So, what exactly is this title saying? In what way, precisely, is folk ‘the new black?’ Is Janis Ian pursuing a fashion metaphor and suggesting that folk music has reached a level of ubiquity and acceptance that means it now suits any kind of social gathering, that it matches any outfit, any mood? Or is she, on the contrary, playing some kind of race card and positioning folk as outsider music for a dispossessed underclass? Sadly, it seems the answer is nowhere near as thought provoking.
On the chorus of the title track of her new album, Ian claims ‘‘Folk is the new black / Cheaper than crack and you don’t have to cook.’’ OK, so now we’re getting somewhere. It’s a drug reference, right? She goes on: ‘‘Download it and see / The first time is free then you’ll be hooked. ‘’ But wait just a minute. What is she saying? Is this a good thing? Is she pro or anti? Let’s go back to the first line and see if we can put this in context: ‘‘Put your ear to the ground, there’s a buzz about a new type of song / They call it folk, and what it does is make you want to sing along.’‘
Perhaps you’re beginning to get the picture. The simple truth is, it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s just a clumsy, embarrassingly half-hearted and limp attempt to crow-bar the word folk into a song as many times as possible. But why?
Well, if you were a cynic, you might well be forgiven for suspecting that Janis Ian had read an article somewhere about the resurgence in popularity of folk music, about the acclaim being heaped on veteran artists like Vashti Bunyan and newcomers like Josephine Foster, and that she had decided maybe it was time she got a piece of the action. True, she originally made her name as a teenage protest singer, shooting to fame in 1965 with the controversial song “Society’s Child”, a daring meditation on interracial relationships. But since then she’s buffeted around on the winds of fashion, straying into FM radio-friendly singer-songwriter balladry, bubblegum pop-rock, even disco. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the earnest impulse of the young folk musician got lost in the search for commercial success.
And so, we end up, on this alleged return to her folk roots, with a collection of lumbering, instantly forgettable numbers whose only resemblance to actual folk music is their acoustic instrumentation. Lyrically, they can be divided into two groups. Firstly, there are the heavy-handed, hugely unconvincing ‘message’ songs, like the title track or the opener “Danger Danger”, which attempts to parody right-wing attitudes with the chorus ‘‘Danger, danger, can’t you see / That sex should stay a mystery / So ban that music, yessiree / That’s what America means to me.’’ And, secondly, there are the oh-so-self-conscious, attempts at autobiographical soul-searching, such as “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, which tries to wring some kind of profundity from the horrifically hackneyed imagery of ‘‘Standing in the shadows of love / Hiding from the sun up above / wondering if my heart / Would ever feel the spark.’‘
Fittingly enough, these jarringly insincere statements are accompanied by soporific, overproduced, faintly-countrified backing tracks of guitar, upright bass and drums that make Norah Jones sound like Cecil Taylor. The whole thing just screams ‘adult-oriented hit potential.’ Whether or not folk is the new black remains a moot point, but one thing’s for sure: this ain’t folk.