everything you know is wrong
musical genres, at best, are meant to quickly define the general area artists are working in. at worst, they create rigid rules for people to follow and form templates for unimaginative musicians to rip off. but good or bad, one of the most irritating things about them is that so many of them are misnomers. either the word is a bad description, or the original meaning has been hijacked by something else. thus when faced with the simple question "what kind of music is it?" bands and listeners alike are left with an inadequate vocabulary to explain what they play and/or hear.
let's start with rock. shortened from "rock'n'roll," a reference to sex, it was once seen as the music of danger, rebellion, and (gasp) race-mixing, since it started as a hybrid of black-based rhythm'n'blues (more on that later) and white-based country/bluegrass music. since the beatles, this term has become synonymous with the mainstream, inappropriately used by the likes of entertainment weekly to describe anyone from madonna to backstreet boys and used to sell sports cars and sneakers. both the doors and the who said, "rock is dead" years ago, and they were right. like a sci-fi time-travel paradox story, every attempt to go back and reinvent the wheel of rock ends up creating an alternate timeline that takes it in yet another direction.
for example, prog or "progressive rock," came about thanks to the beatles' introduction of classical music to the rock vocabulary. this inspired some far more adventurous groups to explore the new artistic avenues the greater harmonic pallette opened up. unfortunately, in many cases it metastasized into an uncontrollable wank-fest of wagnerian proportions. that a musical form looking to expand should go backwards to an older form of music sounds regressive rather than progressive.
a reaction against this overblown style led to the beginning of punk, a nihilistic expression of desire to eradicate the ponderous corporate behemoth rock had become as well as the repressive political regimes of the time. but even punk was in a way a regressive form; it simply hit the reset button on rock back to when there were only 3 chords and the mainstream thought bands and their fans posed a threat to society. even the idea of punks as "a rebellious counterculture group" of "inexperienced" youths inevitably had to change (in practice, if not in statement). long after the sex pistols sang "no future" (while signed to corporate behemoth EMI) millions of punks live in that future, continuously gaining and sharing experiences to the point where the counterculture is part of the culture. over a decade after their big breakthrough, green day is one of the biggest bands in the world, and empty punk signifiers are in every store in the mall. so much for the destruction of corporations.
industrial was also supposed to musically wipe away what had come before, and did a better job of it by throwing out traditional ideas of melody, harmony, and chord structure. only the methods of promotion were taken from mainstream rock by its originators throbbing gristle. but a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. TG broke up, and the scene it started morphed into other types of music. new bands influenced by the harsh sounds simply sampled and combined them with kraftwerk-like programmability into dance music with a hard, aggressive edge that was the fulfillment of the early 80's underground term "death disco." instead of using that phrase, these new bands adopted "industrial" as their own. the final changes came when nine inch nails replaced lyrics about the horrors of war and the dullness of factories with expressions of personal angst, and ministry brought distorted guitar flirtation to the forefront and essentially became a metal band with drum machines and samplers.
meanwhile, to state the obvious, metal is a huge misnomer, since the substance or sound thereof plays no part in the music or lyrics. a true "metal" band would be einsturzende neubauten, whose pounding and scraping junkyard percussion made them as loud and frightening as any pmrc-hated group of alleged devil-worshippers. instead they're claimed as one of the original industrial bands. though "metal" is a blanket term referring to any number of subgenres using distorted guitars (speed, black, death, doom, the list goes on), it began as a diminutive of "heavy metal" which first referred to bands such as black sabbath and blue cheer. however, thanks to huge sales and mtv overexposure in the late 80s, the face of metal to most people is narcissistic, pop-oriented hair bands like poison. even r&b/dance artists janet jackson and en vogue each did a "metal" song.
r&b is supposed to be short for "rhythm'n'blues," but what's called r&b today bears no resemblance to the original musical style, except that it's still sung mostly by and for black people. made almost entirely with soullessly-programmed preset sounds, the music is more often a bed for the interchangeable singers' lyrical seduction attempts or pleas for their lover to return. unusually prescient, the music industry's term "urban contemporary" seems more appropriate, although few people outside those circles use it.
on the other hand, the industry ends up nullifying the term indie. supposedly short for "independent," this could mean anything produced independently, but generally means indie rock. this arguably grew out of the pioneering efforts of bands like pixies and r.e.m., who essentially created the college/bar circuit by relentlessly touring out of their own pockets. this means rock made in garages, bedrooms, backyards, rented rooms, recorded inexpensively and taken on the road without outside financial backing or input. that rarely applies to most of what gets called indie these days, especially since major labels started buying shares in their smaller counterparts. one would also think independent means unique and personal, but a whole culture of album artwork, appropriate names, and dress code has risen up around this as well. prior to this, the buzzword was "alternative," which met a similar fate.
goth is another style whose extra-musical signifiers are as important as its musical makeup. shortened from "gothic," in reference to old horror films with morbid imagery, the music initially grew out of deathrock, a darker and more theatrical mix of punk and glam rock. however, the visual style was more influential than the music, and soon anyone doing anything remotely dark or wearing lots of black became lumped in as "goth," whether the neo-classical world music of dead can dance or the manic-depressive pop of the cure. meanwhile, none of this has anything to do with the germanic tribe of the same name.
none of this is to say that all the music above sucks, although a lot of it does. personally, i like artists in every one of those genres, and more. i even like most of the bands mentioned above, even if it seems i'm giving them short shrift. genre names can be helpful as well as harmful, pointing like-minded people in the right directions or creating false expectations. fortunately, every genre has its redeeming qualities, and its best practitioners have aspects that raise them above the rest. of course, those aspects also usually set them apart so much that they transcend or exit the genre altogether, sometimes even creating a new one in the process. that's when things really get exciting: something that seems so new that no one has a name for it yet.
the title of this post comes from an interesting book and also happens to be a song by weird al yankovic.