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,…