When Did Generic Become a Bad Word? [Opinion]

            Let’s take a second to talk about a pretty loaded word when it comes to music: generic. As defined by Webster’s Dictionary, generic is an adjective used to describe something as “unspecific; related to a thing or group of things.” Musicians, music lovers and music critics, however, know that Webster is only partially correct—as the term “generic” colloquially bears far more impact than what the dictionary ascribes. Most of the time, I’d be willing to bet, when one hears or uses the term generic as it applies to music (especially heavy music, which is the audience I’m writing to in this article) it’s meant as a dig; a lazy insult insinuating that the release is dull, boring, forgettable and so on.

            Respectfully, I disagree.

            Without “generic” music, there would be no boundaries to push, bend and break by a genre’s “progressive” or “technical” counterparts. Furthermore, even looking at the dictionary alone, there is nothing inherently bad about something being generic—some of any given type of music’s most memorable and archetypal releases are, almost by definition, generic. What I hope to do here is challenge the notion that releases should get the cold shoulder by virtue of being deemed generic—and, more broadly, that critics, fans and creators of music alike be more creative in their rationale for not liking something than shrugging and mumbling some version of “I dunno, it’s just kinda generic bro.” We deserve better than that, and more importantly, the releases by artists looking for feedback from which they can build and improve deserve better than that—so lets give it to them.

            First, some transparency: I, like you, your friend, your friend’s friend and so on, have written plenty of releases off as “generic”—and hell, many of those I’ve come back to and enjoyed. In the mid-late 2000’s, when literal gigabytes of music were available at the (immoral) click of a button, it was easy to download an irresponsible amount of stuff and give releases a figurative litmus test; if the first full track didn’t dazzle you, onto the next one. In this way, my own tastes—as well as the tastes of thousands of blossoming heavy music fans—became geared to tune into only the most ungodly heavy, amazingly catchy, shreddingly technical or perfectly produced records. The in-between was a problem for future Connor—future Connor who didn’t know that some of his favorite records would be discovered sifting through those uTorrent and Limewire folders days, weeks or months later. It was a great time, and the beginning of my now somewhat-vast knowledge of heavy music past-and-present. But from that time also came the trend of synonymizing “generic” with “bad,” and with the advent of Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming services lending near-unlimited access to any and all music at a low cost, those times have risen again. It wouldn’t be until years later when I’d truly un-learn the synonymizing of generic and bad; some people still haven’t (that’s the point of this article, if you’re jumping in late).

            This isn’t to say I’m picking an arbitrary hill to defend some of my favorite, albeit generic, bands on. Nor am I trying to cut down artists I don’t like under the guise of discussing their contributions to a given genre. I’m not about to create a bullet-pointed list of the “best generic bands” or rattle off “10 bands you call generic but actually suck” (although both are solid ideas for rainy days). I’m not naming names, calling people out, anything like that—I just want to explore where this mindset arises from and why it is a—for lack of a better term—silly mindset to have.

            We’ve already discussed the dictionary breakdown of “generic,” and what it means by the book. Now take a look again at that definition and apply it, mentally, to a genre of choice (preferably a genre you enjoy). Adapting that definition and paraphrasing just a smidge, you end up with basically something that touches on the key elements of any given musical style. Let’s use deathcore as an example: What do you consider to be truly key to that genre? A combination of blast beats, breakdowns alternating with the assistance of metallic-yet-simplified leads and diverse, technically impressive vocals. Throw in some movie samples and lyrics about the downfall of society, aliens or shitty ex-girlfriends and your bases are covered, right? By extrapolation of those qualities in conjunction with consideration of the aforementioned adjusted “working” definition of “generic,” we’ve categorized the deathcore acts that do those things but not much…well, else. In some senses, those traits describe many of the early deathcore bands—bands who get a “free pass” from being pigeonholed as generic because they were among the first to actually do that style. It a way, it makes sense that the progenitors of a given genre are among the most generic—I mean, shouldn’t they be?

            I’m hoping that if you’re one of those who uses “generic” like some kind of dirty word, you’re asking yourself right now why that’s the case—and when you use the term “generic,” what is it that you really mean? For me, it was boring. Generic became a convenient phrase to use in place of “boring” or “dull,” especially in a time where only artists pushing to create the most ludicrous combinations of heavy music could hold my attention. So what does boring mean? Unable to hold attention? Homogenous? Monotonous? All of the above, right? Yet none of those mean the same thing as the previously described, generally agreed-upon definition of generic. That’s because the use of that term as a contemporary colloquial slam, is a cop-out. From the standpoint of a music critic, it’s lazy—to use one word imprecisely when a more robust and appropriate description could be more fitting (or more deserved) does an injustice to the listener, the music and the musicians. Not everyone is a music critic though, and that’s fine—but the use of “generic” in place of an explanation as to why a given song, artist or album isn’t up your alley remains taking the easy way out. If the reason an act isn’t up your alley is because they’re generic, that’s one thing—the band makes good ol’ metalcore and you’re really only invested in the genre for the progressive and technical variants—fine, you got me there. But for the 90+% who use generic in the place of “boring,” “monotonous,” “samey” or (heaven forbid) more precise modifiers could do to be more precise with their words; generic bands can be bad as often as they can be good and those statements are neither contradictory nor redundant.

            When I was a relatively young blood in heavier music, generic got tossed around a lot—like a kind of weird, almost dirty word—and while that trend fell off between 2010 and 2017, recently it’s picked back up, and my hope is to encourage people to ask themselves if their use of the term is appropriate. Rather than using a word which ought not have any negative connotation as a blind slam towards bands you don’t care for—or even worse, haven’t even actually given a chance—consider describing what it is you dislike about an act, if for no other reason than to lend more depth and credibility to your own explanation. If it weren’t for the truly generic acts within any given style of music, we would have no foundation from which to experiment and branch—and if that’s deserving of being synonymized with shitty, then perhaps more thorough self-searching and questioning need be done.

Connor Welsh