Friday, March 28, 2008

I'm not getting back in the van until you say we're heavy f'n metal

Joanna Cotten is alt country?

How we get from the title to that, starting with that: the South by Southwest festival/conferance/happening (SXSW) occured in the middle of March in Austin Texas. The event website has links to a bunch of mp3s from bands showcased. The bands are catagorized by date of show, venue, and genre. Most of the classifications make sense to me, but a few do not. For example, Joanna Cotten is listed as alt country.

I first heard Cotten a few months ago while 'following the links' between band web pages. I started with The Pipettes (surprise, huh?) and somehow wound up watching a video of Cotten's "Funkabilly". The title was intriguing, but not so much the song itself. Good listenable radio ready country (which is not my cup of tea), but nothing really out of the ordinary (beyond being listenable - much pop country is not). Why the "alt country" tag? The band list also uses a "country" tag, which seems more suitable.

Perhaps there is commercial or promotional value to the label "alt country". Reaching out to an audience that might take a listen to "alt country" but isn't interested in Top 40 pop country at all (an audience of which I am a member, FWIW).

This is apparently the case with the word "metal". If headbangers have given the world nothing else, at least we got a plethora of "metal" genres and sub-genres to argue about. Visit Wikipedia if you don't believe me. Progressive Metal, Symphonic Metal, Gothic Metal, Folk Metal (I'm a fan of that one), Oriental Metal, Technical Metal, Doom Metal, True Metal, and on. And on. And on. I half expect to encounter Tiki Lounge Easy Listening METAL some day. Thing is, many of the bands described by "whatever" metal are not very ANYTHING metal.

Which is not to say they are bad. One of my current "top 15 or so" bands, The Gathering, is often described using the word metal with either "progressive" or "gothic" in front of it. Not in a million years would I use the word metal to describe that band.

Which brings us to the title of this post. One episode of the British comedy "Comic Strip Presents" features a "mockumentary" about faux metal band Bad News. In one segment band leader Vim Vuego is trying to explain to a journalist that Bad News is "more" than heavy metal. This goes on for several hours. Finally having heard enough, guitarist Den Dennis angrily storms out of the tour van. Vim is shown trying to get Den back on the van, but Den is resolute. He says (I paraphrase here) "I'm not getting back in the van until you say we're heavy f(*@#$n metal". This seems almost a reverse situation to using "metal" where it almost certainly doesn't belong. The scene plays through my head every time I see "whatever" metal.

But isn't it confining to use genre names at all? I argue that it is not. Genre names can be very useful tools. When I say "trad country is OK" or "I like indie pop" ideally, if you are familiar with that genre, you will understand what I'm going on about. That is why the plethora of "metals" and "alts" is frustrating. It takes away the ability to talk about these things in a useful and well-understood way. It more difficult to explore if you don't have landmarks to guide you.

When those landmarks are misleading at best it can be very frustrating. Take for example the "girl group" genre. It is a style I am very enthusiastically a fan of. Words cannot express how much of a letdown it is to hear about a new "girl group", only to discover the latest R&B light neo-disco American Idol wannabe ... stuff.

I'm pretty protective of the term "girl group". If it ain't remeniscant of certain early-60s pop styles - it ain't girl group.

Even if it is a group of gals.

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