OPINION: Escapism In Modern Rock
by Alan Hanson
Toward the latter half of 2012, the popularity of Americana Revivalism sprinted towards its peak thanks to groundwork laid by the much-maligned Mumford and Sons, Phillip Phillips winning American Idol, and the prime-time country soap, Nashville. A popular harkening to cultures of old is on the rise and one can’t help but think the current low morale of American citizens is largely the cause.
After a hopeful decline in unemployment rates, the number of jobless Americans began to steadily increase again during this time. In tandem, house foreclosures continued as banks caught up with their backlog of defaults. A study published the year before ranked America as the second most depressed country, trailing France by three percent (France, what do you have to be depressed about? Aren’t you having sex and eating cheese on the reg?).
The current landscape of popular ‘rock’ doesn’t do much to hide its ties with early American folk (though it does like to mush these references into modern, atmospheric, and electric production). Americana Revivalism, not to be confused with standard Americana artists like Calexico, Ryan Adams, or the Avett Brothers, apes the broad strokes of Depression Era entertainment. They hit hard with echoing chants and yelpy call-and-response choruses, utilize archaic instruments, dress in the wardrobe of an amusement park’s ghost town photobooth, and perpetuate a lyrical romantic sentimentality reminiscent of the burgeoning golden age of cinema that distinctly rose from the ashes of the late ‘20s. Basically, it’s a lot of pretty, forced fantasy. They discuss horses and faded denim as if they lived on farms instead of having horse tattoos and wearing distressed jeans in not-even-close-to-dive bars in major metropolitan areas.
Which is fine. That’s their “schtick”. And a well-realized band concept is successful. People know what they’re getting when they buy a Lumineers album. The escapist appeal of romanticizing a bygone era with less-than-sincere love stories and rousingly triumphant choruses is quite comforting to fans of the genre, it seems, in the face of a less-than-dreamlike American dream. Bands like Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes (with a slight hippy twist) and Of Monsters And Men (hailing from Iceland) have learned to capitalize on this, as well as the producers of Nashville, handpicking already established Americana and Country acts to peddle a glossy, TV-Land version of itself.
It’s no secret that the recent swath of these acts is characterized as generally “uncool” and meaningless, plastic, radio fodder. On the antithesis of this, however, an opposite facet of modern rock is quickly racing to the forefront of ubiquitous just-off-the-radar coolness.
Many music enthusiasts who have a strong distaste for Americana Revivalism are avid fans of the rising slack-punk scene that prides itself on a raw and unapologetic exhibition of debauchery. The bastion of this sub-genre, FIDLAR, play fast songs that are generally about getting fucked up. Other bands in this rapidly consumed and nebulous field (Death Grips, Bleached, Bass Drum of Death, Pangea) seem to all operate in the modern colloquialism of “just not giving a fuck”. Just look at the YOLOism of FIDLAR’s anagram: “Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk”. And again, that’s a clear cut image that can easily be packaged and sold. This attitude, along with their aesthetics, off-stage antics, and lyrical themes, are equally as important and indicative of escapism as are the bygone fashions, washboard instruments, and saccharine romances of Americana Revivalism. And just like the Mumfords, ‘Neers, Sharpes, and Phillips, these bands aren’t doing anything much that hasn’t been done before musically. If anything, they’re running through punk standards with a filter of what modern lo-fi attitudes are supposed to be.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se. Sure, someone hungry for reformative music scenes and substantial thematic messages may yearn for something larger to cultivate itself out of America’s currently fertile, manure-covered landscape of low morale, but if you’re looking to go the Timothy Leary route and tune in and drop out, then it’s all a matter of taste. Escape with faux-farm-loves or escape with a punky coke-drip. Is there any larger connection to these two genres outside of their inherent escapism? Are they aware of their shared qualities? Probably not. And it’s more of comparison between the fans and the product rather than the artists’ intentions. But maybe it’s saying something that Pangea were recently rumored to sign with Capitol Records (!) with ex-Whiskeytown resident, Ryan Adams, producing their album.