Our Lo-Fi Love Affair
It’s an irony that surely hasn’t escaped even the most casual listener of contemporary music: Never before have we been surrounded by so many ways to record music that sounds professional and well-produced—and all for cheap—and yet never before have we been surrounded by so many musicians trying their darndest to make their records sound like mud. You know the culprits (I’ve certainly talked about them before): Wavves, Times New Viking, Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Crystal Stilts, etc. etc. You know the applicable genres, or you can at least imagine what they’re called: lo-fi, glo-fi, chill wave, etc., etc.
Some of these guys are great (see Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Small Black), some not so much. But whatever this music is, it’s increasingly starting to sound like hype. So yes, the irony is even greater that we thought: The same technology that could make this music sound a smidge better than my-first-song-recorded-on-a-four-track-at-my-friend’s-apartment-in-Brooklyn is instead used to transmit it across the ravenous blogosphere and onto countless iPods where it’s played through tiny pieces of plastic that make this tinny music sounds even tinnier.
And yet, as Matt LeMay so eloquently puts it over at MBV, despite, or maybe because of the way we’ve stumbled across this music—a blog, a friend’s mix, Pitchfork et al—we’ve eaten it right up: “As we all struggle with the fact that we use music as a social tool, it’s easy to see the theoretical appeal of music made by 18-to-23-year-olds plugging in their guitars and making naive, wondrous blasts of noise for the very first time. It just seems so immediate, so infectious, so guileless, so…. authentic.” This music’s supposed authenticity—one that prioritizes youth, amateurism, and emotional innocence—is even more prized precisely because we encounter it in such a digitized, unauthentic environment.
But this isn’t just about music. A band like Girls is simply the musical iteration of one of the most important trends in pop culture in the last decade: an obsession with quirk and creative naiveté, or simply, twee. You can see it in films by Wes Anderson and in anything starring Michael Cera, in books by Joe Meno and Jonathan Safran Foer, and on television in Comedy Central’s “Important Things With Demetri Martin” and HBO’s “Bored to Death.” Eccentric, mumbling youngsters are the superheroes of 21st century pop.
Of course, rock ’n’ roll is the sound of youth—youth on drugs, youth in love, youth bored out of its mind. But recently we’ve decided to take this idea to its logical extreme: If authentic rock ‘n’ roll is made by and about 18-year-olds, then really authentic rock ‘n’ roll literally sounds like it was made by an 18-year-old—a swirl of endearing romantic clichés over blasts of distorted guitar. Hence, Times New Viking—a great band, sure—but one whose purchase on authenticity is entirely reliant on the artifice of bad production.
The final irony is that at the very moment when musicians are most dependent on live performance to generate money amid a collapsing music industry, we find ourselves with artists seemingly unable to put on a decent show. As these young blog stars get shoved into the limelight with only a couple month’s worth of buzz and a handful of songs to their name, it’s no wonder they end up stumbling their way through a short set and disappointing newly-minted fans. It happened years ago with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and it’s happening today with London’s the xx (a phenomenal studio band to be sure), Girls, and, most famously, Wavves.
No one is saying tape hiss isn’t a good idea—far from it—or that there aren’t albums that warrant it. Just listen to Spoon’s “Transference.” The whole thing sounds like it was done in five in days in Britt Daniel’s kitchen. No, the danger is when lo-fi becomes an end unto itself, when, as LeMay puts it, bands “mistake aesthetic amateurism for creative sincerity.” No matter how many Facebook friends you have or how many times people have downloaded your first single from RCRD LBL, it’s still, ultimately, about talent and skill—as schoolmarmish as that sounds. The songs have to stand up on their own, and in front of today’s ever-more-demanding audiences. No bedroom auteur should forget that.
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