The new Swearin’ album, Surfing Strange, was released last week and has been receiving critical praise, with which I agree. However, in my own love of the album, I find myself coming into conflict with the genre-tags affiliated with their music. At what point do titles like “pop-punk,” “shoegaze,” and “power-pop” stop outliving their usefulness as a way to distinguish music and actually start to hinder our consumption of it? In Swearin’s case, people are throwing around the term “pop-punk” to describe their fuzz-laden alternative rock, yet it seems unfair to use a term descriptive of such a specific time period and group of bands to describe anyone in 2013. Maybe my problem with the title comes from a feeling of protectiveness for the band. Maybe I don’t want them to be lumped in the same headspace as The Offspring or Blink-182. Or maybe I fail to see the association with those bands. But I guess the real question is, are genre descriptors evocative of not just a sound, but of a time and place?
It’s hard to see what about Swearin’ could be considered “pop-punk.” Is it the distorted guitars? The simple, rhythmic guitar chugging? Or is it the catchy chorus sung over three chords? At this point using a genre descriptor such as “pop-punk” for their music isn’t helping the listener engage with the music any more than oversimplifying them as “rock music” would. Earlier this year, another great album, MCII, was put out by Mikal Cronin, and that release, which found a perfect resting place between all-out garage-rock and pop sensibilities, was often described by many music critics as “power-pop.” You start to wonder if these incredibly specific genre tags are helping anyone at this point, no matter how niche the music is. The problem with labeling Mikal Cronin “power-pop” is that in order to do so, you must understand the lineage of not only the term, but the genre, too. And if you put them side-by-side, Mikal Cronin sounds nearly nothing like the records of power-pop luminaries Nick Lowe, Big Star, or Cheap Trick.
If our knowledge of previous bands carrying identifiers of such genre terms can be suspended, leaving listeners to rely only on distinct sonic signatures, uber-exclusive genre tags reveal themselves to be even more useless. How do we describe “garage rock” to people without name-dropping a large list of bands? Phrases like “lo-fi,” “simplistic, energetic, loud guitars,” and “‘70s style rock songs stripped down” come to mind, but how many of those descriptions remain exclusive to what is commonly referred to as “garage rock”? How do you explain Ty Segall to someone that has never heard any other bands dubbed as “garage rock”?
Genre-tags are only as relevant to the music as the community that creates them. “Indie rock” as a meaningful genre-tag is on its last leg. When it was created, it was a term used to describe a very particular scene - a wave of bands that all started sounding similar, toured together, and were signed to similar labels. After those initial bands have come and gone, we have somehow kept “indie rock” alive as a title to place on bands that could not be further removed from those bands that sparked the term.
So what’s the solution? Either we avoid genre-tags all together or stop being lazy and create new ones. A musician friend once lived by the ethos that there were, in fact, only four genres in existence: classical, world music, jazz, and pop. If genre labeling is purely a game about sound, we need to realize that most music we listen to has much more in common than we think. Instead of spending time dividing up what we listen to, we should spend more time unifying and seeing the similarities. On the other hand, maybe it’ll take a few brave journalists to stop relying on dated genre-labels and create something new. In Swearin’s case, the similarities they share with their friends All Dogs and Radiator Hospital are much stronger than any ties they have to Blink-182. But with the niche culture of independent music these days, I don’t know how many more genre-labels like “chillwave” we can take.