The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'folk'
The Quietus, an online journal of music and culture, looks at contemporary "folk" culture (you know; the intersection of the improvised and rough-hewn, the spontaneous and "authentic"; ukuleles, beards, peasant skirts, artisanal food, that sort of thing) and argues that contemporary indie-folk culture is essentially a bourgeois, conservative phenomenon; you see, only those comfortably well-off (and sufficiently well connected to the establishment to feel confident) can allow themselves to indulge in a spot of faux-rustic reverie or fantasise about that old canard of "a simpler life". If those who are not unmistakably comfortably middle-class or better do it, they might get mistaken for the actual underclass and treated with the contempt Anglocapitalist society reserves for its lower orders. (Hence the well-documented phenomenon of class anxiety in England, where every class tries hard to draw a sharp line between itself and the class below, with the exception of the very top and the very bottom, who have the luxury of not caring.)
Shortly after the riots, a photograph was taken that let slip pop's complicity in this subterfuge. Alex James, a man who has spent the last few years protesting too much about how organic food production is infinitely more gratifying than the life of a touring rock star, gave consent for his Oxfordshire farm to be used to stage Harvest, a boutique food and music festival. Playing the garrulous country squire, he was snapped deep in conversation with both Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, the avatars, respectively, of compassionate Conservatism and PC-baiting, speed camera-hating Little Englanderism. Harvest, it appeared, was an ideological interzone for disparate trends within modern Toryism.
During the mid-2000s, forward-thinking tendencies in rock were suddenly overwhelmed by a glorification of spontaneity: it didn't matter what the music sounded like, so long as it could be knocked out at short notice to a crowd of thirty-six slumming private school kids in a Bethnal Green bedsit.
Presumably the "private school kids" part comes from the fact that, in today's Austerity Britain, those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths these days are too busy holding down two low-wage McJobs to pay their tuition fees to get in much in the way of spontaneous ukulele-strumming, the places in urban bohemia they reluctantly dropped out of to survive having been taken by the slumming scions of the gentry, taking a break from playing tennis and skiing to play at doing whatever (they imagine) common people do. Much in the way that a significant proportion of Brooklyn hipsters these days are one-percenters from the Hamptons (see also: Vampire Weekend, Lana Del Rey).
In this similarity, one can perceive a fundamental truth about the cultural logic of Big Society. When it did locate compliance in popular music, Thatcherism gave rise to an aspirational, future-oriented strand of New Romanticism: Cameron's Conservatism, by contrast, finds a less direct mode of expression in sham enactments of 'folk' autonomy. The organic, 'real' provenance of movements which affirm the ideological status quo is offered as proof that challenges to that dominant order are regarded by the majority of the nation's population as undesirable and inauthentic.Meanwhile, the comedian Stewart Lee is the latest to be faced with the agony of having one's favourite art defiled by the approval of the political centre-right; specifically, he is throwing away his Gillian Welch CDs, after the alt-country singer failed to display the integrity to prohibit David Cameron from liking her music, as Johnny Marr did with The Smiths.
Why was Cameron there anyway? Welch's music is not the music of library closures and the stoppage of disabled babies' free nappies. Great art ought to be incomprehensible to the dead-hearted politician. But then Ken Clarke comes along, with his brilliant Radio 4 Jazz Greats. Were his real parents bereted beatniks, who abandoned him as a baby in a golf club toilet to be raised by Tories?
It is inappropriate of Ken Clarke to love jazz, and cruel of David Cameron to attend a Gillian Welch show, or indeed any live event except sport, which is of no value. It must be obvious to him that the majority of fans of anything good would despise him and that knowing he was in the room would foul their experience.
In the wake of the latest report of the imminent death of Morris dancing, an activity many people undoubtedly imagine to be the alpha and omega of odd English folk dances, the Graun has an article setting the record straight, by listing five even more peculiar-looking (and thus undoubtedly more imperilled) traditional folk dances, complete with YouTube video:
Despite the misleading name, longsword dancing does not involve the use of actual swords. Rather, each dancer holds a length of steel or wood by the handle in their right hand, and grips the point of their neighbour's "sword" in their left. Linked together, they form circles and dance over and under their makeshift swords, flowing through brisk and orderly figures and steps. The centrepiece of the dance is the star-shaped formation made by the circle-weaving and the locking of swords high in the air.From the video, longsword dancing resembles one of the dances in The Wicker Man, though is from Yorkshire, rather than the Scottish islands.
And then there's Molly dancing, which appears to be almost like a Victorian folky version of A Clockwork Orange. Could an updated Molly dancing be the next Gypsy-punk?
This type of dance was performed mainly by agricultural labourers in East Anglia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Disguised with blackened faces and sporting women's clothing, Molly dancers roamed the streets, dancing in exchange for money to supplement their meagre wages. They were often destructive, drunk and disreputable, and social reforms led to the custom dying out in the 1940s. In the 1980s and 90s, young people from the south-east rediscovered and reinvented the tradition from the few scraps of information that had been preserved.
England's largest Morris dancing body, the Morris Ring, has warned that Morris dancing could be extinct within 20 years. The problem is that young people apparently consider it to be a bit naff for some reason and stay well away from it, and the population of active Morris dancers in England is rapidly aging and dwindling.
Though I wonder whether they just haven't been marketing it in the right way. Take a walk around Hackney or Dalston, and you see hip young men with woodsman beards. (You know they're hip, rather than terminally uncool, because they're typically riding fixed-wheel bicycles, wearing vintage Japanese Nikes or mashing up video on their MacBooks in a dive bar or somesuch.) Meanwhile, folk music is huge among hipsters and bohemian types, with folk-inspired bands like Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes dominating what-they-used-to-call-"indie"-before-it-meant-commercial-rock playlists, bands covering centuries-old ballads, and variously folky festivals like End Of The Road and Green Man doing a roaring trade. The organic, rootsy and, yes, even slightly "naff" aspects of folk traditions are "in". (This is perhaps a reaction against the slickness and polish of commercialised, commodified cool, where the skinny-legged, electro-striped Vince Noir new-wave-indie-glam image has jumped the shark and joined the leather-jacket-and-Ray-Bans 1950s Rock'n'Roll Cool Dude look in the museum of eye-rollingly laughable kitsch; it's only a matter of time before we see breakfast cereal mascots donning the oversized black glasses, thin ties and Chuck Taylors of Indie Cool, but I digress.) Traditional crafts have also made a comeback. All these people writing songs about birds and horses for laptop and ukulele and embroidering their own messenger bags; surely some of them would be interested in Morris dancing, no?
Perhaps the mistake they're making is in expecting them to join existing, traditional Morris troupes (which are damned not by tradition but by the aforementioned aura of stagnancy that hangs over them)? Why not, instead, encourage the formation of new, hip Morris troupes, based in areas like Bethnal Green and New Cross, and advertising their presence at arts nights and ukulele jams? (Apparently the Women's Institute has done something similar and has chapters around Shoreditch and similar areas consisting of subversive riot-grrl crafters who probably wouldn't be seen dead in the more bourgeois environs of their more traditional chapters.) Then again, perhaps even that won't be necessary; if punk rockers can join Masonic lodges en masse, surely it's not too implausible to imagine hipsters joining Morris troupes, with varying degrees of irony.
US author Benjamin Nugent has written a book titled "American Nerd", about how the nerd/geek stereotype was adopted as a badge of hipster identity:
Being sixteen, I thought to myself: How do I rebel against this? How does my generation do something new? How do we construe this epoch as a rotting husk adrift on dark waters, so thatwe can make our own creative endeavors seem romantic? One answer is purism. When eclecticism is your parents’ thingyou revisit old genres and deliberately maintain their integrity (these genres may have once themselves been considered hybrids, but a really long time ago). Freak folk is the rock-criticism name for my generation’s exploration of folk music. New garage means my generation’s take on mid-1960s guitar rock. Nu wave means my generation’s take on early punk and new wave. In these albums, there is no hip-hop or jazz or Texas swing or house or any of the other flavors previous generations loved to mix. The sort-of-true clichés about what hipsters like—trucker caps, mustaches, Pabst Blue Ribbon, mullets—play with the idea of old school. They connote sophistication and cosmopolitanism by screaming, “We are not cosmopolitan! We are not culturally sophisticated!” This is an anti-Bobo trend, and one aspect of it is the flowering of nerdiness as an aesthetic.Nugent cites Norman Mailer's The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster, and posits the analogy between the Afro-American stereotype of the 1950s and the nerd stereotype of today. Part of this is as a sort of Rousseauvian noble savage, unsullied by sophistication, and thus all the more valuable for sophisticates to appropriate the identity of. Part has to do with the treadmill of commodification, where things that were once signifiers of being on the cultural forefront get marketed to the mainstream and become ubiquitous, and those genuinely at the forefront have to do something different to differentiate themselves from the suburban consumers wearing their old costumes, hence adopting outsider identities. The fact that the outsider identity is considered deeply uncool by the mainstream (consider all the hipsters with rustic-looking beards making primitive folk music on their iBooks, when the trendies are into angular, skinny-legged indie rock that sounds like The Clash or whatever and the mainstream are into thugged-out commercial hip-hop) also helps; and it also has a useful peacock-tail effect, demonstrating one's fitness through an act of stylistic bravado, and essentially saying "I'm so with-it that I can afford to do this", or perhaps "I know something you don't":
Dressing like a punk was not a solution. Everyone knew that aesthetic was helping to move twenty-dollar Warped Tour tickets. There was no reason to even consider hip-hop; nobody who lived in a city with cable television and billboards could doubt that was a movement working in collusion with business culture to sell suburban teenagers stuff, even if was admirably forthright of rappers to dress like gay Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton executives and sing about how purely commercial their motives were. Of course in all of these movements, hip-hop included, there were artists in garrets, making music for the music, but nobody wanted to run the risk of being mistaken for one of the kids who fell for the marketing.Of course, the idea of hipsters and trendies adopting the "nerd"/"geek" identity (which, apparently, consists of wearing prominent spectacles and cardigans) does sound somewhat absurd; a bit like that article from some years ago that said that the "intelligent" look was in in Los Angeles, and consequently the glamorous people were buying books and carrying them around, unread, as fashion accessories. Or will the behavioural trappings of nerdiness become de rigeur amongst the cool set? Will Dungeons & Dragons or vintage video games become essential subjects to mention to enhance one's coolness, much like krautrock or Donnie Darko? Will we eventually see replica Curta calculators for sale alongside Lomo cameras at hipster lifestyle accessory shops?
After a year of bands with animal names and hipsters with rustic-looking beards, the pastoral/folk thing is well and truly mainstream, now that Goldfrapp's next album, The Seventh Tree, is going in a pastoral direction. That's right, the EMI-signed chanteuse who is known for moving with the winds of change, first having abandoned the post-Morricone dinner-party trip-hop of Felt Mountain for the then fashionable electroclash and glam revivalism, seems to have jumped on the neo-folk bandwagon, albeit with a touch of 1970s Britishness:
Nevertheless, The Seventh Tree is not from an entirely different planet to Supernature. It's also inspired by music from the 1970s, but the softer end of psychedelic pop rather than glam-rock. The band craved a sound that was woozy and hypnotic, and after the album title came to Goldfrapp in a dream, everything else followed suit.
But, despite the American references, the record still sounds indelibly English. Gregory puts it down to their music not having its roots in blues, but I fancy it's more than that. It's the deadpan-meets-Carry On humour that crackles through the album. It's the way in which Edward Lear's nonsense poetry finds a new home in the song Little Bird, which features a crow with mouths for eyes. It's in the Moogs, Mellotrons and Optigans that bring to mind the terribly English electronica of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and when Syd Barrett haunts the album's more psychedelic corners.
There's also a sense of cracked innocence threading itself through these sounds. In the process of songwriting, Gregory and Goldfrapp remembered music from their childhoods - spooky soundtracks to children's programmes, strange sci-fi shows and public information clips. "It was that era that everyone thought the world was going to blow up," Goldfrapp says. "Either the bomb would get you or the rabies."Which sounds like it could potentially be interesting. Or it could be a mainstreamed take on the kind of retro folk weirdness that independent artists have been exploring over the past few years. Though, to be fair, Goldfrapp's niche is not to explore the fringes, but to aggregate what's on them for a more mass-market audience. Of course, as it's a mass-market product on a major label, there is every chance that all that lovely gentle psychedelic-folk subtlety mentioned in the article will be crushed out of the finished product by the standard commercially-mandated brutal overcompression.
(I wonder whether The Seventh Tree is a take-off of the name of freak-folk outfit Voice Of The Seven Woods, a favourite of weird-music curator Andy Votel.)
The story of Stagolee (also known as Stagger Lee or Stack Lee), the 19th-century black pimp from St. Louis (real name: Lee Shelton), who became a legend and inspired every American musical genre from folk to gangsta-rap, not to mention cinema and the civil-rights movement:
The screen Cave adds to Stagolee tradition tells us more about the culture of the singer than it does of the culture of the song. Stagolee as African-American tradition is the screen that allows the projection to take place. "The reason why we [recorded it] was that there is already a tradition," said Cave. "I like the way the simple, almost naive traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo. Just like Stag Lee himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become."