What the Folk? When the Traditional Becomes the Counter-Culture

My college friend Karl is featured prominently in the background of the Lumineers‘ live performance of “Stubborn Love” for La Blogotheque’s famous pseudo-guerrilla “Take Away Shows”. The performance, shot on a San Francisco rooftop, essentially epitomizes what it is to be a college graduate in your twenties or early thirties in a cosmopolitan American city. A major indie rock band plays as the nearly set sun casts friscalating dusk light against the cityscape. The drummer wears a fedora and a bow tie. Beards, plaid, and angular black glasses are everywhere; the girls are cute in that intentionally unkept fashion unique to San Francisco; everyone sings along with the signature lyric, “When we were young, oh, oh, we did enough.” You would have to be utterly soulless not to be a little moved by the youth, the community of it all.

On the rooftop that night, there were maybe 50 people surrounding the band. Karl stands off to the left under a DirecTV dish, bouncing his knees good-naturedly, clapping and singing along — he sang in one of our college a cappella groups and looks almost disconcertingly like a Wahlberg brother. You can sort of tell this is his Super Bowl, an opportunity to sing along with and stand close to a band that, at the time of the release of these live versions in mid-January 2013, had just transitioned to heavy rotation at Top 40 radio. The assemblage represented some of the band’s super-fans, each standing on the cusp of being in love with the thing that was in the process of exploding. Karl had followed the Lumineers from their relative infancy, a 2012 odyssey that saw them leap from non-existence to being namechecked along with the pantheon of modern, mainstream folk acts: Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers.

The marvel wasn’t that Karl liked the band or “Ho Hey” — the band’s radio single — it was that everyone else eventually loved them too. Upper-middle-class kids from fancy homes and schools had always loved certain strange — if credible — margins of the musical world. Jam bands, folk, indie rock — all had strong footholds in the homes and iTunes of the elites, but rarely did they ever achieve anything approaching mainstream ubiquity. It was not surprising, for instance, that many people I graduated high school with loved Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, and Phish, but it was collectively disconcerting when “Heavy Things” went to modern rock and Adult Alternative radio in 2000. This brief cultural hiccup especially frustrated Phish fans. Some fourth wall had been broken. Phish weren’t supposed to be everyone’s band; they were the exclusive property of a numerous but limited elite. The lamentable battle cry of “sell out” was on the lips of prep school graduates everywhere.

What was happening for the Lumineers and other pop folk acts in 2012 and 2013 blew the “Heavy Things” paradox out of the water. Folk music went into heavy rotation on radio alongside Bruno Mars and Rihanna. What critic or tastemaker even considered that a folk band could sell out, even if it had wanted to? What would happen next, now that an element of the margin had been so broadly accepted into the mainstream? It was a question worthy of the great postmodernist Jean Baudrillard. Once the Lumineers went to Top 40 radio, cashing in along with Mumford and Sons and Of Monsters and Men, what was left of the distinction between counter-culture and the mainstream? Or, had the success of mainstream folk destroyed the viability of folk altogether. The inside and the outside became so deeply intertwined that, in the words of Baudrillard, “The center of meaning is empty, therefore we are satellites in lost orbit.”

This mainstreaming of the margins began far longer ago than 2012, a somewhat linear trajectory that would undeniably include at least a few of the following: the Strokes reviving garage rock, the watershed Nissan commercial that used Modest Mouse’s “Gravity Rides Everything”, the movie Garden State, its soundtrack, and Natalie Portman’s now-famous invocation that “this song will change your life”, before playing the Shins’ “New Slang” over her headphones to Zach Braff. Portman’s character was right; indie rock leapt into crossover popularity. However, for all the ascendency of bands once deemed critical champions and commercial failures, none ever made the impact on radio, in record sales, or mainstream success as Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, and Of Monsters and Men. The Shins may well have helped change the paradigm, but they never went to Top 40 radio. Bands like LCD Soundsystem, the Strokes, the National, and Passion Pit did sell out basketball arenas in the New York area, but they hardly could have done so away from America’s yuppie, dilettante-ish coasts. The Lumineers instead churned along, cramming many-thousand seat race tracks in places like Texas.

Some of this is traceable to a night in the winter of 2011. It was the 53rd Grammy Awards, an evening when Arcade Fire would win the award for Album of the Year, spawning an amazing Internet backlash from viewers who had never heard of them. “Who is Arcade Fire?” became both the joke of the evening and a confirmation of the status quo. The band had been an 8-to-1 Vegas underdog in the category, facing down Eminem and Lady Gaga; there was almost no chance they would win. And yet everyone I knew loved The Suburbs and the band that produced the music. The rest of the country was, predictably, in the dark. Upper-middle-class kids, prep-schooled, suburban, private college-educated, both won and lost in this game of cultural awareness. It had definite rules. We were “smarter,” if underappreciated and, in some sense, the nation at large could never grasp what we were into — and we both liked it that way. Arcade Fire winning the Grammy was both confirmation that we had been right all along, and that the great masses still didn’t get it. “Who is Arcade Fire?,” we sarcastically mocked the next day as while collecting and counting our cultural capital.

Lost in that evening’s fulcrum for Arcade Fire and “indie rock” was the first major televised performance of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. The bands played with Bob Dylan, an appropriate pairing: old guard folk, meet the new guard. Mumford first played upbeat number “The Cave”, Marcus Mumford stomping the kick drum at his feet and the group having every bit the coming out party as Arcade Fire would after receiving their Grammy and playing “Month of May” later that same evening. I remembered seeing Mumford play two years earlier at a half-full Music Hall of Williamsburg. The American television viewing public was having the same experience I did then; this band could absolutely blow your doors off. The pairing with Dylan was predictably bizarre, the aging singer barking along to “Maggie’s Farm” as Avett and Mumford played his goofily star-struck backing band. They all received a standing ovation as the ABC camera cut to John Mayer and then Jennifer Lopez.

Imperceptibly then, something had shifted, though the proof took two years to emerge. In the fall of 2012, the second Mumford & Sons album, Babel, sold 600,000 copies in its first week, a number that cannot be accountable to the band’s popularity for a marginal, if self-important group of yuppies. In fact, hardly any of these elites actually purchase their music at all. Both singles “I Will Wait” and “Lovers of the Light” impacted at radio. To date the album has sold more than two million copies domestically, more than three million worldwide. How many people who expressed their incredulity at Arcade Fire’s victory that night in 2011 — “Who is Arcade Fire?” — now found themselves fans of Mumford & Sons? The margins had turned inside out. This past February, it was Marcus Mumford and his band who won the Grammy for Album of the Year. There was no corresponding Internet backlash asking, “Who the hell are Mumford & Sons?” Everyone already knew.

Of course, none of this implies that in their popularity Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, or Of Monsters and Men are, in any critical sense, bad. Sitting in the Barclays’ Arena watching Mumford & Sons take their victory lap of Brooklyn this winter, I was struck by the row of teenage girls to my right, screaming each lyric and fanning one another off between songs. “Whispers in the Dark” transformed from a live cut the band toured rock clubs with three years earlier to marching orders of a generation of teeny boppers. “Let’s live while we are young,” they screamed, collecting themselves into a pack around love of this folk music. Fifteen years ago, they would have been at a Backstreet Boys show; 20 years ago, it would have been New Kids on the Block; today, it was Mumford & Sons sending teenagers into a fever dream in the back of a basketball arena.

For all the weirdness of this cultural phenomenon — folk as a marginal counter-culture making its way into the mainstream — marks a confusing improvement. Mumford write their own music, play their own songs, and originated from a somewhat edgy East London folk scene that similarly birthed Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling. Pop music, Top 40 music, Billboard number one music, was at least turning toward being more organic, less packaged, in some sense, more “real”. Taylor Swift, a similarly “authentic” artist, had begun the same project in the opposite direction, a mainstream country and pop artist who began to impact the margins, the princess of radio now lauded on the virtual pages of Pitchfork. It was the cultural Lord of the Flies: a country singer who wasn’t that country and a group of Londoners playing American-style banjo songs both seizing a part of the same pop conch shell as millions sang along.

Still, it surely reflected something odd as car radios tuned into AAA and Top 40 radio formats and found deejays bouncing from Mumford to the Lumineers to Of Monsters and Men, sometimes in order. At the very least, in these days of cultural contrarianism, this type of folk hegemony couldn’t last for long. There was the issue of style and substance. Mumford sounded an awful lot like Dave Matthews on “Lovers of the Light”, a fact that would surely endear them to some and alienate others. And despite the catchiness of “Ho Hey” and Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks”, they seemed terribly similar: Group vocals, a little winsome melody, a chorus that was literally “ho” or “hey” or both. Like working the Lehman trading floor in summer of 2008, these were the last days of the folk bubble — a society heavily vested in something no one realized was nearly worthless, whether anyone intimately tied to these moments fully understood the precipice at the time. Someone will soon ask the first in a series of questions that always kill these movements: Doesn’t this stuff all sound the same? Where did this music come from anyways? What is the next thing? The market corrects; our brief cultural attention span holds the twin power to drive and destroy fad.

The folk bonanza of 2010-2013 will soon come to resemble the swing fever of 1996-99, when bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and Brian Setzer Orchestra achieved modern rock and mainstream success. Of all the weird ’90s anachronisms of the movie Swingers, the most bizarre is surely that the resolution of the plot lies in Jon Favreau’s character knowing how to swing dance. For Favreau’s loveable loser, this was not just a signifier of his secret cultural cool; it was a symbol of his moral authority.

While this moment is almost entirely forgotten, for a certain set of the population in the mid-’90s, swing music was the new crossover darling, and knowing how to swing dance, whether at a middle school dance or in an indie movie, seemed achingly relevant. When “Zoot Suit Riot” came on the PA, only some people knew what to do. It’s easy to forget the cultural impact of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive, and Wail” in that khaki-clad Gap ad — a legitimately iconic moment at the time — or the fact that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed at the 1999 Super Bowl halftime show with Gloria Estefan and Stevie Wonder. The most dishonest thing to say about the folk crossover is that it was in any sense unique. If Mumford helped create the neo-folk revival, we might remember them in the same manner as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, not quite swing, but with just enough of a ska-horn section to qualify, screaming the lyrics to “The Impression That I Get”, one of the most famous rock crossovers of the late 1990s. Only it was the Bosstones appearance in Clueless and on the movie’s soundtrack in 1995 that drove the beginnings of the ska and swing ascendency into the mainstream. This may well have been their Shins-in-Garden State, Mumford-Grammys moment.

Soon we will feel the same about banjo and busking bands making it on the radio. Consider listening to Avicii’s most recent single “Wake Me Up!” as the most cynical of all attempts at crossing rustic folk influences into the mainstream, maybe the moment when the vaguely corrupt thing became fully bankrupt.

There is an old axiom of culture: you hate what your parents loved, but love your grandparents’ cultural fashions. It explains some of the necessary cultural amnesia and recent fascination with a show like Mad Men or the Mod aesthetic among people in their twenties and thirties; these are tropes two generations removed. It’s hard to imagine a show about the Reagan ’80s, apologies to The Americans, making the same sort of impact. And perhaps this explains something of the Swing revival of the 1990s and the neo-folk ascendency. In both cases, these are the sounds of grandparents. For the teenagers of 2013, their parents most likely listened to Phil Collins, Erasure, and New Order. For these kids, it was their grandparents who were steeped in Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel. But this only partially explains the crossover boom of mainstream folk. Even assuming Of Monsters and Men, Mumford, and the Lumineers are largely an under-thirty phenomenon, this would not nearly account for the success of bands in this genre.

The folk revival has also managed to channel a bigger cultural signifier of the past decade, something that brings us back to that rooftop in San Francisco, something deeper and harder to talk about. The kids who sing along to Mumford & Sons or the Lumineers may well be harkening back to something their grandparents loved in the 1960s, but the adults who sing along to “Stubborn Love”, these are people, fully formed adults, in love with kitsch. This is the generation that might well end up reviling the hipster, while simultaneously proving obsessed with the features of hipsterdom. The plaid, the beards, the suspenders, the fedoras, the fancy cocktails with their muddled mint and artisanal bitters, Instagram-filtered portraits of a rooftop sunset, it all adds up to a brand of inauthentic nostalgia. The folk revival traffics in these same waters; in fact, fake nostalgia is the biggest investor in the folk bubble. These bands don’t stand for any iconography or ideology — a peace movement, a radical message in dire times, a political outsider — they stand for selling records. For all the criticism of Mumford & Sons’ debated Christianity, at least you could argue their vague evangelism stood for something larger than “Ho Hey”. The original articles of 1960s folk stood radically apart from their colleagues in rock. They stood for peace, a renegade quietude; even Dylan going electric was, in itself, a controversy. At best the folk revival is a sort of Portlandia without the punchlines. Bands like Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers stand for selling a memory of a thing that never was: a plaid shirt for someone in a white collar job.

Both the original folk counter-culture of the 1960s and this new 50-foot-tall zombie version emerged from a subset of disaffected, middle- and upper-middle-class white youth. Perhaps this robs both of any supposed radicalism, and the hippie should gain no moral authority for merely coming first. But the original gangsters of folk, even as popular as they were, never approached the mainstream ubiquity of their five-decade later twins, at least in part, because they stood for something. Their message was, at times, uncomfortable; their popularity was a function of their message and its apparent radicalism. Counter-culture folk produced discomfort in parents and institutions. Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, and the Lumineers mark a mercurial commodification of this idea, the center hollowed out and filled with “Ho Hey”, a thing that is popular not for its meaning but for its lack thereof. After all, what parent or system of values could possibly offend at their children blasting “Lovers of the Light” or “Stubborn Love”? Hipsters and faux-nostalgia emerge as detestable signposts of the same notion: economic and social privilege mixing with empty signifiers and meaningless sing-alongs.

Dragging around the corpse of hispterdom isn’t a useful intellectual exercise at this stage of the cultural dialectic, but it is worth mentioning that the folk revival managed to both repackage and appropriate some of the veneer of the ironic outsider. But this is the twist: the outsider moved inside. Like Urban Outfitters, the folk counterculture never aspired to challenge established norms; it became the new established norm. The Lumineers, if the swing revival is any guide, will soon be forgotten, plying out the rest of their career in relative obscurity. “Ho Hey” will be a wedding party punchline like Lou Bega, the Barenaked Ladies, or “Backstreet’s Back”, a memory of a time but little else.

The question of the ubiquity of folk revival is different from how long it will last. None of this is expressly bad. These are not boy bands, even if their time in the cultural spotlight is short, and their authenticity is deeply imperfect. Think back to the girls at the Mumford & Sons show. Whatever these bands stand for, they represent a more credible brand of artist in the mainstream. These bands all write and play their own music, and may well have more marginal careers long after the focus and power of mainstream American commercial fascination have moved on. That American station managers and radio listeners conspired to vault these bands into the mainstream is a mixture of four decades of postmodern theory and its off-shoot obsession with kitsch, a desire to experience and remember a thing that, ostensibly, never happened. All the consequences have been edited out for style. There are no bad times in the world of the Lumineers, despite all their songs about heartbreak. It’s hard to imagine any of these bands recording something as overtly political as “Masters of War” or “The Hurricane”. Or, by the time they do, their anti-financial institution or anti-East-African-famine anthem will feel, at best, pass√© and predictable. How can you tear down the establishment when you’re in heavy rotation at radio? Even more problematic, how can you attack the center when you represent the emptiest part of the middle?

Return to the rooftop; this isn’t an indictment of Karl or anyone else there, the two million people who bought Mumford’s last record, or the tens of millions who stream neo-folk bands on Pandora, Spotify, or on Top 40 radio. In one sense, this is grand shared experience between upper-middle-class elites and the rest of the country. Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are lot closer to country music than they are to rock. Perhaps, coupled with Taylor Swift’s odd crossover to critical acclaim in rock publications, the coastal elites and the rest of America’s music listeners are finally uniting behind a common banner: “Ho Hey”. They represent catchy, romantic melodies contained in a folksy package. It’s certainly meaningless. If it possessed any hint of danger — even a latent message, anything remotely inflammatory — it simply wouldn’t be popular; it would have remained counterculture and the Lumineers would be Laura Marling. But the meaninglessness might well contain its power: A generation confined to a rooftop at dusk singing about nothing at the top of their collective voice.