Shortly after the global financial crisis began, music’s last genre mutation and subsequent co-option by the corporate powers that be, ‘brostep’ – dubstep emotionally strangled by bros – had worked its way into every form of media, its ‘wubby’ bass usurped by advertisers attempting to make even your cereal seem epically hip. This absolute saturation led to an inevitable backlash against everything brostep. And the tides are changing to reveal a new genre beast – ‘Genericana’:
While brostep’s henchmen, the ‘wompers’, are technologically sterile, in your face, modern and use a single lyric only if it enhances “the drop,” Genericana is conversely old-fashioned, relatively low-key, and shuns electricity even more than it embraces beards. It is the mish-mosh convergence of suburbia, Americana, brushes of folk and faux-bluegrass. And the new darling of the ad business. Which is all fine and dandy, but its contemporaries’ attempt at anti-brostep lyrical depth amounts to nothing more than heavy use of cherry-picked Americana references to distract from its emptiness – maybe to trains that the singer doesn’t ride, or an idiom that hints at simpler times. If there is a message in Genericana, it’s: bland pop romance meets random Deadwood to WWII-era America aura. We’re in the “hair-metal phase” of folk revival.
If Skrillex is the face of dubstep’s transition to ubiquitous brostep, then Mumford & Sons are the same for folk. I wish it weren’t the case (and there are rare exceptions), but usually Grammys are the canaries in the coalmine of music as art. Just as Skrillex’s 2012 and 2013 Dance-Grammy sweeps had EDM purists shaking their heads, Mumford’s Album of the Year win with Babel saw folk-revival’s pop peak and impending demise. Skrillex caters to teenagers with metal angst and rave lust, Mumford to overwrought 20-somethings going through introspection withdrawals as indie rock’s influence fades. While neither artist is all that loathsome, their ripple effects certainly are.
Genericana’s sound and aesthetic aren’t particularly offensive to outsiders (unlike, say, emo and dubstep), so this copy-machine genre is universally tolerated. It’s one of those styles you’re not even allowed to dislike. Walk into a venue to find almost a dozen people stomping their feet on stage and a strange sense of obligation comes over you: “I will enjoy this because it’s so earnest.” Feel free to ignore that impulse, because in the case of Genericana, it isn’t – it’s just a lyrical aesthetic, perpetuated physically with bowler hats and suspenders.
Mumford’s sound in particular is a very synthetic-feeling arena-bluegrass – Astroturf? - for the masses, but it ultimately satisfies and has admirably kept human performance in the Top 40. Babel’s lead single “I Will Wait” features a title refrain that’s been a rehashed pop staple for decades, their harmonies are more O Brother Where Art Thou than gospel and they’ve got a ProTools-sheen on their foot-stomps. They’re the Kings of Leon of Americana, and that’s okay. Somebody had to do it. Plus, their previous hit “Little Lion Man” may be one of the last gasps of authentic lyricism in top-40 folk, as Mumford admits his own failings in a violent bout of self-loathing: [LISTEN]
Even though it reverts afterward to a tried and true romantic formula, it wasn’t everyday a hit singer would belt about how he’d “fucked it up this time.” Unfortunately, many gimmicky, cloying nostalgia peddlers saw this breakthrough to mega-stardom and figured if some British lads could repackage Americana for the twenty-something closet pop-fiend, so could they.
The most blatant offender is the still ever-popular “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.” Through with hard drugs and his old band Ima Robot, singer Alex Ebert decided whilst sobering up that he’d transform from new wave punk-rocker into a free-love Jesus figure, changing his name and serving up a slice of Grade-A schlock. “Home” uses an obvious Johnny Cash/June Carter rip-off to baldly and pointlessly list several timeless American visuals – no connecting the dots or overarching statement, except for a vague notion of “home:” [LISTEN]
The cutesy-backwoods vibe is encapsulated with a resounding “Holey-moley, Me-oh-My!” just in case you’d forgotten to bring your novelty straw hat.
Seattle heroes The Head and the Heart are a step up, but it’s a small one. At least when singer Josiah Johnson moans about “riding around railcars” to “California/Oklahoma,” he admits these are things he hasn’t done – probably because he recorded it in 2011, not during The Great Depression. Still, THATH commit some of the exact same bland atrocities as Sharpe with the exact same cadence. This line in “Cats and Dogs” is interchangeable with half of “Home”: [LISTEN]
Their nods to the eras of Lewis and Clark and Henry Ford on the respective tracks “Rivers and Roads” and “Lost in My Mind” are a little subtler. “Rivers and Roads” hints that these rivers are how our singers will navigate to “reach you” – something not done for centuries, while “Lost in My Mind” asks: [LISTEN]
There’s nothing like a celebration of a hard-days’ blue-collar work sung by the voice of privilege and played with un-callused hands. I just can’t wait to get home and tweet these Industrial era lyrics to my digital-age, millennial friends. I suppose the goal is to make the listener feel more traveled and cultured by association, but the old-timey references only amount to clothes the emperor isn’t wearing.
Obviously, not all folk is Genericana – plenty of great recent music is made with acoustic stringed instruments. For blazing bluegrass, check out Trampled by Turtles. For forest-druid folk pop, there’s always good old Fleet Foxes. Iron & Wine and Bon Iver both stretch the style with honest lyricism, progressive experimentation, strong musicianship and unique vocal styles. Maybe that’s why these artists are venturing far outside the genre, recognizing that the ship is sinking.
It hasn’t completely sank yet, but the outlook is bleak – Of Monsters and Men released the first folksy top-40 hit that features solely the world’s 4 most clichéd chords, The Lumineers hit commercial pay-dirt with the chanted equivalent of “U + ME = US.” Mumford and Sons have monopolized Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. And you can’t throw a stick these days without hitting the washboard player of a shitty local band likely called “Whiskey Carolina,” or something similar. Oh, and now it’s made its way to American Idol. But hey, as far as relentlessly shallow trends go, maybe we should accept that it could be worse, and that “starships were meant to fly:”