing where the cut-off point is between cyan and electric blue.

Is this evolution? Of course it isn’t. Blue is blue is blue is blue. The language we use to describe this evolves, yes. The people who observe it and use the language evolve too, granted. The colour blue, however, throughout all this, just kind of sits there, stagnant, singing the blues to itself.

Does music evolve? Of course it doesn’t. If you listen to a record that was made in 1950 it will sound the same now as it would have done in 1950, because the sonic information that it is made up of is exactly the same. If you were, say, 7 years old in 1950 and listening to that record for the first time, however – your feelings towards it then would be vastly different to what they would be if you were to listen to it now, aged 69. But it’s you that’s changed, not the music.

Sticking with the blue theme, let’s say for the sake of the example that it was a record you’d describe as “rhythm & blues”, or R&B for short. The definition of what R&B was in 1950 is very different to what the definition would be for R&B now. That’s not to say that one might not have been partially influenced by the other, of course, music being such a deep and rich meme-pool after all. But R&B has not “evolved”, all that’s happened is that two different generations have used the same name for two separate styles of music.

This is why arguing about musical genres is futile. You’re using words that in themselves might mean something different in a few years time.

As with words, musical genre names have meant many different things even throughout my own short life. I grew up listening to a diet of what was called “electro” at the time – New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, OMD, Human League, etc etc. The term “electro” now means something entirely different, being the chosen moniker for all that fashionable glitchy, techy, housey sort of style with those farty bass noises and weird FX. “Garage” has had maybe three different meanings since I was a teenager, and I’m not even that old now. Does this mean electro music has evolved? Does this mean garage music has evolved? Not at all. As bands such as (for example) Hurts or White Lies have shown recently, the musical style we called “electro” in the 80’s is very much still there and still active, it’s just being explored by a new generation with new perspectives. If Hurts’ decide that their next album with be a concept album made up of half drum & bass and half thrash metal, this does not mean that “electro” (or whatever you want to call it nowadays) has evolved again. It means that the artists have changed.

Ultimately, what this means is that if you talk about how a musical genre has “evolved” then you’re talking about how the use of a word has evolved. It doesn’t mean, for example, is that anyone who a hundred years ago was happy would now be a homosexual, just because we use the word “gay” differently.

Once we understand this distinction, we can debunk every single argument relating to musical genres that there is.

“I really used to enjoy (insert genre) music but then it all went to shit and all of it now is just rubbish.”

People with this argument invariably find that the time that the music “all went to shit” coincides with the period of their life in which they tired of it – be that the music itself or the social scene that goes along with it. Often they will illustrate this with a follow up argument along the lines of:

“I used to love (insert genre) until (insert year they got bored) and it breaks my heart to see what (insert genre) has evolved into now. Why won’t anyone make (insert genre) properly any more?”

With this argument they portray themselves as victims, Forced to abandon something they loved because those stupid artists lost their way, and evidently far too busy to consider perhaps exploring to see if there might be other artists out there that they liked. They were so down-heartened by this travesty that they stopped listening to the music they liked altogether. Completely oblivious that it’s them who’ve gotten bored, themselves who has changed and/or evolved, and that there’s plenty more of what they do enjoy out there if they could only be arsed to look for it.

Another common fallacy is to interpret trends in popularity as evolution as well. Sometimes popular variants of a style can be fashionable while the ones you prefer are underground, and hidden. This doesn’t mean the music you like has become shit, it means you’ve gotten too lazy to find it.

“(Insert artist) used to make some of the best (insert genre) but now they make this other shit music instead. Therefore (insert genre) is now dead.”

That’s the scene you’re so passionate about, is it? That scene containing only one artist who’s only allowed to make one style of music? I pity you.

This argument always reminds me of V For Vendetta – “Beneath this mask is an idea, and ideas are bulletproof.” The belief that an idea can be killed by killing one man, or that a genre can be killed by the actions of one artist, is absurdly flippant. Ideas, concepts, genres – whilst we might not be able to always define them with words, you can rest easy knowing that they will all ultimately outlive the entire human race.

All artists will take in more and more influences from a wider field as they go through life. This is due to the fact that they are people who are passionate about music and will always have an urge to seek out new material that they enjoy. Don’t judge the artists for this, it is a fact of life that should be true to all of us.

“How dare you call this song (insert genre)! IT IS NOT (insert genre)! HOW DARE YOU misrepresent (insert genre) in this way! Only us REAL fans of (insert genre) REALLY understand what (insert genre) TRULY MEANS!”

How dare you call this colour Midnight Blue! IT IS NOT MIDNIGHT BLUE! HOW DARE YOU misrepresent Midnight Blue in this way! Only us REAL fans of the colour Midnight Blue REALLY understand what Midnight Blue TRULY MEANS!

“I have a right to say whatever I like about (insert artist or genre) so fuck you, being all high and mighty with your rationality and logic.”

That’s funny – your mum actually said the very same thing to me the other night. Isn’t that freedom of speech you mention wonderful?

“(Insert artist) should stick to the genre that made them famous. Otherwise people who don’t know any better will think that all this new shit they do is actually (insert genre) when it isn’t!”

Ten or fifteen years ago, a fair portion of Americans referred to pretty much everything that wasn’t either made with guitars or had rapping over it as “techno”. “Techno” was the Stateside all-encompassing term that they used for all electronic music. For many it even still is. Eminem even once immortalised this in his attempted dig at Moby. Even the BBC did the same only a couple of weeks ago, describing Scatman John, of all people, as a techno artist. Things like this have provided the techno community eternal amusement throughout this time, but other than that, I don’t think it’s had any major effect on the techno scene. People passionate about actual techno (or whatever that genre might be called in the future) are completely unaffected by the fact that millions of musically-naïve people have bastardised the name of their chosen genre.

It seems as though people have recently developed a burning urge to educate these musically-naïve people as to all the various nuances of musical style, what all the names mean, what all the differences are, and telling them how stupid they are for not already knowing.

Here are six shades of blue:

A. Egyptian Blue
B. Zaffre
C. Sapphire
D. Palatinate Blue
E. Cobalt Blue
F. Persian Blue

If I were to show you these six colours and asked you to arrange them correctly by name, do you think you could, without resorting to Wikipedia and squinting a bit? I bet you couldn’t.

Assuming that you fail, how would you feel if I then started on a massive rant about how fucking stupid you are? How could you not know about the colour blue and all its’ variations? It’s not rocket science! Surely you’ve seen things before that are a perfect shade of palatinate blue, and don’t tell me you didn’t even know that stained-glass window is zaffre? But yet…you just call them blue! Plain old fucking blue! What kind of imbecile are you?

If I were to react in that way to your mistakes, chances are you’d think I was an arsehole. But on some level, you’d probably also develop a kind of complex relating to all the different shades of blue, having been humiliated in regards to your lack of knowledge on the subject. You’d be unwilling to delve into the subject too deeply, given that the so-called experts on the subject appear to be complete arseholes with massive chips on their shoulders for some reason.

Has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe this is why the trance scene is suffering from so much negativity? Do you think all this negativity and conflict helps to make the scene appeal to new people who might keep it going in future?

The demands that “fans” make to artists to remain stagnant throughout their careers are widespread across all genres really. Many fans do like their comfort zone and knowing exactly what to expect. Album sales and attention spans are at an all-time low.

I still don’t understand why this has come to be the case. But I do know that one of the factors that has led to it has been this compulsion to define genres and imprison artists within them. What bothers me, however, are the actions of these supposedly passionate people who claim to love their music venomously ridiculing other people whose tastes are different or simply not as refined.

I love electronic music, much of which comes under this heading of “trance” but lots of which also doesn’t. I also love lots of other non-electronic music. I’ve been listening obsessively to music for most of my life. But as a guess, I would reckon that even I’ve probably heard less than 0.01% of all the music ever made. Nobody on the planet is an expert.

As such, I can appreciate why there is a need for some vague means of classification, in order to sort through and generally identify this vast musical ocean within a group. I’m not saying that we should abolish musical genres entirely, as they do serve a purpose in this sense. What I’m saying is that ultimately, they don’t really matter.

If you insisted on wearing blue t-shirts every single day of your entire life, you’d probably be classed as an eccentric of sorts (and offensive to a certain race of aliens). If you insisted on ham sandwiches for every single meal that you ever ate in your life, they would probably start sending you to doctors at a very young age. If you make a point of only liking people of one colour, or one race of people, well then….yet some people champion their own spectacular cases of musical tunnel-vision like it’s a badge of honour.

There is more music around in the world now than anyone could ever listen to. More or less every single part of the spectrum has been explored many times over, been reinvented, been declared dead, but still found its’ way into the hearts, minds, and souls of real people. Most of it you won’t like, but the joy of finding music that you do like is one of the greatest human epiphanies you will ever experience in your lifetime.

For the first time in human history, because of the internet and other advances in technology, the world is now able to truly share in all of it – we can take our influences from everywhere. We can listen to whatever we want, whatever it’s called, whenever we want to. We’ll either like it or we won’t, tire of it quickly or even cherish it forever. If we don’t like what we hear there is more music waiting for us at the press of one button than we can even imagine. iTunes is like having the world’s biggest brothel at your disposal that caters for any fetish you can conceive of, and every trick only costs you 99p or less. That’s if you’re among the small minority who can even be bothered to pay for your music at all.

Why waste any of your time on the music you don’t like? Why stress about it, get angry about it, indignant about it, or into arguments about it? If you’re genuinely passionate about music of any kind at all then 21st century life should be like fucking Disneyland for you every single day.

Your musical taste is a subjective state of mind that is unique to you and you alone, and it is your basic human right to enrich that in any way you wish to. No-one has the right to tell you what to like any more than you have the right to tell others what to like.

You are free to imagine the underlying concepts of music into genres in any way that makes it easy for you to understand them. That is their only purpose. Because when all is said and done – the only two genres of music in your life are:

1. Music you like.
2. Music you don’t like.

In case this approach is too complex for you, I’ve simplified it into this handy flow-chart, which is the only flow-chart you will ever need that relates to music.

So, there you have it. I’ve probably rambled more than I intended to. If you made it this far I hope you at least understand the point I’m trying to make. If I lost you when I started banging on about aliens and t-shirts, making you skim to the end, hi there, good to see you. You have proven an earlier point I made about attention spans that you’ll have missed.

Isn’t it liberating? Knowing that you don’t have to worry about genres ever again? That the next time you see someone on Facebook posting Armin-playlisted tech-house and commenting “i ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ uplifting trance!!!1!” you’ll be able to just smile to yourself and move on? That the next time an artist you once liked releases a track that you don’t like it won’t push you over the edge into declaring the death of an entire music scene? Take a breath of that fresh air and smell how wonderful the world of music is for you now.

You’re welcome.

Now, what to do with all that spare energy? Here’s an idea – why not go and listen to some music? Maybe even something you’ve never heard before? You never know, you might secretly enjoy it…..

4 Responses to “Fifty Shades Of Blue – Why Genre Does Not Matter”

  1. 1 C. Frizz
    August 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Eh, I agree with you on 99% of this, but I think it’s a bit shortsighted to poo poo anyone who complains about what music should be in which genres. Seriously, if it’s ok for DJ Sneak to be irritated by Swedish House Mafia, then surely other people can have the same opinion without being labeled by you as music snobs?

    I’ve been obsessed with music myself for 30+ years now, so obviously, I didn’t start with trance. Even so, I know what trance is and what it isn’t. One of the reasons I like Defcon is because it, varied though its sounds may be, to me is trance. Compare that to the shite that gets peddled by Beatport, Audiojelly, and Juno. It’s not trance, and to say that it isn’t doesn’t make me a snob no matter how many different shades of trance there are. If I go to a restaurant frequently and order a tasty ribeye steak each time, you’re damn right I’m gonna be irritated as hell when that restaurant starts serving me cube steak, all the while insisting, “No, this IS a ribeye.” In that analogy, I’m apparently a snob because I’m pissed that my good-quality steak has been replaced with a cheap cut of meat….

    And on a side note, Americans really aren’t as stupid as you apparently think we are…

    • August 2, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      Perish the thought that I think Americans are stupid – if that’s an impression you get from the article it’s very much unintended! If you mean it in regards to the linguistic differences across the trans-Atlantic divide I’m more trying to make the point that they don’t matter at all really, but apologies if this comes across as a dig. I’m certainly not saying that the nation which gave us Detroit techno and the Paradise Garage is entirely naive towards EDM either – although I do think it’s taken longer to reach regular mainstream consciousness in the States than it has done in Europe.

      I hear your point about the restaurant/steak matter as well – I think the moral of the story, at least from where I’m coming from, would be that the thing to do in this situation would be to change your restaurant, rather than expecting the restaurant to change their policy. It doesn’t make you a snob to do so though – I think snobbery would only come into it if you were to then start castigating customers at your former restaurant for not being as taste-attuned as you were. Some people just like their cube-steak. For all we know, in their minds they think they’re eating tenderised fillet steak, but them thinking that doesn’t really have any wider impact in the greater scheme of things.

      Very glad to hear you like what we do at Defcon though, thanks for the kind words 🙂

  2. August 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Very much agree, I’ve read this before and I’ve just had another read in more depth as I’ve come across it quite a bit this week. I think many people feel that the music they listen to is superior- as someone who has varied taste in music I do come across it in different scenes and that kind of spoils it. I could say I like good music but then my opinion of what is good is different from others. I hear that people who listen to House music are pretentious yet I’ve met some genuinely nice people at events, same with Indie. No one fits neatly into a n****** category. There are artists that don’t appeal me anymore, not because I think the new style they create is rubbish, I just prefer their old sound. I do appreciate however, that it would be boring if everything stayed stagnant. Your style as a musician/producer does change as you go on and the sound that appeals to people also changes with time, its just life. People will always judge though so I guess you just have to enjoy what you enjoy and ignore people who do want to judge you for it. Keep up the good articles, loving the flow chart by the way:)

    • October 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks Kirsty! Much appreciated 🙂

      I think I’ve met both great people and idiots in pretty much every walk of life, in fans of every genre and at various types of events – as such my single prejudice will always be only ever limited to the idiots!

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