Losing My Religion: Revealing the Hollow Reality of Lo-Fi

In 2004, the apotheosis of Robert Pollard finally happened. Now that

the “classic” Guided By Voices lineup is readying itself for a reunion tour, critics, fans, bloggers everywhere will no doubt by thrown into fits of religious ecstasy, gushing endlessly about visions of the afterlife during performances of “I Am a Scientist”. It is baffling that Bee Thousand (1994), which contains merely one song (out of a staggering 20) that clocks in at over three minutes, has been able to transfix the indie community for 16 years.

What is equally baffling is the way that “lo-fi”—as aesthetic, as ethic, as style—continues to be constructed as the absolute mark of musical authenticity. Even though GBV are widely considered to be the lo-fi alpha and omega, that has not stopped the praise from being piled on contemporary bands as diverse as Wavves, A Place to Bury Strangers, LCD Soundsystem, Times New Viking, and Girls for working, essentially, in accordance with Pollard’s Commandments. All of which raises the question: how can lo-fi be authentic if it is clearly an appropriation of someone else’s aesthetic?

For all intents and purposes, lo-fi’s grand narrative locates its roots in the rise of British punk music in the late 1970s. Self-described punks made their own music, often recording it on their own dime, and therefore creating a musical aesthetic that was often grittier and significantly less polished than that of their mainstream hi-fi counterparts. The fuzzy math tends to run thusly: with little money at their disposal, and no corporate apparatus (and expensive recording equipment) supporting them, punk bands couldn’t help but write music that sounded raw and, as many have argued, more “real” than whatever music was being created in those corporate studios. However, it should be noted that a more rigorous and, indeed, accurate history of lo-fi would trace the aesthetic back to artists like Lead Belly and the various other African American blues and folk singers of the early 1900s, who were experimenting with home recording technology long before Kurt Cobain came along. That this more culturally rich history of lo-fi has been whited out in recent years remains highly problematic.

This overly simplistic narrative is the one that has been reiterated in music journalism of virtually all kinds for the past thirty years or so. In fact, this narrative has become even more prominent in these bloggy days of the 21st century, when the blogosphere has become the purview of punk journalists—all those gritty, grimy DIYers who launched a media revolution from their home computers. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us virtual music critics position Robert Pollard as our patron saint: he stands as the fulfillment of all of our aspirations. If his dusty home recordings could eventually be canonized as “classic” pieces of music, then it is equally possible that our amateurish journalism could be considered relevant (maybe even classic) someday, too.

And now comes the point where I will commit what some will see as the gravest of mortal sins: this whole lo-fi thing, in its current form, is an affectation—a performance, a pose, the indie community’s response to “Vogue”. And this upcoming Guided By Voices tour will only enhance the performative aspects of the supposedly authentic aesthetic they have been championed for canonizing.

If we can get academic for a moment—Pollard won’t mind; he was a schoolteacher—we should open our copies of Slavoj Žižek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real to page 9, where he writes, “The ‘passion for the Real’ [. . .] culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle.” Žižek defers primarily to film to support this point, claiming that the endless push to capture reality—gritty, occasionally horrifying reality—resolves itself in performance, as genres like pornography (which, coincidentally, proliferated alongside of punk rock) make clear.

More contemporaneously, John Holbo over at Crooked Timber has made similar points about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). To paraphrase Holbo, yes, TDK is “gritty” and less polished than the Batman movies of the ’90s, but to equate that grittiness with realism is ridiculous, particularly when that realism depends on the affectations of a grown man who fights crime in a batsuit with his Kevlar underwear exposed.

We should make these same claims in the context of music (after all, the 2004 re-release of Bee Thousand was subtitled The Director’s Cut, so the film-music connection is not off base). Why continue to equate the self-styled abrasiveness of lo-fi with reality? For instance, if a band like A Place to Bury Strangers adorns its records with stickers that proclaim it to be “The Loudest Band in New York”, how is that gesture not a performative one—a kind of sonic one-upmanship? Sure, the group might really be loud, but isn’t it also demonstrating the absurd pretentions of turning its amps up to 11?

Likewise, when we salivate at the news that Deerhunter is “going lo-fi”, shouldn’t we also ponder why lo-fi has become a choice—something that can be put on at will, as opposed to being the reality of how Deerhunter sounds? Along those same lines, shouldn’t we also ask: when hasn’t Deerhunter been lo-fi?

And finally, when we attend these upcoming Guided By Voices shows, shouldn’t we ask what, exactly, we are witnessing? Clearly we will not be in Pollard’s basement among his collages and discarded tapes—that sanctuary of reality where Bee Thousand was conceived. Some of us, at least, will be in Las Vegas—that place where performance abounds, where spectacle is the Holy Grail, and where we indulge the fantasies that we cannot bring to life in the real world beyond the city limits. It’s a setting of awful bliss, for sure. It’s also the kind of revelation that should inspire some palpable measure of fear and loathing in the punky blogosphere. If that claim seems abrasive, rough, amateurish on my part, I can only counter that it must be authentic, then.