Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Back to Basics

              The world of pop music has undergone more sea changes than any of us can count over the past 60 years, but the newest trend is surprising even to hardy top-40 fans such as myself. In case you haven’t noticed, foot-stompin’ pop is all the rage now. A grizzled voice, a few banjos, a “hey” and a “ho,” finished off with the sound of boots hitting hardwood – it’s Billboard gold right now.
              I’ve got no problem with it, and most of the bands in this genre – Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, to name a few – are a nice complement to the other genres in the pop music galaxy, from rap to hip hop to R&B to country pop. Throw in a little more standard rock, and you’ve got the most diverse array of pop music this side of 1985. Neat as it is, though, it’s still shocking to turn on a mainstream, top-40 radio station and hear banjos. Just a year after Earl Scruggs died, the instrument he mastered is holding its own alongside Auto-Tune and boy bands.
Cool as it sounds, though, I think this foot-stompin’ pop is about more than just the whimsical tastes of music fans. Something this different has to carry some symbolic weight. Twenty years ago, we saw a similar trend when MTV introduced the widely popular “Unplugged” series, where famous musicians strapped on acoustic guitars and crooned their hits in stripped-down fashion. Twenty years before that, singer-songwriters such as Jim Croce, James Taylor and John Denver ensured that the quiet, thoughtful, acoustic song would remain a part of our pop-music canon for individuals not named Dylan. I found the “Unplugged” fad to be a necessary reaction to what had become an overload of synthesizers and heavy metal in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The early-‘70s quiet guys were a natural foil to the blossoming of hard rock in the late ‘60s.
This time around, Mumford and all his sons and cousins are here for a couple of reasons: First of all, they’re not really quiet songs, so much as anthems – and in a time of so much uncertainty, the anthem does a lot of people an awful lot of good; it always has. Secondly, I think the stripped-down approach of banjos and boots is also a harkening back to our past – to a recognition that there are some things we did better in previous generations, and it’s at least worth reflecting on that.
When Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie were playing bluegrass and folk music back in the 1930s, America was undergoing an economic crisis even worse than the one we’ve had in the past half-decade. But during those years, the country took some courageous risks in fighting its way out of the misery it faced. Today, as we watch our government leaders play a dangerous game of chicken with our economy, we might long for the days of banjos and fiddles, as they were accompanied by bold action.
Also, as we watch severe storms ravage our country, we might find ourselves reflecting back on the last time a man-made natural disaster struck our country. The shock and debris of Hurricane Sandy remains with us still, and maybe we’re ready to revisit the days of the Dust Bowl to think seriously about what happens when we alter our climate – and what we can do to fix it. Woody Guthrie sang about that, too.
Or if we’re into sports, maybe the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” reminds us a little of Willie Mays’ “Say Hey” days. Perhaps the stripped-down pop of now connects with the stripped-down baseball game being played once more, at long last. With performance-enhancing drugs on their way out of the game, baseball has become what it was before the juicers took over – a game in which pitchers dominate. Many of us were told as children that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball coming at you at a rapid speed. The laws of physics support this theory completely, and without those drugs we’re seeing the game become what it was meant to be. Getting a hit three out of 10 times at-bat is once again a Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishment. Striking 40 home runs in a season is once more enough to win a home run crown. And pitching a shutout is once again commonplace.
So when we read about Willie Mays dominating the game in the 1950s, we read about a man who did this through his own natural abilities. As baseball prepares for a new season, we feel more confident than ever that the fakers have either been caught or are about to get caught. And that’s something  to say “hey” about. It’s also reason to appreciate the beauty of the 2-1 game, instead of the 12-9 slugfest.
There are a lot of amazing things that happen in a 2-1 game. Players think carefully about their decisions. They work together a lot. They take courageous risks. They appreciate a well-played game, in which the playing field is level.
They do the things that make the game great, and they don’t need any performance enhancements to do that. It’s the same way with economies, global weather patterns and even pop songs – just keep it honest, dare to be different, and try a little collaboration. Make some music together. Banjos allowed.