It's easy to understand why: Our reactions to music usually are visceral and instinctive, not logical and quantifiable. As a result, it's all but impossible to make someone feel the same sensations by describing a sound as he would feel simply by hearing it for himself.
But that doesn't stop us from trying. We keep inventing expressions to characterize various types and styles of music; when those types and styles change, we also change the labels. Unfortunately, we do so by shifting, combining, and twisting them into piles of linguistic goo that often wind up being as difficult to understand as the forms you receive from the Internal Revenue Service.
In an attempt to clear up the confusion, we've constructed this simple glossary that should help you understand what a writer is trying to convey next time he starts throwing around garbled, muddled, or baffling musical terms. Our definitions may not prove to be the final word, but that's hardly a surprise. After all, we're not sure what most of them mean, either.
alternative \awl-TER-nah-tiv\n 1: a genre of music that its makers pretend is distinct from any other style, even though it really isn't 2: new wave music, renamed when new wave became old hat 3: music marketed to youths with bad skin, poor dating prospects, and too much black clothing
blues \BLOOZ\n 1: a genre of music usu. featuring twelve-bar phrases and three-line stanzas, plus lyrics about dying drunk in a gutter 2: songs by artists with bad love lives, financial problems, psychological torments, and guitars 3: music marketed to white people who, upon hearing it, feel like black people, even though black people seldom listen to it any more
classical \CLAS-ih-kul\n 1: a genre of music related to European musical tradition of past centuries and characterized by works longer than any Moody Blues album 2: a style that's supposed to be good for you - just like beets, liver, and castor oil 3: music marketed to intellectuals, or dopes who want to seem intellectual
country \KUN-tree\n 1: a genre of music identified with rural or Southern sensibilities and marked by clanging, twanging, and words about banging someone you're not married to 2: songs sung by men and women in fancy hats that cost more than your car 3: music marketed to people who used to like rock and roll but now find it too scary, or supporters of David Duke
crossover \KROS-oh-ver\adj 1: music that moves from a commercially suspect area to the pop mainstream because its makers homogenize elements, round off any sharp edges, and try to sound like Paula Abdul 2: money, big money, piles of big money 3: music marketed to people who look just like Barbie and Ken
death-rock \DETH-rawk\n 1: a genre of music related to hard rock, usu. featuring cover art and lyrics taken directly from old medical textbooks and the works of Anton Levey 2: the musical equivalent of going into a haunted house and sticking your fingers into cold spaghetti that someone in a costume tells you is brains 3: kooky, spooky, ooky
folk \FOHK\n 1: a genre of music exemplified by simplicity of melody, often focusing upon people who die horrible deaths and then turn into burbling springs 2: songs played by musicians who can't get along with people well enough to be in a band 3: music marketed to environmentalists, idealists, and old hippies who harangue you at parties about "the good old days"
funk \FUNK\n 1: a genre of music characterized by African rhythms, propulsive bass lines, and repeated exhortations to have sex now 2: songs that, when combined with darkness and sweat, magically make any member of the opposite sex look good 3: music marketed to people who would like to buy porno magazines, but are too embarrassed to ask the 7-Eleven clerk for a copy
fusion \FEW-zhun\n 1: any genre, but usu. music sporting elements of jazz and rock, in which disparate musical styles are combined to create a new entity that lovers of said styles will hate 2: the aural equivalent of a Shirley Temple 3: music marketed to people who wouldn't know the difference if you swapped their oatmeal for wallpaper paste
heavy metal \HEH-vee MEH-tul\n 1: a genre of music that began as blues-rock but mutated after the invention of endless guitar solos and special prostheses that make lead singers' crotches seem enormous 2: songs about teen-age rebellion usually written by men over the age of 40 3: music marketed to youths still excited over getting their first pubic hair
industrial \in-DUS-tree-uhl\n 1: a genre of music that attempts to duplicate the sound of your head being run through a printing press 2: alternative songs that are an alternative to alternative songs 3: music marketed to people who feel like shit all the time - and like it
jazz \JAZ\n 1: a genre of music distinguished by syncopated rhythms, contrapuntal ensemble playing, improvisation, and players who enjoy heroin 2: songs without words, except sometimes 3: music marketed to people who think they're better than you
pop \POP\n 1: a genre of music that openly courts popularity, rather than putting on the air of artistic integrity, while secretly trying to suck your wallet dry 2: songs that stick in your head like an aural fishhook that will rip your brain out of your skull if you don't sing along for a minimum of eight hours 3: music marketed to everyone who eats, sleeps, or breathes
punk \PUNK\n 1: a genre of music characterized by speed, brevity, and fans who see vomiting as an acceptable substitute for a handshake 2: songs that manage to be new wave and alternative at the same time 3: music marketed to people who don't enjoy bathing, gargling, or human interaction of any kind
rap \RAP\n 1: a genre of music characterized by danceable beats and spoken nursery rhymes about penis size, pulling trains, ho's, bitches, and not touching anything 2: songs about living in poverty written by musicians who wear gold chains, drive expensive cars, and vote Republican 3: music marketed to people who wouldn't blink at paying $200 for a pair of tennis shoes
rock \ROK\n 1: a genre of music characterized by repetitive structures, spare instrumentation, and lyrics about cars, babes, sex, and having sex in your car with babes 2: a word that can be used in the place of every other musical term, except maybe opera, and sometimes even that one, too 3: music marketed to people who actually like Steve Winwood, Journey, and Grand Funk Railroad
rock and roll \ROK and ROHL\n 1: a genre of music identical to rock but associated more with rebellion, antisocial behavior, and hipness than the status quo, political correctness, and beer commercials 2: songs that you can imagine Elvis Presley singing 3: music marketed to people who actually like Little Eva, the Stray Cats, and Wink Martindale
soul \SOHL\n 1: a genre of gospel-driven music that makes you want to get down with your bad self 2: songs that make you want to get it up for a bad someone else 3: music marketed to people who want to get it on with a bad anyone else
world beat\WERLD beet\n 1: a genre of culturally specific music made by foreigners, or Americans who have the complete videotape set of Roots 2: a style that has inspired more illegal drug use than the Nixon administration 3: music marketed to those who feel less guilty about owning BMWs and Jacuzzis when they listen to songs played by Third World people who make $300 a year.