Throughout this past year, I have increasingly discussed identity within my classes. This has not necessarily been the product of extended research, by any means. Rather, I bump into the topic without warning. I haven't quite figured out where this newfound fascination has come from, but I am intrigued as to how someone or something's identity may be constructed, assumed, assigned, or contextualised.
During listening classes with my HND Music Performance students, we have focused on how the treatment of musical elements such as melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, texture, and form help contribute towards the classification of recordings into genres. In addition to historical and contextual information about a song, recognition of the nuanced variations found within these musical elements allow listeners to group songs with similar characteristics into genres. Acknowledging that there are not hard and fast stylistic boundaries between genres (and the philosophical issues surrounding applying such labels to songs in the first place), the process of categorising musical performances allows for listeners to make some sense of this ever-expanding sea of music.
The resulting categories can take a variety of names. A cursory glance at Wikipedia's (surely contentious) list of genres in popular music demonstrates the breadth of possibilities available. Many of these names are variations upon pre-existing terms: rock producing sub-genres such as garage rock, glam rock, math rock, and art rock, jazz dispersing into smooth jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, and acid jazz, and so on. In addition, there is also the convention of naming something not necessarily in terms of what it is, but rather what it is not. Alternative rock is, by definition, an alternative to mainstream rock; post-punk simply occurs after punk; indie is, well, independent of other genres. Whilst these names certainly provide some information about each style of music, they are, in a way, reactionary. Not only are these genres different than than others, but this disassociation from another genre supersedes whatever identifying characteristics the reactionary genre may have. To exaggerate, it is almost as if this style of music has only had one thing decided about itself, and that it is not [insert other style].
The more I explored this idea, the more I realised that the act of identification via disassociation is a seemingly normal part of society. As an American of Scottish and Irish descent, I spent over two decades of my life dutifully filling out Equal Opportunities surveys for academic and employment applications as 'Caucasian'. However, this all changed when I moved to the United Kingdom. When filling out such surveys now, I am presented the following options most appropriate to my skin tone:
- White (British)
- White (Irish)
- White (Other)
With one plane flight and a visa, I became a minority – at least, within the United Kingdom. In the eyes of the government, educational institutions, and workplaces around the country, I am defined through my non-Britishness. I am still attempting to unravel what this means in terms of how I conceive my own identity; for as many qualities and characteristics that apply to me, there are an exponential number more which do not apply to me at all. Yes, I am some other variation of 'White' that is not British or Irish. By that token, however, I might as well declare any of the other multitude of things that I am not: I am not a Nobel prize winner, I am not a butcher, I am not right-handed, I am not a woman, I am not blind. To view someone by what qualities they do not embody is to mistake their silhouette for their picture.
Admittedly, applying this rhetoric back upon the study of musical genres may not uncover anything of interest. Audiences of post-punk can identify such music through a myriad of qualities without wallowing in existential crisis, wondering what the music is (beyond recognising that it comes after punk). That being said, what else do we encounter on a daily basis that is identified not by what it is, but by what it is not?