As Americans, we like to categorize every aspect of our lives. Wrought with stereotypes and cultural ignorance, we expect everyone to conform into our preconceived, often misguided expectations of them. The music industry is no different.
Wanna sing pop? Be a makeup-shrouded twenty-something with a passion for singing uplifting one-liners. Wanna make punk music? Grow out the facial hair, buy tighter jeans and take up smoking. Trying to break into the rap game? Come from a troubled upbringing and develop a misogynistic attitude towards women.
I hope it’s obvious that I don’t actually feel this way, but sadly, these are the restrictions we oh-so-often place on musicians. If anyone tries to deviate from our predisposed definition of what type of music they’re supposed to make, they risk being successful.
If you tend to typecast different types of musicians, please don’t feel like I’m attacking you; we were taught to do this. Stereotypes are easy and efficient. By placing set definitions on what a person should be, we no longer have to evaluate and explore each one individually. We merely place a label on them and move on.
While this train of thought can be virulent to the way our society interacts, it also severely damages the possibility of creativity and groundbreaking work in the field of music.
Take Michael Gira, frontman of the ultra-stylistic and endlessly fascinating post-rock band Swans. More often than not, Gira sports a cowboy hat, suspenders, and a look of sternness that could rip the glee out of even the most jovial of spirits. Within the constraints of our society, he would probably be expected to play country music and enjoy whiskey, farming and nothing else. Thank goodness he decided to break the mold.
Instead of adhering to the stereotypes, Gira writes sweeping, powerful pieces of music, albums that are oftentimes over two hours long. In addition, his past includes an immense amount of performance art. (As a project, he once recorded his darkest sexual desires on tape, had a complete stranger do the same, and played the tapes as they both blindfolded themselves in a room, crawled around until they found each other, and had sex. All in front of a live audience.)
If Gira had accepted the boundaries our judgmental minds had given him, we wouldn’t have one of the most important and influential post-rock figures in the history of music.
Another example (bear with me here) is Lil B. Crowned as “The Based God,” Lil B has championed positivity and love more successfully than any other rapper. While our society expects rappers to cover fast cars and fast women in their lyrics, Lil B strives for something more. And while he’s not the most technically proficient rapper of our generation, his message and artistry is more important than most others currently in the rap game.
However, because we have specific expectations of rappers, much of the fanfare he’s received has been either fleeting or ironic. For some reason, it’s impossible for us to see a musician as an artist if his or her music isn’t what we expect it to be.
It’s one of the most backwards ideals of all-time: we judge an artist based on what we bring to them, not what they bring to us.
This attitude all but completely blinds us when it comes to music interpretation. Our constant need to categorize and stereotype has forbidden us from seeing musicians as more than what type of music they make, because oftentimes music is so much more than that.
Artists like Michael Gira and Lil B have lessons for us to learn, but because we judge them solely based on what we think they are, we’re unable to grasp what they’re trying to convey. Until we realize that there’s more to learn than what our stereotypes limit us to, we’ll never receive the full benefit that music has to offer.