In a previous post on The New Weird Generation I wrote that artists such as Antony Hegarty, Coco Rosie and Devendra Banhart perceive everyday life as alienating – as too rational, mature, artificial, technological, et cetera – and seek for authenticity by romanticizing the world (to paraphrase Novalis). Consider, for example, their longing for nature and natural states of being, their fondness of folk music and acoustic instruments and their usage of the child, its innocence and imagination, as a trope. There is, however, an underlying question that needs to be posed. Why? Or rather, why now? Why do we see this renewed sense of romanticism now? Why do we witness this aspiration for something else at this moment? And why do we seek to find the authentic in this period of time?
According to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1931) the human quest for authenticity occurs when ‘we understand our situation as one of high tragedy’; when we are ‘alone in a silent universe, without intrinsic meaning, condemned to create value’. Bearing this in mind while looking over our shoulders at the history of the modern world, we start to see a pattern. For the desire of making the world authentic by romanticizing it seems to occur when, indeed, big (political, social, economical, ontological) crises question people’s certainties, when, indeed, the very foundations of people’s lives are shaken and when, indeed, people are left to their own devices to create meaning, to envision anew the outlines of future possibilities.
Romanticism itself, for example, occurred just after and in reaction to the French Revolution, to its initial hopes and dreams and to its ultimate terror and fanaticism. This first generation of Romantics reacted against radical Enlightenment by creating valuable illusions within a disillusioned world, constructing enchanting universes within a disenchanted everyday, craving for the infinite within the finite and reaching for unreachable mirages. They were fascinated by art and nature and love, were nostalgic for medieval folk music and ancient myths and Greek tragedies. They were craving for frameworks that would enable them to transcend their individual lives and provide them with a new patina of meaning and significance, yet they preserved some ironical distance as to not become a fanatic.
The second wave of Romanticism, significantly, occurred in the early sixties of the 20th century. This time, an emerging youth culture rebelled against an intensifying Cold War and its proxies (Vietnam), an expanding technocratic world view, and a lack of equal rights for all by ‘inventing a new and original world’ and bringing ‘imagination to power’, to allude to the slogans on the walls of the Sorbonne in Paris, 1968. Like the nineteenth-century romantics, hippies and other bohemians in post-war America and Europe adhered to a world view that was at times deeply political, profoundly mystic or psychedelic (‘make love, not war’). Importantly, folk music once more helped the romantics of the 1960s counter-movement to express themselves, to find their voice.
The contemporary rise of the New Weird America – the third romantic folk music revival in western history –must be situated just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the Twin Towers, New York. As a kind of mini-Woodstock of the 21st century, the Brattleboro Free Folk Fest was ‘an attempt to make space for an alternative American narrative’, as the Scottish music journalist David Keenan (2003) wrote, ‘irreconcilable with the prevailing neoconservative vision of the “New American Century”’. As much as it was a new musical genre, free folk thus, and maybe in the first place, was a political reaction against George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and the hyper-capitalist and hyper-individualist system his government proudly represented for eight years (2001-2009). A strategy to cope with, or an alternative to, decades of Neoliberalism. As Ben Chasny, front man of Six Organs Of Admittance, explains:
“I’m not going to make any specific comments as to where all this is situated in the realm of politics. All I will say is that voting doesn’t mean shit any more in America, does it? What does it get us? An asshole who wasn’t even voted into office taking over so that he can kill to make more money for his family. [O]verall, yes, this is a political stance. If only to say “fuck you” to corporations who suck the magic out of life and music and to say “fuck you” to our grotesque leaders who probably listen to The White Stripes behind the doors of their offices as they engage in orgies of blood, whores and money.”
Crucially, however, Antony wasn’t naïve when he said that the eternal children of free folk are walking around with their eyes wide open. The New Weird Americans are definitely not striving towards some kind of ‘revaluation of all values’. Whereas the hippies naively believed that their everyday lives could be transformed into a utopian world of sex and drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelics, the New Weird Americans and the New Romanticism they represent ‘seek to come to terms with the commonplace as it is’, as Vermeulen and Van den Akker previously wrote on this blog. If Free folk isn’t postmodern, it definitely isn’t modern either. As John Moloney spits:
“No meat, no milk, no fish, no eggs, no cheese equals no soul. Fuck hippies. We don’t adhere to any utopian concept or live by any manifestos, but it would be safe to say that we think like a load of disenchanted Americans who don’t believe what the news or the government says, don’t buy into mass consumerism and don’t eat at MacDonalds. There are a lot of these folks and they don’t all play in psychedelic folk ensembles. Sunburned itself is a corrupting influence. Boston is a big city loaded with corrupting influences and we are very proud to walk among them.”
This critique of the commonplace, however, doesn’t implode into apathy – not anymore. As I said in my previous post, free folk concerts are like small microcosms where people celebrate the transcendent and provoke enthusiasm; free folk music itself is all about imagining how the (albeit corrupt) everyday could be turned into something else. Artists such as Coco Rosie, Antony and Banhart simultaneously (and impossibly) come to terms with an uninhabitable present, while dreaming of a future ‘which blueprint has yet to be drawn’. In and through their fascination with nature, the imagination of the child, the camaraderie of community life we are shown the vague outlines of future possibilities that may never be realized, yet have to be strived for.
If Romanticism, in the words of Schlegel, can indeed be characterized by an ‘eternal oscillation between enthusiasm and irony’ than the New Weird Americans are most definitely New Romantics.
Tellingly, the New Weird America is expanding into, conquering perhaps, vast new territories, acquiring ever larger fan bases, gaining evermore critical acclaim, and increasingly inspires artistic imitation. According to recent updates on Last.fm and MySpace, the genre spread over 27 countries – from Argentina to the States – and envelops between 200 and 400 musicians and bands. From the ‘poppier’ adaptations of Alela Diane and Megafaun, Vetiver and Mumford & Sons to such ‘indie’ singer-songwriters as M.Ward, Surfjan Stevens and Conor Oberst; from the newly-discovered ‘founding fathers’ of the genre such as Vashti Bunyan and Sun Ra to the balladry of Josephine Foster; and from the polyrhythmic dance music of Vampire Weekend and Fools Gild to the more radical, murky doom-drone of Sunn O))).
Within the contemporary context of the climate crisis, the credit crunch and the polarization of the political centre, the rise of the New Weird America pinpoints the emergence of something much bigger, more relevant than the music (and the scene) itself. For in its commitment to nature we may discover our current fascination with sustainability as much as our contemporary preoccupation with everything – from food to furniture, cars to clothes – ‘organic’ and ‘biological’, ‘honest’ and ‘real’. In the application of the drone we might discover a glimpse of the design-principle Cradle to Cradle, which promises for consumer goods that ultimately produce nourishment for nature instead of pollution, fertilization instead of waste. And in its empathy and communal spirit we might be able to discern something resembling Corporate Social Responsibility.
However it may be, the ‘democratisation of free folk’ and, following this, the popularization of its neoromantic spirit further illustrates the fading of postmodernism sensibilities, the emergence of a new structure of feeling, and the coming of metamodern times. To be able to see where this is leading us, we might do good to keep a keen eye on the roads traveled by the New Weird Generation.
Image: Antony, courtesy CBS News