GENRE BLUES: The Mote Around the
Indie Music Mystique PART 2:
How Do You Define The Indyfinable?

by Polar Levine for popCULTmedia, November 3, 2003

GENRE BLUES: The Mote Around The Indie Music Mystique, Part 2
By Polar Levine, Editor, November 4, 2003

Aside from the very positive response I've gotten from Part 1 of this series, there has been some, as I'd expected, pointed reminders that we have a huge variety of genres to choose from right now. This is true, as as always been the case. But how accessible is that wealth of diversity?

Let's take a look at that. Leading up to the recent FCC ruling on cross-ownership ( the media industry argued that consolidation actually provided the public with more diversity than ever. They ran down a long list of arcane names for the numerous genre niches that receive air time on commercial radio. But studies have shown clearly that the playlists for these different niches overlapped to such a degree that the case made for "diversity" was a joke. ( As goes radio -- so goes other aspects of music marketing.

It is true that if you live in a major coastal city or a few cities in between with a large university nearby you can tune to a mainstream post-bebop jazz, a LITE Pop show, LITE Jazz, Classic Rock, Classic R&B, Urban Contemporary (current R&B), Hip Hop, Country, Americana, Metal, Punk and an occasional Worldbeat show. The problem is that all this formatting has balkanized our music culture into parochial subcultures. Every show offers a couple hours or more of music that conforms to the fairly rigid set of conventions that define the featured genre. Most punk fans know little else, as is true of rap fans, country fans, etc. The profusion of genres ultimately results in a narrowing of exposure to diverse voices. As the variety of niche formats increases, exposure to ideas outside the format decreases because each niche has become an all-encompassing lifestyle cocoon.

It works like a New York City neighborhood. Each neighborhood, covering maybe a dozen blocks, has it own business infrastructure catering to all the basic needs of the neighborhood: grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, hardware stores, pet stores, medical practices, health clubs, bars, etc. We rarely need to leave the neighborhood except to go to work. Like a New York neighborhood, each music format is a sonic accessory to a lifestyle format which includes fashion, movie and tv choices, a general world view -- expression of which is catered to by its respective industry. Each lifestyle format is tracked by advertisers and fed back to its constituents with products and news of trends and format-relevant celebs. Part of the neighborhood/lifestyle identification is inevitably the us/them factor which is always a drag. As lifestyle niches become more broadly defining and self-sustaining as personal cultural environments, breaches between ethnic groups, political affiliations, generations, etc. are inevitable.

I don't believe in the Golden Age concept of anything, but one aspect of the late 60's that undeniably left a healthy mark on baby boomer culture is the tremendous curiosity for new sounds and ideas. While currently we can choose which set of predictable musical conventions we want to inhabit for a few hours to the exclusion of all others, when FM music radio was in its first decade you could hear all those genres on the same show. Imagine turning on the radio and hearing James Taylor with acoustic guitar only, the Beatles, The Who, Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Parliament Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye and Ravi Shankar! And this was a normal daily occurance. New genres and cross-pollinations seemed to emerge every month.

The media expressed shock over the spectacular popularity of the OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU soundtrack and Noah Jones. But the appeal of that music is easily understood when you consider the gigantic, generally ignored, boomer market for music. Many boomers came of age during the era of free-form radio programming. Having long ago been exposed to pre-50's forms of country music, the market for OH BROTHER had already been hanging around waiting to be invited to spend their money. And Norah Jones combines both the jazz and singer/songwriter sensibilities that were easily accessible during that era; so Jones' cross-genre music was a no-brainer for the boomers. And that same population of aging hepsters also listens to punk, contemporary rock, R&B, salsa and pop music from Brazil, Africa, Ireland and the Middle East. Generations X and Y are far more conservative in their musical palette because their exposure has been limited to the marketing whims of the accountants and lawyers who run today's showbiz industry. Gangsta rap and death metal are far less threatening to establishment culture than the industry's loss of control over cultural trends. Marketers of entertainment, fashion and magazine publishing will do anything to preempt any unpredictable cultural development. In other words: our laissez-faire market zealots in government and their corporate clientele fear nothing more than a free market -- one that is not cornered.

Musical genre labels are not created by or for music's creators or consumers. They're created by the marketers, distributors and journalists of music to make their jobs easier. This is not an indictment. Genre labels are not bad things at all unless they become agents of limitation. A handful of creative marketeers or music journos can resolve much of the Genre Blues.

Humans and most other living things, gravitate toward light and movement. We'll try the newest potato chip with the weirdest flavor, the newest exotic coffee or pasta sauce because they're readily available. But put us in a dark cave long enough and we'll eat roaches, worms and whatever else the environment provides. The media cartel loves to tell us that they give people what they want. In our culture of instant Everything, most of us will only consume what's instantly available. And for the vast majority of people, the music most instantly available is determined by the same five media conglomerates.

We're the same organism we were 35 years ago. We'll gladly listen to Captain Beefheart and gypsy brass bands as well as Jay Z, Radiohead and White Stripes if those disparate forms are commonly presented together as, simply, music -- without the ancillary commercial baggage. I'm not anticipating such a second coming of late 60's radio, but busting down some those genre walls could release an explosion of creative input and output and broaden our philosophical and political senses of who we are. Despite the dumb and dumber excesses of the 60's, that era's openness to new ideas and forms of expression increased understanding of the cultural and ethnic Other, and minorities of every stripe have since been brought into the mainstream to everyone's benefit.

In Part 1 of this series composer Paul Minotto described his experience with the genre headache. This will be my turn. Polar Levine -- ill-mannered reporter for a great global internet newspaper interviews Polar Levine -- ill-mannered musician fighting for truth justice and the humane way, A.K.A. polarity/1.

Polar Levine: So, Polar, what kind of music does polarity/1 play?

POLARITY/1: Glad you asked, P. Polarity/1's music is an amalgam of every type of music I've loved since I was a kid -- and that's a supermarket full of types. I write topical songs, often using a non-linear style of lyric writing -- in the singer/songwriter vein. But the music is about funk, hip hop, Afro/Brazilian/Caribbean grooves with the abstract textures of sample-based (as opposed to synthetic) electronica. There's also lots of jazz in there too -- of the NOT-smooooth variety. My singing is informed by R&B but you're just as likely to pick out traces of George Jones, Bob Dylan and Hamsa El Din.

Polarity/1's genre drama is different from Paul Minotto's (see Part 1 of this series). My lifelong curiosity about any sound that was unfamiliar, coupled with a microscopic attention span, has given me opportunities to work in a wide variety of genres. Any individual song (or instrumental) is made of elements from very specific genres that normally would be found on different floors of any Tower Record store. My rap songs on the YANKIN' THE FOOD CHAIN cd have subject matter and rhythmic detours that will not be found in the Hip Hop Nation. Polarity/1's electronica cd, SPEECHLESS, has as much Pharaoh Sanders and Bitch's Brew as Fatboy Slim or Boards Of Canada.

PL: What would you consider the most frustrating aspect of this cross-pollination?

P1: The biggest frustration I have is falling through the cracks of the racial divide. Thomas Dolby had the same problem. He was The Next Big Thing in New Wave in the early 80's with his BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE. But his George Clinton-influenced ALIENS ATE MY BUICK didn't find an audience. The young "Urban" market is not accustomed to highly literate lyrics. (There's hope in the alternative "Urban" landscape with the new underground movement of "conscious" rap of J-Live, Talib Kweli, Michael Franti and the neo-soul of Jill Scott, Macy Gray and Mishell Ndegeocello). And people who listen to singer/songwriters, rock and country don't go for the more complex polyrhythmic African derived grooves like funk, hip hop, etc. My live band works great with a multi-cultural and multi-generational audience that responds to a big live groove machine. But getting the recorded music heard is much tougher.

Then there's the generational divide. I'm over 40 now so my music is easier to read by people at least in their late 20's. But the AAA genre leans toward the bland. Lots of my stuff has a tougher edge than AAA generally has.

The raucous jazz elements of the SPEECHLESS cd often don't connect with the younger generation that grew up in an era when jazz was defined by the smooth, easy-listening Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn and Kenny G. Virtually unknown to a huge number of listeners is the more challenging, grungier work of Coltrane, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus and Anthony Braxton, and the contemporary underground jazz of Dave Douglas, Henry Threadgill and John Zorn.

PL: So what happens when you're asked to categorize your music in order to promote it.

P1: That's when things get really sweaty. For example, I go to an online indy music site. I fill out all the relevant data and then the process comes to a screeching stop when I have to assign the music to a genre.

Ok, Rock -- definitely not. Singer/songwriter -- yeah, the lyrics, but not the music. Electronica -- stuff on SPEECHLESS maybe. But despite scores of sub-genres -- the diversity within each subgenre is surprisingly narrow. Electronica is an outgrowth of the DJ's and "producer's" art, not the "musician's" art. The aesthetic of the former is based on pure sound -- synth programming and processing. The latter is more concerned with structure, theme & variation, harmony, soloists, etc. My stuff is a strange hybrid of the two. Maybe more jazz than electronica but not enough of either for a comfortable fit.

Jazz -- see above. Funk -- lots of funk in the grooves but the vocals and lyrics will never work in that market. Rap -- same thing with my handful of rap songs. International -- well, again, it's in the grooves. But a white American singing in elliptical English won't do. Alternative -- that sounds right. But almost everything I hear in the Alternative bins sounding like genre rock. Country, Americana -- not at all. Show tunes, Classical, Religious -- no way. And that about sums it up.

PL: So why should a creative, iconoclastic guy like yourself get so hung up on genres? Why not just stick the stuff anywhere or in a number of genres?

P1: Here's why: My SPEECHLESS disc has one track that is sort of mainstream electronica, although a bit retro. The rest of the disc is nothing like that. The YANKIN' THE FOOD CHAIN disc has a rap track, NEWS GOO, that has gained attention. But when people buy the cd based on that track I'm concerned that they'll play NEWS GOO and hate the rest. If that happens I've made a sale but possibly alienated the purchaser. If the music is discovered in a category that applies to the whole cd -- people know what they're buying and I'm reaching my true audience. A relationship develops.

PL: What's the cure?

P1: A category that fits the misfits and the audience that loves misfit music. I was talking to a friend of mine about the situation and he tossed off the term "indyfinable." I like that. It's indy and it's categorically indefinable. Hey -- that's me -- polarity/1!! What was that first question you asked? What kind of music does polarity/1 play? Indyfinable.


I'm on the lookout for other indyfinable artists out there I can speak to in subsequent installments of this series. Drop me a note at

Polar Levine