We Brits are hardy festivalgoers, but why are Americans so much better at making music than us?by Kate Mossman / May 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Hitting the fields: Brits are intrepid festival goers, but far less daring when it comes to the music they’ll listen to
A few years ago I was hitchhiking back from a music festival in Colorado with four frat boys. They were getting high from a bong fashioned from an old Coke bottle. As we flew past a small town, one pushed forward from the back seat, spluttering: “Dude! You gotta stop here! This is the place with the mandolin store—I need to upgrade!”
It was cool, they explained, to play mandolin, and to impress their friends with a whirlwind version of “Ride The Wild Turkey.” Over in Connecticut at the same time, the young electro-pop duo MGMT were experimenting with analogue synthesizers in the music department of their liberal arts college. Vampire Weekend were doing modules in world music at Columbia University, and playing a new kind of pop/hi-life hybrid. Americans have a completely different attitude to learning music. Let’s face it, Americans are better musicians than us.
This festival season, we’ll be heading to fields across Britain prepared to face testing situations: rain, cold, mud, poor sanitation, dehydration, foot-rot. Brits are famously intrepid, but we are far less daring when it comes to the music we listen to. On Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage we’ll watch mainstream acts from the British Isles—U2, Coldplay, Rumer (Radio 2 staple, sounds like The Carpenters)—parcelled out in greatest hits sets. There’ll be British folk music from Laura Marling and Fisherman’s Friends, and Primal Scream on an anniversary tour. There are some unusual, experimental musicians on the circuit this year. It’s just that most of them are American.
Take Janelle Monáe with her Fritz Lang-inspired funk (they call it “retro-futurism”), or the shape-shifting dance outfit Hercules and Love Affair. Or art rock from TV On The Radio; or Dengue Fever, who combine Cambodian singing with psychedelia. These are tight, technical, musically literate bands who adopt an almost academic approach to their material, and aren’t afraid to show it.
“There’s nothing I hate more than a guitar solo,” Jo Whiley told one of her young charges on the TV talent show Mobile Act Unsigned. Somewhere down the line, technical musicianship has become a byword for showing off—noodling, twiddling, musical masturbation. Once upon a time, 150,000 people sat at the Isle Of Wight and listened to Hendrix playing “God Save the Queen.” If someone tried that now, everyone would go off and get chips. We’d rather our musicians kept the “showing off” to a minimum. But why? I don’t come away from a ballet complaining that the principal dancer kept hogging the limelight with all those wretched pirouettes.
Geography has a part to play. In comparatively tiny Britain, all you have to do is break the press. Young artists win Critics’ Choice at the Brits in February, then go into a blind panic learning to play live in time for the festival circuit (see Florence Welch, who popped up everywhere last summer and had a real problem singing in tune. Nobody said anything.) In America, by contrast, there’s always someone better than you playing in the next bar. You’ve got to be really good to make it past the multitudes competing at Nashville’s open mic nights. The competition that builds up around music centres—Brooklyn, Austin, Portland—combined with a living tradition of country and blues, means different expectations of skill and adaptability. Ask Fleet Foxes to play a cover of Bowie’s “Starman” tonight and you can bet they’ll do it—they might even play it on a harp. Could Mumford & Sons do the same?
British music is driven by nostalgia, not experimentation. The appeal of Mumford & Sons lies in their “authenticity”: the simpler, bygone age represented in their banjos and plaid shirts. The Vaccines, critics say, are here to “save” rock ‘n’ roll—but no one’s talking about moving it forwards. Pulp will reunite at Glastonbury. Jarvis Cocker will be an awesome sight on the Pyramid Stage, but while he is a great construct—an embodiment of the mardy English in a pipe-cleaner body—he is not, first and foremost, a working musician. He is happily ensconced in a successful DJ slot on BBC 6 Music; a curator of public taste, perhaps, but unlikely to produce great records.
Over in New York, Panda Bear and Gang Gang Dance draw crowds for their electronic/ambient culture clashes. New records have just been released by Austra (featuring former opera singer Katie Stelmanis) and tUnE-yArDs, the stage name of Merrill Garbus, who sends her Kenyan-inspired pop through a series of loop pedals.
Perhaps celebrating one’s musical ability amounts to celebrating oneself—which, they always say, we Brits don’t do terribly well, unless we’re being ironic. Muse are the only band in the country who get away with long, flashy guitar solos—but to do so, Matt Bellamy has to be standing under a giant UFO made of silver foil, and affecting the “rock stance” of Eddie Van Halen.