Folk jam

Not that they care at all, but I’ve occasionally made jokes at hippie jam bands’ expense — use them as shorthand for lameness in record reviews, for example — and mock their fans as being zealously devoted to something blatantly and intentionally insubstantial, but I’ve started to feel pretty lame myself for doing it. What’s always been plain, what’s almost been the threat that has prompted my mockery perhaps, is that jam bands don’t operate within the parameters of cool and mediated identity that, say, indie rock or mainstream top 40 (which are symbiotic genres) operates in. Jam bands instead earnestly promote communal feeling as a means for transcending individual angst, and as someone with a heaping helping of angst, my instinct is to deride it as phony in a very, very distant echo of the impulse that leads conservatives to denounce socialism as impossibly naive and socialists as unwitting hypocrites embedding all sorts of “perverse incentives” all over the place in the social body.

Even when I was in high school, I think I was a little jealous of the kids who could let it all go and become full-fledged out-of-the-closet Deadheads. I didn’t care much for the music. (I probably like the Dead’s often-aimless roots-rock jams a lot more now, since I don’t care so much about the lyrics meaning anything in particular to me. The Dead makes for good musical wallpaper, somehow less obtrusive than silence.) But the detachment that scene promised was attractive. It wasn’t just that kids who went on Dead tour styled themselves as contemporary gypsies and spent the bulk of their time getting high and brokering small-time drug deals. Romantic as that might have seemed, it was easy for me to imagine the squalor, the venereal disease and the bummed-out bad vibes that went along with all that — I had read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” after all.

What I envied about the people getting into the Dead in the mid 1980s, right before the band that improbable resurgence from “Touch of Grey,” was that they seemed to escape the suburban condition at one stroke — suddenly their folk culture wasn’t limited to Brady Bunch reruns, fast-food restaurants and Wiffle Ball; suddenly, by rejecting musical variety altogether and eschewing a concern with cool for something I couldn’t even identify at the time but would now tentatively call a feeling for community, their horizons were broader than MTV’s 120 minutes and whatever was being promoted in Rolling Stone. In suburban America, isolation, atomization, sprawl paternalistic safeguards, and unmitigated monotony all contribute to annihilating any sort of community spirit or traditional folk culture that a kid might find himself drawn into involuntarily, as he might in a smaller community with more interconnection among members and more permeable barriers. If you want to participate in anything that crosses generational barriers or looks backward to ethic roots or anything like that in suburbia — a locale that functions to obliterate tradition and foment the belief that every family springs sui generis from the newly raised housing subdivisions — you have to put yourself forward awkwardly, volunteer to get involved in a culture that most of your peers will have rejected in lieu of synthetic pop culture — the glossy world of celebrities and ersatz celebrities like the Real World habitues, of manufactured excitement about performers and films who are famous on an international scale.

This is a bit of a cranky anti-mass-culture argument that people have been making probably since radio was invented, but the densely mediated world suburban kids live in invite them to build identity through an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (see any Facebook, MySpace, etc. page, with the boilerplate list of interests), and they interact with one another through pop culture references. Friendships struggle to deepen beyond the superficial level of swapping lists and trading the names of things, showing one another objects, posturing or complimenting the other’s posturing. Pop culture invites its adherents to revel in poseurdom, mainly because it celebrates knowing arbitrary things while putting no particular value on actually doing anything.

To recapitulate: growing up suburban seems to orient an isolated, individualistic youth toward pop culture and toward trying to be cool, toward cataloging facts and possessions and trivia rather than developing craft skills and participating in hard-to-find and decidedly uncool communities. Haunted by anomie, such youths feel vaguely discontented, at which point the jam-band scene seems a pretty enticing alternative. With names like the String Cheese Incident and the Disco Biscuits, these groups have obviously left any pretensions of seeming cool far behind. And the community that supports them seem to take all comers at face value, with a minimum of prejudice, as long as they continue to participate and show up at concerts and, at least back in the Dead tour days, hang out in parking lots from city to city. They have to assent to the music but they needn’t necessarily forward an elaborate critique or defense of it — you just have to accept it, the way you’d accept the menu at a vegan restaurant or something — these are the options and these are all you really need.

On the surface, forming communities around nationally-touring bands seems just a radically limited version of using pop culture to articulate a superficial, arbitrary social place for oneself. And maybe that’s all it is. But I’m always wondering if that scene illustrates the difference between pop culture and the folk culture it has occluded since mass-media forms were invented. Pop culture seems always animated by the commercial values that generate it — competition, uncompromised individuality, exploitation, profit, amassing capital (in this case cultural capital of knowing trivia or having huge collections of pop-culture product) — whereas folk culture (the participants in it, not the bands themselves perhaps) seems indifferent to a lot of that, emphasizing instead cooperation and collective experience as being more significant and more constitutive of identity than personal, private experience. This escape from the onus of self is always what makes folk culture seem so alluring — it holds out the promise that you can escape self-consciousness by devoting yourself to something larger. But of course, that sounds a lot like going to church, or joining a cult.