In defense of derivative music

Over at First Things, the new Mumford and Sons new album, Babel, came in for some criticism recently:

Mumford and Sons are a kind of musical Pinterest. They “collect” without really linking together a variety of quaint, beautiful, and touching things. A little gospel here, a little Chesterton there, a little waistcoat here. Because of their penchant for gathering any and every sartorial, lyrical, and instrumental oddment, their coy references to the gospel and GKC become just the “pinning” of another striking and well-wrought thing. We don’t know if they’re Christians (or indeed if they have any existential commitment), or if they’re just aesthetic reactionaries of a limited type. Eclecticism precludes evangelism.

The whole problem is well represented by their name, “Mumford and Sons.” It suggests history, tradition, the passing down of something real—above all, the transmission of blood. But Marcus Mumford is not in a band with his sons; in fact, he has no sons at all.

It’s not news when Mumford and Sons music gets panned (though it usually comes from rock purists on the left rather than theologians on the right), and usually M&S wouldn’t be news here period.

But I’m making exception this time because 1) my blog, my rules, and 2) the reviewer’s critique participates in species of authenticity-mongering that I’ve always found rather baffling both within and beyond southern gospel.

Southern gospel fans know authenticity-mongering well, whether you know it or not. If you’ve ever delivered yourself of a rant about the preeminence of the classic quartet (or heard Uncle Flapjacks in line at the NQC Pork Fritter stand declaiming in this vein), you know whereof I speak with the phrase “authenticity mongering”: picking some preceding tradition, style, moment, or achievement and using it as the proof text for all the ways today sucks or gets it wrong. Authenticity mongering is a kissing cousin to good-ole-dayism, but goes a step farther: For the authenticity-mongerer, it was not only better before … whatever and whenever it is. The thing “before” must be also reified and transformed by memory or simply the act of conjuring the past as sanctified and pure - superior, at any rate, to whatever practice today that may make reference to or have been influenced by teh [sic] one true way in the past.

In the case of the Mumford and Sons critique, the problem with this perspective is that assumes those things to which M&S make reference in their pastiche style of music and performance betoken an earlier era of superior authenticity of soul or spirit or values. In this earlier moment, it is imagined, cultural productions mobilized Christian belief and religious thought into metaphysically engaged action in ways that present practices - namely, M&S - only imitate in a shallow and hollowly derivative fashion.

By mixing styles and aesthetic traditions in their songs and stage presence, M&S are not sufficiently “historical and committed,” we are told. It’s a curious indictment that relies on profound misperception of history. It would seem that to the reviewer here, musical performance is only authentic whenever it either recreates a particular historical moment or tradition with the commitment and dedication of a Civil War reenactment, or else … what? Creates an entirely a new thing untouched by the past (as if there’s anything new under the sun), or only one part of this vaunted past? Which part? It’s so hard to tell.

What really seems to grate here for the reviewer is that M&S music affiliates itself with religion - that is, their songs claim the right to religious ideas and feelings - while also refusing to claim an overt theology or elevate a specific doctrine or confessional tradition above else in matters of belief or values. So the music acknowledges the influence and operation of the sacred without preaching or dogmatizing (not to be confused with bombast, which - and the reviewer is right about this - M&S seems to partake in over much).

There are of course a good many people (like the reviewer in question here) for whom this kind of spiritual idiosyncrasy is anathema (calling M&S “nostalgic and subjective” is not a compliment). But that doesn’t make the underlying worldview morally specious in the way this review would suggest. In fact, increasing evidence suggests that the M&S worldview, if you will, is on the rise among the rank and file: the same day I first read this review a few weeks ago, I saw new research out from Pew that finds a continuing increase in the “Nones” - people who may claim the value of religious inclinations in their lives without choosing to align those inclinations and impulses with congregational traditions and beliefs. My own research into American religion suggests that the rise of the “nones” isn’t necessarily an increase in their prevalence. Rather, I’m more and more convinced the “nones” have always been around in pretty large numbers. What’s increasing is the willingness to come out, if you will, as a “none.”

It would make sense, then, that this shift would get registered in other parts of culture, like mainstream commercial music (and it’s not like this hasn’t been happening for a long time now … Amy Grant, call your office). Why can’t - why shouldn’t - religious belief and an impulse toward the spiritual and an orientation toward the divine or the unseen or unknown or the I’m-uncertain-it’s-there-but-still-exert-the-will-to-believe exist alongside and be inflected with more sublunary insights and impulses?

Big breath.

This whole authenticity rap reminds me of how some folks in southern gospel like to ding non-quartets for betraying the all-male quartet tradition, as if that era’s commercial success is evidence of a spiritual purity and artistic authenticity. But the “classic quartet” was itself just as much a derivative of a derivative as what came before or after. True, this style was successful enough to blot out the popular memory of most of what came before for the people who came after. So we fetishize that moment as more authentic in southern gospel. But there’s nothing intrinsically superior about it.

Similarly, this knock on M&S here about the group’s alleged failure to be sufficiently “historical and committed” relies on a useful fiction - but a fiction all the same - that there is a transcendent signifier out there - The Thing From Which All Else Is Derived and on which everything else is built. I realize that’s probably not a bad working definition of God for a lot of folks, and that’s fine. But not for nothing has heaven been called the choir invisible. Among other things, the phrase ought to remind us that everybody’s soul in this vale of tears is singing in its own key, that that key fits a given time and place, and that no key is more or less authentic than another. That’s not to say we can’t like some sounds more or less, but taste isn’t a synonym for authenticity of commitment or purity of belief conveyed in song. If purity is the test of authenticity in music, then we’re all frauds and fakes recycling the same basic constellation of sounds of the Western major scale and concepts of North American popular music at some level.

Look, I don’t have a brief for M&S. A few friends whose tastes I usually trust have recommended it to me and I’ve downloaded the most recent album, but to be honest, I’ve only sampled a few things spottily and while I plan to hear them out in full at some point, nothing jumped out as immediately unmissable. But even if it turns out I hate the music, I’ll go down to my last blog defending their right to be mediocre in a way that meaningfully and authentically signifies for them.

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  1. irishlad wrote:

    Last June i went to a M&S concert in Co.Galway,the Galway festival.I have mentioned them here before and to me they were the English(West London)version of the Avett Bros,perhaps not.
    The thing i did notice was their lyrics all bore a strong literary influence from Shakespeare “Roll the Stone away” Macbeth to GK Chesterson and his book on St Francis of Assisi and the song “The Cave to Steinbecks “The Grapes of Wrath” “Dust Bowl Dance”.You can easily see where all the Gospelizing comes from.Which leads me to wonder how much Gloria drew on from Steinbeck for her anthems?
    I read somewhere that M&S’s love affair with American roots music all began with the soundtrack of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”, considering this affiliation with all things Americana begs the question how could there not be a strong Gospel presence in their music?

  2. carl wrote:

    Irishlad, I’m lucky enough to have spent part of my life in both North Carolina and the south of England so on one hand I understand your comparison of M&S to the Avett Brothers but on the other they’re an ocean apart. I think they’re both fun and I’d stick around to the last set for either of them but my druthers are for the Avett Brothers. When I first heard M&S I thought their music was an Anglo/Celtic recognition, not a reclamation, of an idiom that has changed its shape over 3 centuries or so in America. M&S’s music sure sounds to me like it stays true to its English roots in performance style, even when it references American form. I thought I saw ceidligh and Music Hall in it.

    I’ll bet it would be great to see those two bands perform together. I reckon they’re more concerned with what feels right than with authenticity.

  3. irishlad wrote:

    2 Carl i absolutely concur the two bands together to use an overused Americism which has somewhat cynically caught on the UK..awesome.
    I think the fact that an English folk/rock/indie band using traditional bluegrass instruments and expertly played to boot increase their appeal in the states .
    In fact the eponymous Mr Mumford is so versitile he often plays the drums which in fact is his primary instrument.

  4. Joe wrote:

    Pretty hard to tell from one song, but “Babel” seems to be a pretty good word to describe it…

  5. Tim wrote:

    You can hear the Irish influence in their sound. Many of today’s progressive bluegrass bands (Punch Bros., Union Station etc… bear some resemblence, on certain tunes, blending Irish sounds with the high lonesome sounds of Appalachia.

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