The Post-Punk Pendulum, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Labels

I hate labels.

I’m not one of those elitist music nerds who believes music shouldn’t be diluted into genres, because I’ve actually found that to be helpful. No, I hate labels because I’m absolutely terrible at figuring them out. Otherwise, I actually kind of love labels.

Witness, for example, a genre called post-punk. If the name is meant to be taken at face value, it’s reasonable to assume it’s the music that followed in the demise of the mid-’70s punk movement. But there has to be more to it than that, obviously, because there was an awful lot of music released after 1978, and I’m almost positive “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb is something altogether different than Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It”, which is one of the identified genre’s most identifiable tracks.

But there’s much more to it than a seamless blend of punk posturing in discotheques, as Simon Reynolds tried terribly hard to illustrate in his obsessively detailed but sometimes frustrating book, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. So many bands, and so many of them doing so many different things. Are the Buzzcocks really a post-punk band? Are Talking Heads or Joy Division? Is Television, who probably had more in common with the artistic pretense of Wire than with some of their Bowery brethren, a punk band, post-punk or some other genre altogether? And what of the whole Two-Tone movement? Is that ska, or is there room under the post-punk umbrella for the Specials and Madness as well?

Clearly none of this really matters, especially if you’re like me and you prefer to take bands on a case-by-case basis. I can’t say definitively I like post-punk music, because there are bands I love who might meet the specifications, and there are also bands I don’t.

Where labeling music comes in handy is in drawing comparisons, especially in the digital age when it’s far simpler to discover whether you’re really going to enjoy something before actually spending your money on it. Artists frequently stream entire albums in advance of their official drop date, and even after it’s out, one can always sample bits and pieces on file-sharing services like iTunes. And, let’s face it, there’s a whole lot of grey area stuff happening out there, too. Music leaks like the bathroom sink in two consecutive Manhattan apartments a friend of mine has lived in.

Which is why I think it’s okay when someone tells me that if I like those first two Public Image Ltd. albums, the Pop Group’s debut might be right up my alley. In this case it actually wasn’t, at least not most of it, which I found shrill and unapproachable.

There are two great things that can come out of genre labels. The first is the revival, which in recent post-punk memory brought forth rather excellent initial salvos by Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads. Bloc Party’s early stuff wasn’t too bad either, come to think of it.

And while Wayne Coyne expressed his disdain for the whole retro post-punk thing a few years ago, it’s possible it’s still actually happening, what with the precision rhythms and angular guitars of Foals or Fool’s Gold. And maybe Vampire Weekend are also part of that scene, even though it’s also lot of blue-eyed Afrobeat happening. And don’t get me started on how much I love the Afrobeat label.

Which actually brings me to the second thing I love about labels. There are so many musical avenues to stroll down, and for a rabid muso geek like myself, it’s too easy to fawn over a few artists and miss the bigger picture. Which is how I was a Gang of Four fan from my early teen years, but Josef K escaped me altogether until a few years ago when my buddy Carl said, “Hey, you like this that and the other? Well, dig this, friend!”

At the time, I devoured the two tracks he’d directed me to — “Radio Drill Time” and especially “Sorry For Laughing” (which I’d heard covered by Propaganda years earlier without even realizing it) — and moved on to something else. And then I recently found myself looking at the sharp haircuts and sleek style of the Drums, and that led me back for some weird reason to Josef K, and I finally realized I needed to hear a bit more. And so I downloaded their excellent compilation, Entomology, and found myself hearing music that was 30 years old with fresh ears. And if there’s anything that seems to connect post-punk more than any other quality, it’s that it makes me want to dance. And I absolutely hate dancing.

I’m using post-punk as a single example, but that phenomenon happens to me all the time. I’d seen the remastered West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD’s in San Francisco’s Amoeba Records for years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago I finally got around to listening. And it blew my mind, which is kinda gross but also a lot of fun.

And I guess that’s why I’m okay with labeling music. It may mess things up for people who don’t take the time to figure shit out, but I’m too enthusiastic about music for that. I love being pulled in different directions by music, even if it’s all meant to mean the same thing.