Why I Hate Genre

Last week I went to see Karl Wallinger and World Party at the brilliant ‘Under the Bridge’ Venue. Chances are you’ll never have heard of them, though their second album, Goodbye Jumbo, was Q magazine album of the year (1990). Their biggest hit was probably ‘She’s the One’ as covered by Robbie Williams – though not with Wallinger’s permission.

Wallinger is a multi-instrumentalist singer/song-writer. Most of the work on his albums – guitars, keyboard, vocals, are all him. I think he’s a musical genius. If you have heard of World Party, then like me you’re probably a big fan.  I took my partner to see the band. She’s not into music on the same scale as me, but she had a good time. In fact, she was astonished: ‘Why isn’t this man more famous?’ It’s a good question and you hear it a lot, not just in music.

In a recent interview Wallinger said World Party never had a ‘Sound’ and speculated that was one reason they never broke big. For me that lack of ‘Sound’ is part of the pleasure, the sheer versatility and exuberance – you never know what you’re going to get next, but you do know it’s going to be good. It also makes the music hard to describe – World Party is folksy, rocky, a bit hippy, R&B, soul, melodic, angry, protesting, smart. Classic acoustic and electric band music – except when it isn’t. What is it? It’s World Party music.

Genre’s only function is to classify things in terms of other things. And we all have our opinions about those other things.  Genre doesn’t tell you if something is any good, it just tells you where to put it on the shelf.

Genre in the main preaches to the converted. It pigeon-holes people and their work into places other people never look. We’re humans, we love to classify, we’re pattern-matchers, it’s hard-wired into our brains, to an extent it’s what we do, it’s who we are. Genre is stupid, genre is the lowest-common-denominator of pattern-matching, a method that needs little thought and no imagination. Maybe that’s why it’s such a popular marketing tool. It’s dismissive and encourages you to dismiss. I can remember when JG Ballard was dismissed as just a science fiction writer.

Genre says ‘Hey Dave, you like ‘Rock Music’, so you’ll love this.’

Chances are, no I probably won’t.

‘But Dave, if you love these fantasy authors, then you’ll love this…’

Guess what?

I think genre is pretty stupid.

I like authors who write in this genre or that genre, I don’t like those genres. I like some bands, I don’t like bands who sound like them.  Why should I? That job’s already been taken by the best person for the job.

I’ve been astonished and delighted by music and writing outside of what I normally read and listen to, but I don’t like those genres, I like those artists. What I’m interested in are the bodies of work by particular people, particular artists, writers, musicians, directors, actors. I think those are the only genres worth bothering with. For me they include Mick Van Houten, JG Ballard, Karl Wallinger, Stephen Soderberg, Joni Mitchell, George Clooney, Chrissie Hynde, Philip Glass. Those people in particular, not people like them. I like what they themselves do, and how they do it.

I like the genre of Jack Vance stories, the genre of Brett Easton Ellis, of Chris Beckett. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, (I hate that song). And that’s how I write too. Yes, I’m most at home among the tropes of SF and fantasy, because it’s mostly there that I can do what I want to do in the way I want to do it. Mostly it’s where my mind takes me.  Mostly, but not always. Yes, I write science fiction, but I’m not a ‘science fiction writer’, I’m David Gullen and I write David Gullen stories. That’s my genre.

Genre is stupid.

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