29 September 2009

Genre genie

Towards an iTunes taxonomy

SONY DSCYou might think I’m foolish.  You might think I’m crazy.  You might even think it’s hysterical that I would freely and of my own volition spend my spare time tinkering with the genre tags of individual tracks in my iTunes MP3 collection.  And yet that’s just what I’ve been doing for the best part of an hour, and I’m only moderately embarrassed to admit that I actually enjoy such an arcane pursuit. 

Perhaps deep within me lurks an inbuilt ancestral impulse of some butterfly or coin collector predecessor, one who spent their lives categorising and cataloguing a myriad of intricate specimens.  But whatever unwittingly trainspotterish heritage that resurfaces now and then, I can freely admit to what should in any case be completely obvious: I am a music geek.

That is not to say that the act of categorising songs in my music collection provides a superior form of recreation to the act of actually listening to them.  It doesn’t.  But what I do enjoy, in the privacy of my own home and hopefully with no major negative consequences for my right-thinking fellow citizens, is perusing vast, seemingly unending lists of songs and muttering to myself, ‘Tut tut, that’s not right – they should be over there.  With that artist’.  As Messrs Yorke & Co. would say, everything in its right place.   

This sort of analysis might not be particularly important for most music listeners, but in my case the size of the music library in question - 7300 tracks and counting - means that it’s worthwhile to impose some sort of reliable structure as an aid to navigation.  But here’s the kicker.  While most of the tracks were actually obtained from my own CDs, the electronic track-naming services on the internet (e.g. GraceNotes) are based on user-supplied information.  Like much of the information on the internet, this can mean that it’s not entirely reliable, but in general terms it’s fairly useful.  Unless you happen to be a finicky sort like me, that is, who finds the prospect of inconsistent music labelling mildly irritating.  Particularly when the labelling has been contributed by people with funny or just plain dopey ideas about music.   

Needless to say, such decisions are highly subjective.  I’m not pretending to be a music expert.  But sometimes it’s better for contributors to services like GraceNotes to just leave the genre tags alone.  Stand well back, but do not light the blue touch-paper.  Because a whole range of pitfalls emerges and the scope for misunderstanding expands dramatically when you’re required to slap a single genre label on a track or indeed the entire work of a recording artist. 

We can start with a simple example: the French group Daft Punk.  One glance at the genre column revealed a horrible mishmash: 11 tracks listed under a combination of five tags - Dance, Electro, Electronic, Electronica and Pop.  Leaving aside the possibility that a group might conceivably dabble in more than one style of music, and therefore thankfully consigning Rod Stewart’s entire ‘70s disco phase to the stylistic wastebasket, it’s much simpler if all my 11 Daft Punk tracks could feature the same genre tag.  Two are discarded immediately: sure it’s pop music and sure you can dance to it, but it’s primarily electronic music, so Dance and Pop are discarded.  And Electro and Electronica are just dullards’ techniques to try to make the Electronic music label sound more exciting, so they go too.  Daft Punk’s tracks are filed under Electronic. 

Let’s be frank though – I’m not about to spend a great deal of time adjudging whether songs by Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn should be filed under Pop, Rock, Pop/Rock or even an overarching New Zealand genre.  These are snap decisions on matters of no great import.  But it’s the aberrant, way-in-left-field or just plain mental tags contributed by internet users that raise eyebrows and generate the odd snort of derision.  Let’s have a quick rundown to illustrate my point:      

Captain & Tenille (Rock)

Yeah, the captain’s hat, the cheesy grins and that awful song about Muskrat Love?  Truly they embody the pageantry of rock and the mysticism of roll.

Indigo Girls – Romeo & Juliet (Comedy)

Okay, are you serious or are you trying to make some kind of obscure point here?  Sure, perhaps the idea of anyone covering a Mark Knopfler song elicits wry snorting in some snide quarters, but Amy Ray’s impassioned performance of this rock standard is surely anything but titter-inducing.

Eurythmics (Rock)

No they don’t

Ali G – Interviewing Economist J.K. Galbraith (Soul)

Seriously - what drugs are you on?  Oh wait, that tag might’ve actually been me, by mistake.  Still, nice to think of a soul revue featuring the sprightly Reverend Al Green, the late, great Godfather of Soul, James Brown, the everlasting Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Sacha Baron-Cohen in a shell suit.

Lily Allen – LDN (Blues)

Wait, are you being ironic?  Granted, there is a knowing current of disillusionment and social realism bubbling beneath the surface of  Allen’s summertime hit, but surely any blues would be instantly dispelled by the jaunty mariachi horns, the ebullient chorus, and the peerless verse:

‘There was a little old lady walking down the road, she was struggling with bags from Tesco

There were people from the City having lunch in the park, I believe that is called al fresco

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