The Binary Problem

This review got me thinking.

Journalists don’t so much report on divisions and rivalries between different forms, genres and approaches to music as they create them. This is of no fault to the journalist, but rather lies in the impossibility of conveying the complexities of culture, of reality, in a sound bite. A distillation is necessary—Democrat vs Republican, business vs labor, rock vs disco, etc.—in order to arrive at an ending suitable enough to fit below the fold, into a 4 minute radio piece, or a blog article. The interpretation of where a division lies and the boundaries of a rivalry may begin with the writer and end with the editor where media is concerned, but in art boundaries aren’t as cleverly defined. In the same way an elementary school student may simultaneously have a crush on and punch the cute student across the aisle, music flirts with other music and weaves interchangeably, infinitely. Artists spend more time worrying about their art than whether the genre/form/school/variety, etc. in which they work is beating the other guys. In fact, most artists hate genres. There is no NFC Eastern Division in music, despite how many times you hear about the Grammy’s, the VMA’s, Youtube hits, Facebook likes, Twitter followers, etc. Journalists aren’t so much guilty of perpetuating this as they are doomed to repeat what has been given them by a many-decades approach that has little to do with reporting on art and a lot to do with repeating what is easier to hear and digest: this is in, that is out, this is better, that is worse, this is valuable, that worthless. Artists themselves don’t see the world this way. With rare exception, artists don’t single handedly represent entire genres, as a sitting President becomes de facto political party leader. Most simply don’t care whether their genre is on top, making inroads, or losing to rival genres or other artists. They make art. The next time you read about an artist making a jab at another artist, trace the arc and 9 times out of 10 I’d wager you find that media created and/or incentivized the situation with the carrot of publicity, like putting two mutually-destructive bacteria in a Petri dish and long-windedly documenting the results of the battle over the days and weeks it takes for one to vanquish the other. The vast majority of artists are not engaged in warfare for the supremacy of their genre, brutally fending off rivals and strategically plotting the advance of their agenda like a made-for-Netflix program. They make art and are engaged in making their art the best they can make it. They care about truth, beauty and culture. Music journalists will continue to say things like “ascending genre” and “the decades-long rivalry between rock and dance music” because they work in a style of media that largely encourages them to create such binaries because we as readers enjoy them. We enjoy them for the reason more people like movies with a happy ending, or at least a concrete and not open-ended ending. More people read these types of pieces, and that generates more advertising dollars. Next time you hear a reviewer say “hot new genre” or “a salvo toward her peers” in a review, question the writer’s perspective and endeavor to remember that art isn’t about binaries. Art is about art. The artists you love will appreciate it.

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