Focus Group Indie: Why Do We *Really* Hate the Lumineers, But Think Major Lazer's Okay?

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Major Lazer: *Real* *authentic* dance-hall, straight from the heart.
After yesterday's rant against the retro soul and indie folk trends, as represented by Capitol Hill Block Party headliners Fitz and the Tantrums and the Lumineers respectively, there was some good conversation. No, not the two anonymous commenters feeling sad for me :( and/or calling for me to be fired here on Reverb--although, that was sweet--but over on Facebook, where simple social affinity encourages critical thinkers to interact with other thoughtful people and illiterate goons to stay in their own idiotic warrens. The thrust of the conversation was basically this: the retro aspect is a red herring. As annoying as the played-out old-timey affectations are at this point, the problem really isn't that these acts draw on old or established styles. I got at this a bit yesterday, but where I didn't follow it through was to what then makes them so dreadful if that's not it.

Essentially, what we came to agree on, was that this stuff rankles because it feels focus-grouped to within an inch of it its life. The soul and folk revivals are two trends that have each been gathering steam since at least the mid-'00s, but Fitz and the Lumineers both appear to have hopped on just as it was becoming big enough for car commercials.

A friend says: "IMO, the main problem here isn't even the re-hashing of old musical styles and tropes. (Everyone does that, you can't help but be influenced by every single thing you've ever come into contact with.) What sucks about this music is how much it reeks of its own desperation to be marketable."

She continues: "20 years ago we had garage/punk bands teeming with enough rough-edged authenticity that they could at least convincingly pretend that they believed money is a corrupting influence on art even as they enjoyed record deals with the then-emerging major indies that are downright decadent by today's standards. But now it seems that the indie landscape is poisoned by a warped desire to be marketed or perceived as "indie" even as the vast majority of this music was clearly written with the endgame of shilling khakis for Banana Republic in mind."

This friend goes on to note the irony of a trend cash-in song called "Moneygrabber," which I think is right on.

Another: "Rather than making formally innovative music which would be all but inscrutable to a music supervisor at banana republic, indie folks hung their hats on passion, authenticity, earnestness, etc. in other words, the bread and butter of the advertising industry."

Call it "focus group indie." Like pornography, you know it when you see it. It all feels a little too perfectly put together, a little too safe and telegenic and soft around the edges. It's why belt+suspenders irks: not because it's too many ways to hold up one pair of pants, because, whether it was or not, it looks like it was picked out by a stylist.

So why do I hate that stuff, but give, say, Major Lazer a pass? Major Lazer is every bit a marketing construct, a cartoon Jamaican alias under which two white dudes play global electronic beats and dumb party music with a distinct dance-hall accent--and which comes with its own action figures, iPhone app, ridiculous dance craze, etc, etc, etc. It couldn't be any more mass market-friendly if it made beats for Beyonce--oh, wait.

But it's also aware of itself, blatant and transparent, and in on the joke. Diplo, as deplorable as he is in those smartphone commercials, has never hidden his ambitions behind "aw shucks" modesty or rootsy period garb that's meant to scan as somehow "authentic." (God, it goes back to the very first dumb rant I wrote for this mag, in which I tried to dissect what made local folkies the Head and the Heart's [and Macklemore's] attempts to telegraph "authenticity" onstage and on record feel so grating.) Although, maybe I'm a sucker for giving self-awareness and self-deprecation a pass--savvy marketers picked up on those maneuvers decades ago--or maybe this is all an overly long dissembling of the fact that I just prefer bleep bloops to acoustic guitars. (Or maybe some music is just great and some music is shit and all music writing is just an exhausting effort to dance around that.)

But there's also something else: Diplo, or to pick another CHBP favorite Grimes, cashes in for an ability to stay ahead of trends not for his slavishly following them. Not that everything has to be "novel" or trend-making to be good (I won't stan for seapunk or whatever), but often that's where the really interesting art is happening: not in the safety zone of what's slowly become widely popular, but in the weird corners of what's going to come next.

About which, tomorrow, I'll say nothing but nice things.

 
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