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What Kind of Music Do You Write?
By Jerry Flattum - 06/11/2001 - 01:20 PM EDT

2001, Jerry Flattum.

This article introduces a mental health disorder not recognized by professional psychology organizations. This illness affect all artists. Although there is no statistical evidence per se, it is fair to assume the illness is widespread. The illness is called CMPD: Creative Multiple Personality Disorder. Songwriters and bands suffer from a variation of this illness called MCS: Multiple Category Syndrome. MCS is best described in the following case study.

Psychologist: So what kind of music do you write?

Band member: "Well, we got this tune, it's not really metal, even though all the guys in the band have a lot of hair. It sorta has a Muddy Waters undertone but I wouldn't say blues 'cause of the synth parts, which sorta add a Euro-techno feel. The guitar player wears cowboy boots and comes from Texas, so you can hear the country twang influence. But then when the lead singer decided to sing it in Spanish and play maracas at the same time, well, then obviously the piece is Latin dance...(long pause) I'm not sure, really"

Sorting music is like sorting mail in a mailroom. This package goes into the New Country bin. This parcel goes into the Metal bin. This letter clearly belongs in the Latin Pop bin. Ever join a mail order record club? First You're squinting your eyes to look at all those damn stamps you have to tear off and paste onto the form card. Looking closer, you suddenly see Aerosmith in categorized under Pop and wonder why they're not under the hard rock section. There's Elton John, found under easy listening and Led Zepplin--God forbid--is found in the oldies area.

Marketers need to know who your audience is. Label execs need to know if your video will run on MTV or the Country Music Channel. If you're into gangsta rap you probably will not be shopping your demo in Nashville. If you like Broadway musicals your friends will call you smaltzy--that's why you carry around a Nine Inch Nails CD everywhere you go just so they don't stone ya. Talk about schizoid: the generic categories of pop and rock are particularly troublesome. The two terms have gained so much meaning through the decades they are almost synomous with conservative vs. liberal, or over-produced vs. raw, or mainstream vs. underground. On what side of the musical fence do you fall?

One of the oldest cliches is "music is the universal language." This is simply not true.

In the whirlwind of western-produced world sales of recordings by such artists as Michael Jackson or Madonna, the recording industry would have us believe music is everywhere. Global tours are as common in 2001 as there are coverbands playing in local bars. Everyone has a radio. Everyone has a CD collection. Everyone has their favorite style. And anthropologists have keenly observed that virtually every culture includes some form of music or dance ritual.

But not all music is found in all places and not everybody likes all styles of music. Nowhere is the division of cultures more clearly seen than in the social struggles of black vs. white. In Pop and Rock the lines are obscure. But when you pit Country music vs. Rap music, the lines are clearly drawn. You won't go to a concert and see Eminem on a double bill with Randy Travis.

So what happens when you cross trance acid with country swing? What do you do if you speak with a southern drawl but fancy a pink mohawk? What if you are influenced by Eliades Ochao & Cuarteto Patria but your friends barely know who Ricky Martin is?

The industry forces you to write one way or the other drawn along social, cultural and genre-divided lines. You're either into country or you're into jazz. You must define your style. You must put a face on your music. You must fit in. You're audience is either black or white, young or old, rich or poor.

On one hand, embracing too much of a mix runs the risk of trying to be all things to all people. Identity is lost. Tradition is destroyed. Your music sounds like watered-down elevator music. On the other hand, monogamous adherence to one style means writing with blinders on. You miss out on the enrichment other inlfuences give you.

For many established artists, being categorized has not hurt their careers, per se. Herbie Hancock is most likely quite content in the jazz world and Travis Tritt does not need to cut a techno-pop track to increase his popularity.

The Internet offers the best solution to this "crossover" delimma. No matter where you are, if you have access to the Internet, you are no longer limited by geographical or demographic boundaries. Will World Music become the catch-all bin for all of Rock and Pop? Hopefully, yes. Far too much music on a global scale is neglected by a market-driven industry operating on the bottom line of sales figures. And as songwriters and bands continue to embrace different styles, their music will become increasingly difficult to categorize and less alienating. Then maybe things won't seem so...black and white.


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