Are labels harmful in music and fiction?

It's an odd question and one with the inevitable answer as far as I'm concerned of YES.... and NO.

I found labels immensely useful when I was kid learning about the entertainment I liked. I fluked my first love in both these forms. In music it was a BBC programme showing the Who smashing their instruments. In reading it was seeing a cover I liked on a carousel of books inside a kiosk shop on Great Yarmouth seafront during one of the many times we ducked inside one building or another to escape the rain. I seem to remember that summer holiday being something of a washout.

So there I was in 1977 encountering music and reading for the first time; really encountering it anyway. I'd obviously done both before. I'd heard music on TV shows. I'd read books because school kind of makes you. But with the Who and Asimov I found myself wanting to do both; just for the enjoyment of it. And so to labels.

You see I wanted more. And I wanted more that I would like. You see my nine year old brain knew a little of the value of money (i.e. I didn't have much of it) and so if I was going to spend the little amount of money I had I had to make it count. I suppose one thing that was obvious that I didn't do would have been concentrate on reading books from the library. That way I could have spent what little money I had just on records. Well if I told you I still have the first book I ever bought (Asimov - Through a Glass, Clearly) it might tell you something about me. I like keeping things; things I like anyway. I'm not a mad hoarder who has every newspaper since 1981 or something like that.

So I had to target my acquisitions well and fortunately I found the labels, or genres, that would help me. Asimov books were in science fiction. The Who were in rock music. So there was a reasonable chance I might like other authors and bands I found in those sections. And it worked. I found Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Edmund Cooper, Lester del Rey, Michael Moorcock and all the other writers I liked when I was a kid. And I read them all listening to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Small Faces, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and all of my other favourite bands.

Okay, that's the argument for yes. but I did mention there being alternate answer to my original question. Well, there is, and it is quite simple. They limit you. I read science fiction. I read horror. I would venture as far as fantasy from time to time but that was it. And I probably missed quite a lot of great fiction doing it. And the same in music. I liked rock music. I liked progressive rock music. Through Zeppelin I even branched out into Folk-Rock and then straight Folk. I bought albums by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span for instance and of course Roy Harper - how could I not.

But I didn't necessarily look all that far outside those limits, even though I knew when I heard music in other areas I liked it. I just didn't let myself buy it. The same for fiction only with the obvious restriction that you cannot just accidentally read a book in the way you can hear music while watching a film or commercial, on the radio or in a store as you shop.

Then I grew older and realised just how problematic these restrictive labels could be. So I escaped them. I found P.G. Wodehouse. I found Alan Bennett. I found Umberto Eco. And in more recent times I found Magnus Mills. I could mention Zoran Živković, possibly my favourite living writer but there is something of a crossover with the genres I like in his writing so I might well have read his novels and stories even if I'd stayed locked in. Same with an Australian author I've become rather partial to - Max Barry.

So they were useful for a while but I had to outgrow them. Flash forward some decades - annoyingly four (golly, I feel old)  - and I don't think things are the same for young people today. Because you see they have this big wild woolly thrill ride of an internet. They can take bigger risks with their entertainment because it is so much cheaper to access it. You can head to streaming sites, YouTube or any other of dozens and hear something and make your own mind up about it without having to worry about whether it's been categorised alongside the other stuff you listen to.

And it's the same with reading; although to a lesser degree. You can read samples online you can read entire short stories or novels in some cases. But you still have to put the time effort in. Reading is still far more intensive a process. But the internet does make it easier than it was.

I think when I started this I thought I might have a point; somewhere my thoughts were headed but I've realised the further I have gotten into this the less important that is. The truth is there are no labels; not that actually matter. Well maybe except one. Things now are either categorised into

 - I like this
 - I don't like this

And from my point of view, just as it should be from yours, that's all that matters. So if you want to listen to One Direction please do. I might not be joining you though. But I will have my guilty little secret pleasures. It might just be time to put on Madonna's True Blue album - look, I just like it, OK?


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