So, this lost a bit more momentum than I had planned for but it has been some busy days, so I guess it’s ok. Anyway, I should make up for it so I don’t lose all the focus and I should finally come around to writing that post that’s supposed to wrap up my thoughts on the core concept of Modern Metal as a genre. As you might notice from the title, I’ve finally decided to split it up. Into three parts in total. That’s because while thinking about it I realised that this bit might be much more important than I realised and I shouldn’t cramp it all into one far too lengthy post.So I will do some pre-thoughts on the matter in this post here and then elaborate with a few examples in the following two.
So what will this be about? After having written down my thoughts on the stylistic level of Modern Metal, there’s still an important level left: similarities that go beyond stylistic choices in their music, similarities in how they present their music, in which themes they dwell on. As, at least to me, that seems to be a huge part of a genre. Artists that belong to a genre tend to have a certain shared identity they express through symbolism, lyrical themes, etc. Just look at Death Metal or Black Metal.
But, even that said, I think it would be neat to think about this a bit more to get a better idea what self-presentation and themes can really tell us if we want to know if a bunch of works of certain artists form a genre. Why would this ‘shared identity’-thingy be of importance here? How does it relate to a genre?
The heuristic function of genres
So, I’ll try to trace back my own train of thought on this. My starting point was some further thought about what genres are in everyday communication, what their function is. I have the feeling I didn’t even cover it before. I mean, this blog is obviously nothing for people who detest the very notion of categorization in music. But I’ve always had the intuition that categories like genres are not only useful but also necessary. One reason might be that you can talk about music a bit easier, if you don’t always have to refer to specific artists to say something about music. Another is that there are artists that show similarities, so it is perfectly reasonable and adequate to sometimes talk about those groups instead of talking about every individual artist. And to do that, you have to give that group a name.
But there’s also something else which is excessively important, especially in times of the Internet: categories like genres have a very strong heuristic function. Meaning: they help you find stuff. Even if one would be able to listen to music the entire day, nonstop, he would perhaps be able to cover 1-5% of what is released in a single day. No one can listen to everything. You always have to chose what you want to listen to, to narrow it down. There are several techniques to narrow your options in meaningful and sensible ways and one of them is by concentrating on groups of content that you already know you’ll potentialy like. Genres are one of the ways to construct such groups in the realm of art. You know you like this and that artist? Well, then you might also like similar ones. And those you will find grouped under the same genre umbrella(-term, tag, etc.).
But what does that mean? Why am I elaborting on that here? The connection is of practical nature. Consider you browse a service like bandcamp. Obviously one option is to browse by tags and genre terms. But you can also browse through the lists of new releases by band name, band logo and cover art. As those will often tell you just as much about the category or group an artist belongs to as a genre tag. Why is that so? Because there is a tendency of simlarly sounding bands presenting themselves in similar ways in cover art, band logos, band names and album names. Certain similarities of self presentation seem to be somehwat connected or at least parallel to certain similarities in stylistic choices. So they can serve a similar heuristic function.
Why could that be? Artists have to present themselves apart from just their music in some way. This is, as I just hinted at, not a consequence of capitalist economy but of the sheer amount of cultural production in this day and age (and if that, in turn, is a consequence of capitalist economy is an item for debate, I guess). Potential listeners have to get not just audio, but also visual cues for what a band might sound like to be able to be able to find the interesting stuff as fast as possible. If you are an artist, you’ll want to reach an audience that might like you first and foremost. That’s your potential core audience. The others, that come to like you even though they weren’t interested before are probably lucky strikes but not the bulk of potential listeners. So you present yourself in a way that is somehwat similar to the way other artists present themselves that you think do similar things as you do in their music. You present yourself to be seen. And your chance of being seen is higher if you’re standing near to something people already have their eyes on.
I know this reeks of marketing. And in many cases, it may be exactly that as labels probably have a say in artists presentation more often than not. But even at the times it is sheer marketing, maybe even pandering to a certain scene, it still means, and that’s what is interesting here, that someone, be it the members of a band or a promotional manager, saw a close connection between certain artists. They saw similarities, and decided that they are close enough to make those artists part of the same thing. The themes that become apparent in band names, album names and lyrical themes, have an even higher potential of showing connections like that, as they are less prone to be influenced by marketing calculus. The themes an artist decides to work with show what cultural background he feels a deeper connection with, even apart from just trying to be seen.
And if certain artists show strong connections to similar ideas and cultural backgrounds, like Philosophy, certain ideologies or Science Fiction or whatever it may be, and compliment that with a similar way of presenting themselves, an active drive to very outwardly show that they realise that they are related to similar ideas and preferences, to affiliate themselves with certain cultural movements and backgrounds, that is a very strong hint that those artists themselves percieve a connection or at least significant and meaningful overlaps between each other as existent.
What that means for a genre claim
And, summed up, that means that self presentation and themes that artists use and work with can tell us something about how strong the connection between them is, if there is something apart from similar stylistic choices and influences that holds them together. It widens the potential similarities, that justify calling a bunch of works part of a genre, to a broader cultural context. And if there are, that simply strengthens the claim that there actually is a genre by showing a bunch of additional similarities between the works of certain artists. Furthermore, it helps to objectify the claim that a genre exists at least a bit, as it hints at the fact that someone else than the one who claims (which would be me in this case) also sees connections of a similar sort.
So, coming back to my little project here, that means that it could strengthen my claim that Modern Metal as a genre exists considerably if I could show that the bands that show the stylistic similarities I’ve already elaborated on also show similarites in a wider context of presentation and themes.
I will try to show that this is the case in an exemplary way in the following two posts. I definitely can not analyse the whole of Modern Metal, so I’ll limit myself to the significant four and suggestively imply that what I can show there expands to most of the other bands aswell. But I’m confident that this simply shows in some of the bands I present on (more or less) daily basis. As I’m also not that good at figuring out lyrics, I will concentrate on band logos and cover art on the visual side and band names and album names on the themes side. Figuring out similarities in lyrical themes is a job for someone more competent at that than I am.