March 3, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Caleb Hering

“There are people who I feel intimidated by while talking about music,” were the words from my roommate which acutely angled a discussion of Midwest Emo towards untrodden territory.

            “Like who?”


Territory, however, that was immensely pertinent to the words which started all this—“I don’t like the label Midwest Emo,” —uttered one recent morning at 7:45.

It was not news to me that I could be deemed “intimidating,” as my longest and most cherished friendships emboldened themselves through absurdly pretentious takes on the most recent song, band, or album we were listening to in high school. However, many of these friendships were also built upon brutally and occasionally abusive honesty to each other about how absurdly pretentious these takes were… well, I had hoped to have had changed a little since then.

And I have, I think.

But still, with those I am close to now there are times when my personage loosens, and the claim of some opinion deemed objective spews out. It is never truly what I believe. And immediately I feel betrayed. However, the rhetorical poke and shove has already unearthed itself and spurs something equally absurd, or a hurt silence.

The latter: something I was all too familiar with when my obsession with music was only beginning. And seeing it occasionally now breaks my heart and trust in myself. Unlike my best friend, I have never had a penchant for history nor memorization. But instead, my mind follows a temperamental memory which cements only the most off-piste and unexpected information.

When asked if I liked Post-Rock or Shoegaze, and whether I thought Blondie had recorded and published the first Rap song, or if The Beatles invented Metal, my mind would go blank and the hot frustration of blood rushing towards my face congealed any ability to think, to the effect of a stroke.

But while conversations of historical narrative, such as Blondie and Rap or The Beatles and Metal, were more easily debated without knowing every aspect of the occasion, a question of pure genre always stumped.

For a long time in my experience, genre was akin to the most unintuitive academic words which we now dig through in college — especially when one factors the enumerable possibilities for how a genre might be defined. Grunge, for instance, might have a more defined visual aesthetic than sound profile. And, certainly, the terminology is largely based from a time period and locale. So, in that usage, it makes sense. Especially for the historical axis of understanding how music evolves, conjoins, and differs through shared influences which have been largely dependent on time period and locale.

However, it is all too often that I hear someone ask if one song, band, or album is X-genre or Y-genre in order to understand what it might sound like, if they might like it or define themselves or someone else by what genre(s) they listen to most. And in these instances, it is all too often that someone experiences what I and many others have experienced: the unsurpassable brick-wall of abstract terminology.

How many albums have not been listened to because it was labeled with a genre unfamiliar or tinged by misinformation? How many songs dismissed because who-in-their-right-mind knows what East Coast Sleeptone or Vada Vada are? Spoiler: East Coast Sleeptone does not exist. But if someone said it did, I would probably believe them. Vada Vada, however, does exist. And for a while only one set of twins from Orange County existed within it.

Genre in colloquial dialogues of music should generally be left out. Or at least used only at the most general extreme. It is only when a dialogue digs into the weeds of historical narrative that its genre flourishes into something much more useful than pointlessly restrictive.

So, when my roommate had stated that he felt “Midwest Emo” to be an unhelpful, restrictive label as he believed it dismissive, I had to rethink my original answer—arguing that the label described a figurative feeling and history to its music. Instead, I realized that to a newer listener and someone not as historically privy, the immense usage of the term throughout social media has obscured much of the historical attributes of the label’s origin. The overuse has created a singular, abstract sound which absolutely dismisses much of the genre’s creativity or nuance.

Genre, generally, is just not helpful.

This is why I would like to propose a shift in how we speak about our favorite music, or any music for that matter. While genre is invested with an encyclopedia of knowledge that can—and will — be useful for most listeners. I believe it is important that we do not position genre as the defining feature of a band, song or album. This shift could be quite subtle. It is often I say something akin to “[x-band] is [y-genre],” but maybe it would be better if the conversation sounded more like: “[x-band] was a part of [y-genre]” or “[x-band] seems to have been influenced by [y-genre]”.

This small shift from “is” to more complex phrases help prevent the diminutive factor that a label has the potential to become. By orienting a description towards a time, “was a part of” or “have been influenced by,” our language presents a narrative with temporal space to it. There is cause and effect. Some historical aspect which presents the nuance between what defined a genre and what was then later included.

 However, this language still presents the issue of simply not having the historical context to understand any amount of linguistic narrative other than a complete historical account. It should not need to be said that a complete historical account is rarely wanted, or even required. Instead, I want to advocate for a more removed dialogue that only breaches the question of genre once conversations move ‘deeper’ than “What do they sound like?”

            Hopefully the gist below makes this clear:

A New Dialogue:

            When asked:

“What does [X] band sound like?”

            Possibly respond with:

“[X] band sounds kind of like a mix of [Y] and [Z] bands, if you are familiar.”


“They remind me of [Y] band.”

            And if there is no common ground, try figurative language:

“The songs are long, but they really put you into a trance with a lot of low notes that last forever with intertangling melodies that dance on the surface.”

Instead of:

“[X] band is [insert genre].”

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