Dear Frontier Psychiatrist,
I have no idea how the term “rock” is used anymore. Many years ago, the terms “rock” and “pop” and “top 40″ all kinda meant the same thing. Now? No clue. How is Alt-Rock different from Rock or Modern Rock or Indie-Rock? And clearly hip-hop is mainstream and in the top 40, so is that considered pop? If not, what term encompasses both hip-hop and rock? What do you call current, popular music that’s in the top 40? Surely you don’t call it “Current, popular music that’s in the top 40?” And why the hell is it Top 40 and not Top 50 or Top 10, anyways? That always struck me as weird.
Not Cool Enough for Williamsburg
Take comfort in the fact that this question is not that new. While it may seem that genre-splicing is an internet-era phenomenon, there was in fact much confusion in 1978, for example, over whether The Cars and Blondie were truly “rock bands” or whether the “new wave” movement they represented was a completely separate entity. Now? No one cares. In fact, such questions are hardly limited to music: just think about how many utlimately fruitless discussions you had during your college years about whether or not the books you read constituted “literature.” My guess: more than one.
Still, such reassurances are unlikely to calm your nerves next time you hear a song referred to as “Modern Rock.” So, let’s work together to understand. Trying to come up with satisfying definitions is likely to lead nowhere, so let’s take a different approach. I would argue that you can determine the genre of a song based solely on where you overhear it. To wit:
1) Top 40: CVS
-If you find yourself humming a song that you would be embarrassed to hear your girlfriend humming, it’s likely that you were recently in CVS buying floss or light bulbs.
2) Pop: Wal-Mart
-What do Wal-Mart and Lady Gaga have in common? They both still sell CDs.
3) Rock: Old dentist’s office
-Rock music has been post-schism since the late 1960s. Not since the days of Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ed Sullivan-era Beatles did everyone agree on what constituted rock. Now, four out of five dentists agree: “Rock Around The Clock” soothes your nerves as you go under the drill.
4) Alt-Rock: Young dentist’s office
-What about that 5th dentist? Odds are he’s 37, dresses casually, tries to get you to buy the clear fillings, and really likes Red Hot Chili Peppers.
5) Modern Rock: Upper East Side Bar
-This is actually the easiest category to define. Basically, it means The Killers.
6) Indie Rock: Lower East Side Bar
-Like Modern Rock, except fewer people listen to it, and they are more likely to wear plaid. Note that no category embodies how useless formal definitions are in categorizing music. The first genuine American Indie band is generally agreed to be Black Flag; suffice it to say, they would have separated the gentlemen in Vampire Weekend from their lunch money.
7) Any genre with a more complicated name: Williamsburg Bar
-You know, it’s kind of like glitch-hop meets screwgaze, but with a post-punk sensibility.
So, next time you’re trying to decide how to categorize a song, just think about where you last heard it. This method is likely to supply as accurate an answer as any.
Finally, allow me to answer your final question, because that one actually has an answer: jukeboxes. When the jukebox rose to stardom in the 1950s, it was able to hold 40 seven-inch records, i.e. singles. Hence “Top 40,” a natural role for radio in the promotion of record sales.
Have a musical query? Write to Ask a (Frontier) Psychiatrist, and we’ll provide a therapeutic solution.