One would certainly hope that music – despite being as much of a highlighter of class warfare as it is a sanctuary – can at least be relied on for sincerity. But, all is clearly not what it seems on the surface; there are bands and artists still flagrantly trampling on the ideals of the cultures they claim to be a part of, and Rob Rubsam says enough is enough. Here are his thoughts on music with no consequence, indie rock at its worst and underlying problems.
I wanted to throw something on stage and break their washboard. Go back to your ad agency jobs. At least your love of empty passion will find a good fit there.
Last Sunday night I found myself in a field in the Catskills, rained on and, for the time being at least, bored to death. Spirit Family Reunion is on the stage, with a lead singer whose face looks like Abe Lincoln and his hair like Elvis. They have a washboard player in skinny jeans and everyone is so deathly fucking serious, you’d assume this is a funeral. The singer is going on about trains and dear green fields and he tries his best to keep the folksy accent when he talks, tries his best to hide the fact these hucksters are all from Brooklyn, inexplicable folk music capital of the world. Working class heroes of America in 300-dollar Doc Martens.
What they have for us is music of no consequence, custom-built to be forgotten. It is insulting not for its disposability but because it takes that frivolity and spits it from a po-faced frown. Too much of indie rock is currently in this mode, whether screamy (White Lung) or strummy (Christopher Owens), self-possessed of its own importance but without anything to say¹. Most days I’m indifferent, but on Sunday it actively annoyed me. This is music not of the world but despite it, escapism to some similar but much more boring plane of existence. The backwards-hat-wearing bros seemed to love it, anyway.
As lead singer Nick Panken liked to remind the crowd, his band is from New York, and it was great to be playing in their home state. But his New York is very different from mine. On the drive to the venue I proposed a drinking game: half the car counts for-sale signs, the other half abandoned buildings, and with each you take a drink. If I was serious we all would have been shit-faced within five miles. Despite playing “homegrown American music to stomp, clap, shake, and holler with²” Spirit Family doesn’t reflect any America I know. The history they so poorly hearken back to is an empty place, rotting. Yet the band clings so fervently to the stock vocabulary of folk music that it might as well be transparent, might as well cease to exist.
Music must in some way reflect the world around it, whether to embrace or defy what it sees. The greatest singers always knew this. Whether she was singing “Mississippi Goddam” or “Why Keep on Breaking My Heart”, Nina Simone contained the whole world in every magnetic syllable, brought its weight to bear on every line. More than simple gravity, however, she knew when to punch up the music, how comedy and tragedy are blood brothers. Hers is entertainment as much as it is art, titanic pillars of both we still adore. I could list all of the musicians who understood this, but why bother? Theirs is the music that survives, whether they designed it to or not.
Yet the band clings so fervently to the stock vocabulary of folk music that it might as well be transparent, might as well cease to exist.
This is not to say only political music passes the test – far from it – but what most indie rock gets so fervently wrong is that music requires pathos and power. It is the same from all great actors, that even as the roles change, the deep well of feeling from which they are plumbed stays the same. The shared consciousness of humanity, if you will, or even just a mutual understanding of grief and joy and the reconciliation of the two. Right now I am listening to Experiments in Time by Willis Earl Beal. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but the conviction with which he delivers these songs nullifies that need, because I understand him completely. He conveys frustration, sadness, confusion, ecstasy just with his phrasing. Even had I not read into his back-story I would hear it. Yet this music is still a joy to listen to.
Most indie rock has none of that, without even the gall to acknowledge its frivolity. Spirit Family Reunion represents the nadir of this, a worst-case scenario in every sense. This is conviction without ideas, the urban abstraction of the rural raised to high hokum. I wanted to throw something on stage and break their washboard. Go back to your ad agency jobs. At least your love of empty passion will find a good fit there.
1. One could easily criticize a generation of metal vocalists for this same thing, taking goofy, borderline-cartoony ‘philosophies’ and internalizing them so fiercely the music is only good for inducing headaches, but that deserves its own article.
Latest posts by Robert Rubsam (see all)
- How I Disappeared - 11th August 2015
- A Revolt of the Everyday: Bluegrass and Music’s Accessible Fringe - 27th February 2015
- On Listening - 11th January 2015