Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Authentic Versus The Inauthentic In Rock And Roll

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that both the Grammy Award winning lead singer and the Grammy Award winning guitarist of Mumford & Sons went to one of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in England. Everything about Mumford & Sons reeks of phoniness. Their lyrics, their faux working class roots, their interviews speaking of poverty and struggle in the wilderness years. All lies. But should any of that matter? Pop/rock music is a frivolous enterprise aimed at youthful consumers who don't know anything about anything and whose musical tastes, like all their other tastes, are manufactured by advertising agencies in London and New York. So what if Mumford and Sons are upper class wankers with nothing to say, most musical acts in the UK these days are just like them. Working class kids seldom break through in the British music industry because they don't have the connections and access that more privileged kids do. Occasionally you'll get an Adele or an Amy Winehouse but more often its the posh kids who'll get relentlessly promoted down our throats. Posh kids too are able to articulate their feelings with the ironic distance they were taught in essay writing classes and ironic distance is the default mode of our time (although, of course, completely the wrong mode for rock and roll.) Consumers get the music they deserve or are willing to tolerate and at the moment they're willing to tolerate Mumford & Sons. 
But...and you knew a but was coming didn't America it's a little different. In America authenticity is still seen as an asset and irony hasn't totally contaminated the culture. This is brutally true in the world of rap (a world I'm completely unfamiliar with); but it also applies to other musical genres (country for example) and now and again you'll get a band that is so vibrant and authentic it reminds you that you rock and roll was originally the music of poor blacks (and then whites) in the south, music that was a vector for feelings of love and despair, of dispossession, fear and other raw emotions. I thought of this on Saturday night as I tuned in to Saturday Night Live to watch Christoph Waltz. I havent watched SNL for years. I'm not of the school that believes SNL isn't as funny as it used to be, I'm of the school that believes SNL was never funny in the first place, but I like Waltz and I wanted to see him do a comedy turn. He was fine but what brought the house down was the musical act: Alabama Shakes. Obviously I'm a little behind the times: Alabama Shakes have been on Letterman and Conan and the Guardian was way ahead of the curve, talking about them in April of last year. They're a group of dirt poor, musically gifted kids from Athens, Alabama who are into roots music and are the opposite of everything that Grammy Award winning Mumford and Sons stand for. What do I mean by that? Well why don't you watch their performance from last Saturday (above right) and judge for yourself. [If Lorne Michaels kills the above youtube or it doesnt work on your browser you can see more of Alabama Shakes, here. ]