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Tuesday, September 27, 2005
I was talking with Sean, and he pointed me toward a little freakfolk band called Wooden Wand. Please go and read the Pitchfork review of their CD. Then tell me whether or not it is a parody, because I honestly don't know. It sounds like friggin' Fruit of Forest. (The album's title is Harem of the Sundrum and the Witness Figg, so just right there.) Here is a paragraph from the review:

The pieces establish a doleful sort of inspiration. "Leave Your Perch..." is a downer with soft, Grateful Dead guitar noodles bobbing over icy, shadowy strum and phaser humming like a firefly. "Perch Modifier" explicitly states some of the album's religious themes (God, angels, a bird singing "weak, rejoice, the day is new") and Toth's connection to landscape: "Look up to the clouds/ Do you ever look past your boots and onto the ground?/ Do you ever think back to when you were very small?/ That's when you didn't need to rule over all." The vocals double for the last line and the guitar pickings grow intricate, briefly, as if his heart's a-flutter.
But no; holy shit, it's a real actual existing band that you can go see, a band that from all appearances takes themselves seriously. (Very very seriously.) They also apparently take crack. Literally.

This fact is a pleasant combination of confusing and predictable, much like a certain phenomenon I was struck by when I first moved to Brooklyn 4 years ago: there were all these hippies. Now, I had come from a small midwestern liberal arts college, so I was far from unfamiliar with the hippie element. But this was Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City--art students, hipsters, writers, gay parents and jazz musicians and coffeeshop refugees of all stripes, these made sense. But hippies? Weren't they supposed to be in the woods or something? (See my previous discussion of my neighborhood.)

But over time, they began to make more sense in the urban landscape, and not just because I saw them around all the time. Aside from the more general phenomenon of the bounderies between subcultural groups becoming increasingly fluid (seems like you basically choose whether you're going to identify as a follower of mainstream or underground culture and then go from there; the particular underground culture you pick is kinda immaterial, and you can move between them without attracting any effective charges of disloyalty, although you lose a lot of cultural capital when you 'cash out' and move to a new subgroup), these seemed like kids who identified with the general tenets of hippie culture--community, sincerity, social responsibility, anti-consumerism, "naturalism"--but had entered into it far enough along in its development that they didn't need to adhere to all its particularities. They were just hippies who weren't outdoors people. Fair enough. The folksingers in Greenwich Village in the 60s weren't either.

And so now, after the dominance of electroclash and nu-garage, two genres whose public perception emphasized the self-interested nature of the participants (even though, as frequently mentioned, almost no one made money from electroclash), the hippies are now running the hottest game in town: freakfolk. (Although, in fairness, I should note that the hippies I used to know do not and never really did like freak-folk, despite a heavy grounding in the jambands scene; they're more doing experimental indie rock now.) Thus, the old self-interest thing was out, and we were supposed to act like a community again--because we're making folk music, you see. This would have happened regardless of the attitudes of any of the participants (and it seems helpful to point out at this point that the Strokes took the Moldy Peaches on tour with them, but forgive my digressions); because part of what drew people to freakfolk was precisely this attitude of community, it was a self-enforcing dictum. Thus the social context, like the music, is a combination of the norms of the jambands scene and the experimental music scene. Two scenes, you'll note, that do not have the best record for quality control.

Thus, inevitably I suppose, after bubbling under for a few years, now that it's reached a certain critical mass, good freakfolk acts, instead of being able to only support other freakfolk acts because, well, there weren't that many no one new about any of them, so if they were doubling up who's gonna call 'em on it, now are supporting bad freakfolk acts, just because they need to support other members of the scene, and because the kids are passionate and authentic and really love the music etc. etc.

The same thing happens all the time with jambands, because it's about community etc etc. You're doing this kind of music, you're expected to support other people doing this music, even if they're not actually good, because they're stand-up guys, and besides, they'll be good one day...

...and that's why scenes die.

It doesn't matter when you've got a finished CD in your hands, of course, and anyone can save up a few hundred dollars and go make whatever kind of album they want, but these social factors have a huge effect on what kind of music people decide they want to make, how they want to make it, and what they want to do with it after it's finished, and all this has an incalculable effect on the music you end up being able to listen to; indeed, it may have a bigger effect than any of the other ones you care to name. And that's why all of this matters. I don't complain about scenesterism (just) because the cool kids aren't inviting me to their parties. It's because the unquestioning acceptance of the quality of art made by your circle of acquaintances that emphasizing "community" more or less demands is bad for the art itself, and as both a consumer and producer of art, that's important to me. It's also a big part of why I'm so enamoured of the monad theory of art-makin', but that, as always, is a subject for another time.

I'm just saying, as has been demonstrated time and time again (Prince springs most readily to mind), that unfortunately, being nice to people doesn't always produce the best art. That doesn't mean you have to be an asshole, but it does suggest that being critical rather than supportive is maybe the way to go.