Thursday, December 13, 2007

with the radio on: technology, authenticity, and fandom

"that is the kind of music i enjoy. real music"

josh ritter walked into my life for the first time in the summer of 2007 when one of my oldest friends and musical influences, steffen, visited me in nyc. i was making a mix tape (read: cd) for a new romantic interest and needed some good stuff to put on it. he assured me that all it needed was a little josh ritter. he cued up a few tracks and i distinctly remember hearing "good man" for the first time: the locomotive, snare driven track, caught me immediately and evoked thoughts of montana, the west, and my close knit group of friends from home. "good man" and "kathleen" snuck onto the mix per steffen's suggestion and as my fondness for jritt grew, i think i eventually listened to the compilation more than the intended party.

steffen is one piece of the community that surrounds josh ritter, and more generally, the alternative/indie-folk/country genre (mix and match as necessary). where i first thought this was a purely interpretive community defined by fans' shared experiences (fish, 1980), looking at steffen and other members' roles within the community made me question that notion. that he actively participates in the scene by accessing music, blogging about it, discussing it, and most importantly, sharing it, leads me to believe that there is an internet propagated sub-culture behind this music. while fans may require physical/local interaction via concerts and festivals in order to maintain the scene, the web seems to fulfill "the basic functions of [the] music scene." (lee and peterson, 2004)

ritter's own myspace page and webpage fulfills many of these roles by hosting a veritable treasure trove of streaming media content, a message board, and most importantly provides a venue for fans to interact with one another. here ritter is assisted by an army of enthusiastic fans: josh ritter's street team. these individuals volunteer to promote josh ritter's music throughout the u.s. and europe. while this grassroots community still may be based on its individuals' appreciation of ritter's music, the level of interaction speaks to a tighter knit subculture. hopefully it's just a matter of time until we hear a clever jritt song about aspen groves. disclaimer: i don't mean to say that this virtual community paradigm is bound to jritt or other offshoots of the genre. rather, it is just a scene that i have had the most exposure as a participant-observer and have noted the strong role the internet has played in its proliferation.

as an aside, (and building on the idea of technology's changing of music) i think it is interesting to note that ethnomusicologist philip auslander positions rock performances as supplements to recordings and that they function to authenticate the music of an artist in a real space. (auslander, 1998) i would argue that the decline of the recording industry has left concerts as the crux of the music industry. maybe for the first time since mass production touched music, fans place a higher level of import on live performances, and recordings now serve a supporting role for the concert. but i digress...

after i made the mix cd and became something of a rhizome myself, steffen bestowed unto me ritter's newest album, "the historical conquests of josh ritter." i could immediately hear stylistic differences between it and his previous release, "the animal years" as it seemed bolder, richer, and definitely catchier. arguably geared more towards a mainstream audience, the new release made me wonder first what fans of this genre value, and consequently what happens when a relatively unknown talent makes their transition to popularity.

in all of the message board posts, interviews, and discussions i have read/conducted/heard about ritter's music, his authenticity seems to be perpetually linked with fan appreciation. while ethnomusicologists might think about authenticity as it relates to the accumulation of cultural capital by participants in a scene (bourdieu, 1973), and the frankfurt school at times positions authentic as sophisticated and not-contrived, but as it relates to the performer, authenticity most closely implies sincerity. accounts from steffen and another street team member, andy, have all pointed to the "realness" of ritter's character, particularly his enthusiasm, as the foundation for their fandom. i should note that this notion of realness is at odds with the value scale associated with the mainstream version of the genre, pop country, as barbara ching notes, "country music often functions as a sly, even campy, announcement of the fact that it is a performance." (ching, 1997) while my friends' encounters with ritter have confirmed his identity as a "real" guy, steffen noted a disenchantment with sufjan stevens after meeting with him following a chicago show. do i really need to explain why:

my interview with andy revealed a similar loss of appeal with the decemberists as lead man colin meloy began employing an overly flamboyant stage persona... well as with iron & wine's sam beam, who has composed seemingly less sincere lyrical content in his recent work. note beam's hushed acoustic style with an extremely cohesive lyrical arc in one of his earlier songs, "upward over the mountain":

vs. as andy put it in an interview, the way he has recently taken to juxtaposing images over a fuller orchestration with an emphasis on rhythm percussion. this makes for a relatively more incoherent, yet potentially evocative song type, such as "white tooth man":

colin meloy notes, "my stage identity is certainly different than who i am in real life," while interviews with beam make it clear that he is a sort of accidental musician who is often more comfortable at home with family than on tour.

i don't mean to say these artists are necessarily worse for their growing performance and composition styles, but rather it misaligns with a number of fans' value scales. in fact, i love "the shepherd's dog," beam's most recent release, but it clearly lack the coherency that andy and others valued in "the creek drank the cradle" and "our endless numbered days."

while these artists have lost some of their fanbase as their musical styles have evolved, ritter's fans appreciate him beyond his clever lyrics and catchy melodies. as he has changed styles and left his comfort zone, his fans have welcomed the transition noting that he has not lost his on stage sincerity. throughout his historical conquests, ritter seems to have always won his audiences by singing through his smile:

doesn't it just make you happy to see him perform? his recordings are fantastic, his music in general very captivating, but it is his on stage sincerity and real personality that seem to grab his audience the most. and that was the case for me. in october of 2007, i left my first josh ritter concert with a grin to match the performer's, a taste for americana, and a little more faith in popular music.

works cited:

Auslander, Philip. "Seeing is Believing: Live Performance and the Discourse of Authenticity in Rock Culture." Literature and Psychology: a journal of psychoanalytic and cultural criticism, Vol. 44, No. 4, 1998.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste." Trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1984.

Ching, Barbara. "Acting Naturally: Cultural Distinction and Critiques of Pure Country." White Trash: race and class in America. Routledge: New York, NY, 1997.

Fish, Stanley. "Is there a text in this class?: The authority of interpretive communities." Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1980.

Lee, Steve S., and Richard A. Peterson. "Internet-based virtual music scenes: the case of P2 in Alt.Country music." Music Scenes: local, translocal and virtual. Vanderbilt University Press: Nashville, 2004.

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