Analogue Music | Appetite for Definition: An A to Z Guide to Rock…

Appetite for Definition: An A to Z Guide to Rock Genres

By Scott Elingburg

In his latest book, Appetite for Definition, Ian King tackles a subject that inspires division and discord among listeners: rock genres.

Rock genres, sub-genres, demarcations, and divisions are rampant in popular music, especially in rock 'n' roll music. Descriptors are applied in the most unfathomable ways, rise and disappear in a matter of years--sometimes months. Appetite for Definition: An A to Z Guide to Rock Genres by Ian King doesn't just catalog the myriad genres that exist within the rock lexicon, he also makes a convincing case for how and why we choose to apply such labels to our music. The book is incredibly insightful and offers interviews and support from some of the biggest genre musicians in rock music and also provides well-researched proof for who belongs where and why. But first, King suggests we need to think about what we talk about when we talk about genre.

Mr. King and I spoke for well over an hour in a free-wheeling conversation into a world that definitely needed some more research and some light shed on it. King offers insight into the origins of the book and the minefields he had to navigate when writing it.

Analogue: Tell me where the idea for this book came from.

Ian: You know you have an idea and you look it up and someone else has already done it, it was that kind of process. (Laughs) But the A to Z guide to rock genres came to mind it hadn’t been done before for whatever reason. Obviously there were plenty of encyclopedias and a lot of those do cover genres, but there wasn’t one that focused specifically on genre and that kind of surprised me. But it is such a weird, tricky minefield. Some genres are more legit than others, but when it came down to writing it, every time I tried to get scientific with it, whatever method I tried to apply to it would eventually have to bend for something. Because it’s hard to do a full, good picture of genres in rock ’n’ roll and stick to some sort of rule.

An example of that would be riot grrrl. I got to speak with Sara Marcus who wrote Girls to the Front and, to paraphrase her position, the only thing that separates riot grrrl from any other genre is the lyrics. And lyrics don’t make something different in terms of genre. So, she prefaced with that and I think it’s pretty accurate. Aside from the lyrical content, there’s nothing musically that riot grrrl is doing that makes it a different kind of music from other rock ’n’ roll.

But then, do I leave out riot grrrl as a genre? Obviously, I don’t. If my criteria was to exclude a genre based on content, then it didn’t make sense to leave it out. So the entry on riot grrrl had to explain, here’s maybe why it’s not a genre. Maybe every entry isn’t really a genre, but where do you draw the line?

Something like queercore, as well. Lyrics are what separates it but to leave it out felt wrong. It’s very difficult to impose an absolute rule on [genres]. Seeing issues like that I could see why it hadn’t been tackled before. These are issues that came up right away and I dealt with them through the course of writing. The reason I saw a way to do it and the reason I wanted to push through it was that I did have a personal interest in the subject of genre that goes back to issues of identity in childhood.

Appetite For Definition
Appetite For Definition

Analogue: Like what kind of childhood identity?

Ian: My personal identity and attachment had a lot to do with music. Growing up, my parents let me watch MTV way too young (Laughs). Hair metal was the greatest when I was 7 or 8 and then that would change. And it worked that way for a lot of people, too. They would take on music as part of their identity. For some it was punk and for others it was metal. There’s a lot of wardrobe and culture and social items that go along with those genres. Grunge, too. I grew up in Seattle and that brought the city to international awareness, which is another reason genre seemed like such a real thing to me. It made the city I lived in famous through the world. And it feels very real. I was too young to be cynical about it at the age of 11, so I almost had to take it seriously. I wasn’t necessarily into the music at the time but I had this respect for it, even if it wasn’t quite wasn’t I was into yet.

I think my respect for genre went on a lot longer than other people, too. I had kind of a naive respect for it (Laughs). Maybe I woke up to the fabricated nature of it a little bit later than most people do, or I respected music journalists more and these creations of theirs, but I didn’t have that realization about myself until I started writing and researching. And I think genre a conversation worth having.

Some genres are more legit than others, but when it came down to writing it, every time I tried to get scientific with it, whatever method I tried to apply to it would eventually have to bend for something.

Analogue: I was going to ask why you felt that we needed to categorize genres to the Nth degree, but it sounds like you think it has a lot to do with ingrained identity. But identity and what else?

Ian: I think there’s a natural human impulse towards categorization: scientific categorization, animals, plants, etc. We really love to organize our knowledge, even like with really intangible art forms like music. Sound is not quantifiable in the way that a body of a frog is. It has elements, especially in terms of instruments but you can only drill down so far before you’re left with very little. Humans want to do it, they want to do it with everything.

And media and record companies thrived off of creating genres, to a degree. The creation of a genre doesn’t always lead to a huge financial windfall, but if you get enough momentum it can. The more successful genres—grunge, Britpop—beget more bands to ride the financial wave of it. Their very ability to exist and do what they did is due to the hype created around the genre.

Analogue: It’s savvy marketing, too. If you like X then you’ll like Y because it’s easily quantifiable. I’m fascinated with why we have so many small distinctions, too. Take metal for example. The different classifications of metal are almost humorous in their divisions. It’s almost like solving a logical proof: if not this, then that. And I think we’re seeing that more in hip-hop and rap. Maybe it used to be geographically based where as now, it’s geographically based then beat-based then lyric-based, etc. And it keeps splitting and evolving.

Ian: Geography was something I wanted to get away from in the book, too. I do include some genres that have geographical basis that have enough of an identifiable sound. Something like the California sound, San Francisco sound, or New Jersey shore sound. But I didn’t include the Minneapolis sound because it started as a term for Prince, Morris Day and the Time but immediately after that it was Husker Du, Soul Asylum, The Replacements, so which one defines it? And I included grunge but not the Seattle sound because there are too many different bands from Seattle to define it.

Ian: What you’re saying about metal is absolutely correct. That’s where people split the most hairs. I haven’t done a full count but at one point I had about 40 kinds of metal and that doesn’t even scratch the surface on the micro distinctions. I didn’t include "technical" anything, that only indicates that the musicians are slightly better. You can put “blackened” in front of anything, “crust,” or “doom” in front of anything. Once you start adding those components, you can put that in front of almost everything: black doom metal, crusty black metal, doom crust metal, doom crusty black metal, etc. (Laughs) It would have been way too much and too tedious. And a lot of that conversation only exists in metal chat rooms, or in online comment sections. That was a some of the criteria I used in the book, I had to substantiate the genres, even just a little bit.

Like chillwave. There wasn’t much written in print on chillwave but it definitely was a thing. Genres did have to have a basis in reality, it had to be relevant to somebody else.

Analogue: When you were writing about the selected genres in your book, did you come across many where you just knew that whatever you wrote, some people were just not going to be happy with your quantification of genre?

Ian: Was that something that kept me up every night for a year? (Laughs) Yes, I went to bed thinking about stuff like that every night. Those questions were always at the front of my mind nearly every night for almost every entry.

My aim with the book was not to define all of these genres on my own terms, it was to pull together as many voices and sources as a I could. It’s a wide and messy conversation and no one has ownership of it and that’s the beauty and the fun of it. It was not going to be possible to make everyone happy. It’s not about the definitions themselves, it’s about the desire to define. It’s not what we say in the conversation and what gets decided in the conversation, it’s about the conversation. So when we talk about blank what are we talking about when we talk about blank. With so many genres, you won’t get agreement and that’s fine. My attempt at putting them in is to find where people’s histories, stories, and definitions overlap. What truth can I find here? What details are certain? Who do people agree on as being examples of it?

Ian: That’s a big part of the book. In terms of recommending other bands and other genres or asking who is an important player in it. A lot of times you can’t even get agreement on what bands best exemplify a genre. For me, I don’t think Nirvana are the best example of what grunge is. The first band that comes to mind is Mudhoney, the second band is maybe Soundgarden. Is Pearl Jam grunge? Sort of? They’re not heavy in the way Soundgarden are, they’re not punk-y in the way Mudhoney are, they’re very informed by 70s rock and classic rock. Yet, you do have to talk about them as “grunge.”

When I first submitted the manuscript, Nirvana was in the grunge entry less than they already are and my editor’s note was, “Can you talk about Nirvana more?” (Laughs) I wasn’t trying to give a microcosm of the perceived history, it wasn’t “who were the biggest bands” but more like, “who best exemplifies the sound?” There are huge bands that don’t have a part in this book at all because they aren’t genre-indicative. I mean, what genre is Tom Petty? He’s rock but what genre of rock. Song-by-song you can categorize, but as for his whole body of work, he’s hard to pin down that way.

It’s a wide and messy conversation and no one has ownership of it and that’s the beauty and the fun of it.

Analogue: And, like we discussed earlier, classic rock isn’t so much as a genre as it is a radio format. So putting these artists into a category just to have a spot for them is a fool’s errand. Because Nirvana is played on classic rock stations, now—that doesn’t make them classic rock, though.

Ian: I didn’t include classic rock as a genre or discuss it in the introduction, again, until I got a note from my editor: “Where’s classic rock?” (Laughs) To me, it was obvious that classic rock was a radio format and not a genre. Now, I’m saying that knowing that people use it as a genre term now. I get that, but when you drill down into classic rock as a genre, are you talking about Led Zeppelin or are you talking about The Eagles? Those bands are so different. I think when people discuss classic rock as a genre, they see some imaginary mixture of those things coalesced into all one band. But it’s too wide. I put in College Rock and Alternative Rock in as genres because they were ultimately genres that did get narrowed down to this identifiable thing. But classic rock isn’t quite there in the same way. Maybe it’s getting closer, but right now it is still too vague. It’s covered by other genres, too. There isn’t a classic rock band that wasn’t already going to be covered by some other genre that was already going to be in the book. It felt redundant in the face of including heavy metal, hard rock, and progressive rock.

A straight up and down set of rules, again, had to bend in some way. An explanation for why it wasn’t there wasn’t even in the book until it was explained to me. And then I realized, ‘I should probably write something about that.’ (Laughs) It hadn’t even occurred to me that that was something people would push back on.

Analogue: When it comes to some of these genres, was there one that you felt like, going in, you had a good idea of what it was. But through research and writing you might have discovered that you didn’t know what it was at all?

Ian: A lot of genres are like that; you feel like you know something and then there was this whole other element to it or there were more bands that you realized. Honestly, there’s a lot more to the history of Southern rock than I realized. I never thought I knew much about it, but I also didn’t realize how there was to know about it. The rebellious nature of it. Maybe there’s a Northern perspective of it that doesn’t exactly know how open-minded, musically Southern rock was. Maybe some people just assumed that it was all embraced by Southern audiences. When you think of something identified with a region, you assume that that region supports it. But that wasn’t the case with Southern rock, it was actually rebellious within the context of the South itself. Not everyone in Seattle loved grunge, not everyone in San Francisco loved that sound. That kind of opened my eyes to the idea of a regional music not being 100% supported by that region.

Take Baggy for example. I’m sure folks in Manchester felt that the music might not have represented the area in the best way. Maybe they preferred Joy Division or The Smiths and didn’t care much for The Happy Mondays. There were lots of genres where I had an idea and the more I dug into it, the more I discovered about it.