I tend to avoid assigning genres to songs and albums. In fact, I almost always enjoy people crapping on the concept of genres. I reveled in the sizable chunk of Doug Nunnally’s interview with The 1975 that dealt with the obsolescence of genre taxonomy, and I got a kick out of Bob Boilen’s recent Question of the Week: “Can you imagine a world without music genres?” NPR’s been on a roll, come to think of it — Ann Powers’ marathon interview with Bruce Springsteen included a nod to the Boss’ 2012 SXSW keynote, which, if you didn’t catch it, was punctuated by the longest and funniest list of genre names you’ll ever hear. (That speech is just plain good for you, I think. I’d recommend watching it at least once a year.)
But I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a second here, because genre-based thinking is key to why I’ve been enjoying Angel Olsen’s new tune “Hi-Five” so much.
Think of genres like buckets. Buckets are great for carrying things around that would otherwise spill all over the place, and music can certainly act like a liquid when you’re trying to describe it. The lyrics, the melodic shapes, the instrumentation, the production — all those details can slip through your fingers when you don’t have something giving them shape, and it’s way more efficient to hand your friend a song recommendation that’s contained in a sturdy, familiar category.
The same thing happens on an even more basic level when you’re hearing a song for the first time. Listening to music is hard mental work, and your brain would just love for there to be a shortcut it can use to process whatever it’s hearing, given that it’s also busy worrying about whether you unplugged the coffee maker this morning and what you’re going to make for dinner and why you’re still watching Revenge even though you hate it and know that it’s a terrible show on so many levels. The artists I love most are the ones who play around with this impulse, and Olsen’s “Hi-Five” does just that.
The song starts out with overdriven acoustic guitar, something I’d normally dump into the “Indie-ish” bucket my brain’s been toting around since the 90’s, but just as quickly we’re hit with an opening line so Hank Williams-y — “I feel so lonesome I could cry” — that it’s hard not to start scanning the rest of the chords, words and sounds against the conventions of country music. As I listened for the first time, I kept thinking things like “I’d love to hear that kind of overdriven acoustic guitar in more country songs” and “I wonder if she grew up listening to Hank.” Having to try this hard to find the right bucket is confounding but intensely enjoyable for me. There are so many areas of life where I want to eliminate surprises — health, job, house not falling down — but music provides this safe and vital place for cognitive dissonance to thrive, and if genre labels contribute to that uniquely delightful friction, then I guess they can’t be all bad.
Check out “Hi-Five” below, along with a favorite of mine from her previous album. Her new one, titled Burn Your Fire For No Witness, will be released on February 18.