I like Caitlin White and her writing a lot, and have plenty of reason to be grateful to her for her coverage of my fight with cancer this past year. Our opinions diverge a bit on the subject of music criticism and folk music from time to time, though, and reading her quite well thought-out essay on the subject this morning, I thought I should add my thoughts to hers in order to explore this schism a little more. So I have taken some excerpts from her piece here, mainly the bits about the Mumfords and Mumford-clones and “authenticity” and all that, and presumptuously added my own thoughts in between.
The Mumford hate has been an unending wave following the release of their second album Babel that caught on quicker than artisanal coffee. Another, newer wave folk-freak group Akron/Family even went so far as to claim the stories they’re telling are authentic, name-checking The Lumineers as frauds. Now is probably a good time to add that Mumford, Foxes and Lumineers are all bands that have sold loads of records and received radio play while Akron/Family really hasn’t. Is it selling records that suddenly disavows a band’s authenticity? Doesn’t selling records imply that their stories are, in fact, resonant in today’s society? What stories are these that they are owned only by a select few, and who owns them, and why?
Well, first, let’s go to that Akron/Family quote Cait mentioned. I’ve got no special allegiance to those guys—they played at my college a couple times five or six years ago, and they were fine, but I’m by no means rising to their defense so much as trying to defend them against the insinuations that seem to plague any people who turn up their noses at the Lumineers and Mumfords. (I assume when Cait writes “newer,” she means newer than other, earlier folk revivalists, not newer than Mumford & Sons—Akron/Family has been around since 2002, while Mumford & Sons formed five years later). Anyway, here’s what Akron/Family actually said:
“A lot of this contemporary pop stuff, this 1930s, panning for gold, bow tie stuff like the Lumineers, it’s very heart on the sleeve,” says Akron/Family multi-instrumentalist Miles Seaton says. “But they’re telling someone else’s story. I feel like we’re telling our own story now and it’s less fairy tale. Seth [Olinsky, fellow multi-instrumentalist] and I pushed our perspectives to the front and you end up getting something way more real from us.”
I don’t see the word “fraud” anywhere. I see an artist speaking plainly, opining that the Lumineers traffic almost exclusively in anthemic, pastoral nostalgia, and that Akron/Family doesn’t. This may only be partially related to the lyrics of either group. A quick glance at Akron/Family’s lyrics doesn’t reveal leagues more depth than The Lumineers’ big hit “Ho Hey,” I’m dismayed to admit, but I doubt anyone would deny upon close listening that Akron/Family’s music is at least slightly more adventurous, ambiguous, and more open to multiple interpretations than The Lumineers’ oeuvre as a whole. I use the word “oeuvre” facetiously; forgive me. Aside from money, what does Akron/Family have to envy about The Lumineers?
To unnecessarily answer Cait’s rhetorical question: “Doesn’t selling records imply that their stories are, in fact, resonant in today’s society?” No, not necessarily, or not usually, even. It certainly demonstrates that their songs are more marketable, but then, part of what makes the Nike Swoosh so compelling is its simplicity. Would anyone say that what made Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” sell so well was that its story was more resonant with society in 1982? They’d probably be more likely to say that it was catchy, that you could dance to it, and that it was ubiquitous. Mystery solved, I think. The incredibly broad appeal of anthemic pop music is no secret, and throwing in some banjos does nothing to dilute its commercial potential.
Do I think John Prine is better than The Lumineers? Hell yeah I do. But that doesn’t mean that the two have to be mutually exclusive. I wonder, though, if the current critical landscape would’ve accepted a former mailman from Chicago into the folk genre, a place that has now, apparently, become a battlefield for authenticity. Bob Dylan took a new name and often lied about his origin story. Paul Simon was fêted by his suburban parents in Flushings, Queen. Their stories are the stories of America, but they’re conduits more than anything else—those stories don’t belong to them, nor to any one teller.
I’m left wondering in this paragraph what the phrase “mutually exclusive” refers to. If it is intended to mean that someone can like John Prine and The Lumineers, that is certainly true. But if John Prine is so much better than The Lumineers, why not just write an article about him, rather than a think-piece about all of the handwringing over authenticity in folk music? There are a lot of those think-pieces out there right now already—a new, contemporary profile of John Prine would be positively refreshing in comparison. Then again, who would read it? Me, and probably a few other people, but it wouldn’t “resonate” in the same way that Cait’s current article does. This is concurrent with the musical dilemma being discussed. There was a time when folk music was simultaneously communal/universal in construction, and intensely personal in delivery and content. Jean Ritchie comes to mind—Anne Briggs and the Watersons do too. So do Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, however much grooming and marketing came between their music and their audience. But more and more, driven both by cultural and economic forces out of our control, we “folk” musicians are compelled to make music that is more marketable. Part of the reason is so that we can get people like Cait to write about us. The cultural conversation becomes obsessed with universality, and the music we create becomes part of an obsession with being part of that cultural conversation. It’s kind of a shame, but that’s the way things go.
Art for the individual always becomes art for the masses if it’s good enough.
Tell that to John Prine!
Here’s where it gets tricky, and here’s where critics and hierarchies try to enter in—determining intent. A key part of the obsession with the pastoral is that it’s a safeguard from the ever-encroaching boundaries of capitalism. Chain restaurants, billboards, corporations, commercialization—these are the monkeys on our back in the 21st century. These are the blots on the face of our art. So when the innocent, traditional sounds of folk music inevitably mesh with the capitalist system, people get angry and feel betrayed. Or, they feel kids from the suburbs aren’t adequate representatives of such a storied genre, of such a weighty and important history.
But the idea that the musicians of now have no right to dabble in the sounds and ideas of that the early folk singers and songwriters established is blinding itself to the core idea of the tradition. It’s a music that has always been associated with rebellion, individuality and narrative, but also one that specifically sought to avoid hierarchies and haughtiness. Critics caw that The Lumineers are aping the sounds of the past, well, what the hell do you think Bob Dylan was doing? He straight up copied Woody Guthrie for years. For most good musicians, copying an idol is a way of learning, it’s a form of growth. It happens constantly.
Yes, Bob Dylan copied Woody Guthrie for years before he began to create more elaborate personas for himself. I don’t see much of that kind of obsessive imitation these days in folk music. What seminal forbearer are The Lumineers or Marcus Mumford really drawing on, or taking lessons from? Snow Patrol? I see it in Laura Marling’s music, but then I see people like Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) and Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station) doing things so much more compelling and moving to me, and wondering how quickly their days in the spotlight will come. Determining intent isn’t really the hallmark of good music criticism, is it? That seems more like a job for the historians, the biographers, the anthropologists, and the hagiographers. Criticism is about evaluating an artwork, placing it in context, and determining its aesthetic and literary significance, regardless of the creator’s intent. How much pop music really holds up to that sort of analysis?
I’ve never listened to Mumford & Sons and been angry that they were on the Grammys, or that they made a bunch of money on tour or placing their music in films. I’ve listened to them and been angry that those things have happened despite there being so many other artists who do what they do better, and who do it tirelessly without the adulation of the public. That’s why I cheer when I hear that they’re on hiatus. Let them rest, and let some musicians with more of an appreciation for craft, variety, innovation and ambiguity try and take their place.