When the tools of digital artmaking fell into the hands of us common folk in the Nineties, it represented the fulfillment of a cultural prophecy articulated a couple of decades earlier in the catchall term postmodernism. The one certain thing that you can say about postmodernism is that no one is certain what it means, but most would agree that it describes art as a process of referencing, stealing, defacing, recombining and recontextualizing existing artifacts, styles and fashions. What could be friendlier to that process than the capture-manipulate-replicate world of digital?
Like postmodernism, digital technology challenges authenticity and authorship. Think of what Photoshop has done to our sense of the reliability of the photograph, and how culturally destabilizing that can be. In music, digital sampling alienated generations of tape splicing audio collage artists and culture thiefs simply because it made their old recombinant tricks so absurdly easy for everyone. In the Nineties, the suits were left to figure out the royalty splits of hits with 47 samples lifted from the other hits.
So it was predictable that in the mature digital age, there would be an organic backlash: defenders of the old ways, the old values, the old tools. For instance, an obsession with cheap old cameras and the defiantly no-tech values of ‘zine publishing.
In music, this expresses itself as a reverence for aged wood and gut string, a reveling in human imperfection and a celebration of archaic eccentricity – in other words, pretty much all new acoustic music these days that doesn’t come from Nashville and the country music establishment, and even some that does. In 1986, Tom Waits was alone in wanting his music to sound like anthropological field recordings. Now, that’s just what “real music” sounds like.
The preponderance of revivalist folk music in the new millennium has been scruffy and idiosyncratic by design, some of it more genuinely ragamuffin and throwback (our own vaunted Felice Brothers, for example), some of it pure calculation (names withheld), groomed to the precise specs of scruff.
In the age of digital manipulation and Autotune, human slop and neurological skew pass for credentials of authenticity. New indie-folk places a perhaps somewhat misguided value on imperfection as a bona fides and ends in themselves. (This, I must interrupt myself to say, is an aesthetic misstep; imperfection is in fact mysteriously cool, but only as a residue of trying. The ways in which you honestly fail become, as the kids long ago used to say, “your thing.”)
At its heart, the new folk is a doctrinally organic gesture of rejection – an abdication of the values, the technologies, the language and the identities offered to youth by the electronic present. Social networking and the inherent virulence of digital may be its mode of distribution, but its mythologies are boxcar and WPA. Bob Dylan and his immediate forbears were middle-class folk revivalists too, searching for habitable, eccentric identities at a time when the military-industrial complex and the hegemony of Madison Avenue were already – as the kids today say – “a thing.”
It was also predictable that this revival would romanticize and fetishize the past in a way that the past itself wouldn’t recognize, recovering a vivid lost world that probably never existed. The digital/postmodern sensibility is so deep in the drinking water that even the keepers of the old ways play by its rules, training their chops on archaic styles, reviving long-lost instruments and fashions as signifiers of their allegiances, building their very biographical narratives on authenticity’s memes and myths, as if they, the players, were so many meatware samplers.
Smart young people like old stuff. They like fedoras, black and white, and the sound of their voices through transistor radios. They like archaic, weird syntax. They like the presumably-more-authentic artifacts and identities that they find in an occult past: pre-digital, pre-globalization. Unreliable histories and the accretions of myth only heighten this authenticity. The “real” hides in the past, accessible not via formal history (least of all school) but only via zen misdirection, serendipity, outlaw apprenticeships and vinyl.
But this is old news. How many centuries of young Europeans idolized the culture (and lifestyle) of the ancient Greeks because it was closer to the source, touched with the original, awakening light of art and philosophy? To generations of retro-Hellenists, the art of the Greeks seemed like what Lee “Big Bill Broonzy” Bradley called the blues, “a natural fact,” a direct, unmediated expression of first wonder and first suffering. We want it bad. Nothing else will do.
They have willed themselves an older, weirder life.
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.