Why Folk Pop Made Me Sad

I think the strange folk pop revival we recently experienced, with its attendant explosion of bowler hats and banjos, is finally a cloud of dust on the far horizon. Mumford and Sons has gone away, the Lumineers still just have the one record (which they apparently have re-released a couple times), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros blew up out of the gate but haven’t made much popular noise in the five years since, I thought Of Monsters and Men was the same band as Edward Sharpe, but I guess they’re different, The Decemberists went on a years-long hiatus, Avicii (sp?) damaged acoustic music forever with the abominable “Wake Me Up,” and there don’t appear to be any more folkies breaking on the airwaves these days like there were a couple of years ago.

So that happened.

Imagine if you will: There I was, a folk musician, and as our second album was going out into the world, all this folk music started wafting out of the radio speakers. Yay! I thought. Maybe a rising tide would lift our boat as well. But alas, no. Now, I don’t dislike any of those bands I mentioned above (except Avicii, holy shit do I hate that song), but a lot of them have something really important in common: they don’t have much to say.

This is inherently problematic to me, because folk music is supposed to have something to say. If it’s people strumming the same dozen chords everybody has always strummed and not exactly blazing new musical trails, then if you ask me, it better damn well have a beating heart or a conscience or something behind it to make it worthwhile. Now look, I’ve written my fair share of boy-girl songs, and there will be more on the new Sci-Fi Romance record. I don’t begrudge that to anybody. But with the folk pop explosion, that’s all we got.  When you scratched the surface, there wasn’t anything beneath. I mean, The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” was just syllables.

Folk music has always been about struggle. It’s called folk music because it tells the stories of regular people, and regular people generally have to struggle. Sometimes that struggle is because of a relationship that’s gone south, sure, but often it’s about much more. I wrote our album The Ghost of John Henry about something that happened a long time ago, but the story spoke to me because it resonated with what was going on in 2012 America, too. The week before we went into the studio the Occupy Wall St. rallies began in downtown LA, and our drummer went straight from practice to join in. It felt like we’d tapped into something bigger than us, and that meant we were doing something right. And so as things that sounded like us started to drift out into the popular landscape, it was with great disappointment that I realized that what I was hearing were just pop songs played on acoustic instruments. There wasn’t actually a head of steam behind these bands, like the one that propelled Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. As a result, the bubble burst, and now it’s back underground.

And that’s a shame, because there’s stuff going on right now that cries out for folk music, and for that music to make any difference, it needs to be heard. Bob Dylan helped get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter out of jail, for God’s sake.

A college professor of mine once said “Friends, we may not have much power in this world, but we have our voices.” And about a dozen chords that most people can play. I think we should try to make them count.

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