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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

oh chariots, if you're out there, please swing low.

An interview with one of my close friends that introduced me to a lot of the music I listen to now. Definitely a huge musical influence on me, with perhaps a different value scale for appreciating his music. An interesting look at the perceived community of the scene.

James Isbell: i've talked to steffen a bit about this stuff, and it seems that you got him into josh ritter...he recalls listening to harrisburg over and over in your basement which got him going
Andy: that's right, harrisburg and Wings
Andy: which i got from Seanman
James Isbell: really?! Seanman is the source of the Josh Ritter love with you guys then?
Andy: yep
Andy: he heard it at the bozeman indie film festival
Andy: in a trailer
James Isbell: wow...that is so bizarre
James Isbell: when was this? long before animal years?
Andy: yeah, i think spring semester senior year
7:10 PM
James Isbell: i think i recall hearing you guys play Me & Jiggs around then
Andy: then i got hello starling when it came out, i think, fall semester freshman year
James Isbell: it didn't completely grab me but I did like it
Andy: yeah, the time frame's a bit fuzzy
Andy: but definitely a fan by Xmas freshman year
James Isbell: maybe all the lewis and clark?
Andy: oh yes
Andy: and "and I'm just waitin for the whiskey to whisk me away"
James Isbell: ha...mispent youths right?
Andy: or wellspent
James Isbell: well...i know that you guys helped poster/flyer around boston for his did you get involved in the scene?
Andy: either way, the well's not dry
Andy: well
Andy: i've known about street team stuff for a while
Andy: and about a year ago miles and steffen started doing it
Andy: and got to know the street team manager
Andy: and got a bunch of stuff signed
Andy: so we got in that way
James Isbell: do a lot of the street team people knowk eachother?
Andy: after Josh talked to miles after his show in january for a long time, the deal was sealed
Andy: Yeah, the message boards are pretty spot on
Andy: people car pool hours to shows
Andy: crash at other street teamers houses, etc
Andy: via the message boards on his website
James Isbell: ahhhh, would you categorize it as a community then?
Andy: definitely
James Isbell: there is that much interaction you think?
James Isbell: I remember the story about Miles finding that old lady for you guys to stay with in Sandpoint and maybe I haven't laughed as hard in years...but od a lot of crazy things like that happen?
Andy: i'd say that was unusually awesome
Andy: but definitely not unheard of
Andy: the scale at which it happened at sandpoint was the unusual part
Andy: but i wouldn't say its unusual for a street teamer to let a fellow street teamer crash at their place
Andy: via the show
7:15 PM
James Isbell: that's fantastic
Andy: because when there's that deep seeded common interest
James Isbell: and this all is started basically from an interest in the music...and then via a virtual connection? would that make it an internet culture?
Andy: well, parts of it are internet culture
Andy: the message boards, definitely
Andy: and that is where some of it begins,
Andy: but the woman at sandpoint we met at the show because we were waiting in line to meet josh
Andy: and she was behind us
Andy: and she wasn't a streat teamer, to the best of my knowledge
Andy: so thats, actual rather than virtual
James Isbell: crazy story man....
James Isbell: well, so you got josh from about Iron and Wine...what turned you on to Sam Beam?
Andy: seanman, too
Andy: in french class, senior year spring semester
Andy: he played it while we used to study, because Madame Mends used to let us play music if it was chill enough
James Isbell: this is changing my whole world right now
Andy: and I&W is maxchill
James Isbell: seanman the source of all of my music
Andy: yeah, but he left it behind, really
Andy: cause his passion is more changing and new music
James Isbell: i see i see
Andy: rather than the niche that Jrit and Sam Beam fill
James Isbell: well...i know that you at least used to love Sam Beam...what about his music attracted you to him?
Andy: initially the sound
Andy: and the chillness of it, sleeptime music was the sugar on the pill
Andy: for me, at least, and i think that would be a common sentiment
Andy: but then once i began to listen to it more, and louder, the coherency of Creek drank the cradle as an album really did it for me
Andy: and then it became much more about the lyrics
7:20 PM
James Isbell: and did that lyrical content stay strong for you at least for a while...say through Woman King?
Andy: yeah, i would
Andy: woman king started the movement that beam is still in right now
Andy: where he started moving away from imagery that was linear and coherent
Andy: and in woman king he started juxtaposing images
Andy: but i think it worked in that album, especially the song woman king
Andy: once it got enough listens, you got a coherent map through the lyrics that's gone in Sheps Dog
James Isbell: when you say juxtaposing kind of evokes a notion of randomness for did you feel about this transition?
Andy: well, juxtaposing images and randomness are different
James Isbell: so have you changed your mind a bit about the shepards dog? still hate that song about the Devil that Miles and Steffen love?
Andy: yeah, i do
Andy: juxtaposing images can create a big, broad picture
Andy: that wouldn't be created if you kept a solid, linear feel
Andy: EG
Andy: umm
Andy: juxtaposing "black horse fly, lemonade, jar on a red ant hill"
Andy: i think that's the line
Andy: that line, taken alone, doesn't make alot of sense
Andy: but when you get each time-slice image from the song woman king
Andy: like "garden worm, ash on a windowsill"
Andy: you can kind of make a connection between the two, even if it wasn't intentional on sam beams part
Andy: author intent with beam is a lot different than with ritter
Andy: and ritter moved in the direction of absolute coherency, where beam moved away
James Isbell: do you think that his intentions are still there? or can he just put a bunch of lines together with a chill sound and sell albums?
Andy: yeah, no coherency on shep's dog
Andy: i gave it a thorough 10 times through while i was in turkey
Andy: a couple of times with paper and pen in hand
Andy: trying to create a map of themes
Andy: but i think he's faking it
Andy: and i think by mentioning "dogs" so many times in the album
Andy: he's trying to trick the reader into thinking there is a theme there that isn't
Andy: especially made apparent by the last song in the album
7:25 PM
Andy: which is just utter nonsense
James Isbell: hahah
James Isbell: might be my favorite
Andy: agreed
James Isbell: but i prefer numbers to words as we all know
Andy: it is my favorite on the album
James Isbell: but doesn't tie in with the record?
Andy: well, it ties in with the record fine
Andy: because the rest of the album is garbage jibberish, too
Andy: but has none of the amazing emotion evoking lines that were present in his "unknown early sessions"
Andy: like in the song "two hungry blackbirds"
James Isbell: i'm not familiar actually
Andy: good song
Andy: you want it?
James Isbell: i might have gotten it from one of you guys ages ago but i should check it out
Andy: yeah: the consistency of the lyrics on unknown early sessions, (its an album), is Beams best by far
Andy: other than portions of the first two albums
Andy: all the songs he did with calexico were from unknown early sessions
James Isbell: i thought that the consistency on Endless Numbered was pretty amazing
Andy: agreed, passing afternoon is a pinnacle of a "song in itself"
James Isbell: perfect...
Andy: that can exist without preface or explanation, all the while the more you get into it the more you get out it
James Isbell: steffen and i have noted the importance of authenticity in the music we both listen does this figure in for your listening preferences?
Andy: hmm authenticity in what way?
Andy: genuine-ness?
Andy: originality?
James Isbell: maybe genuine to the character of the artists
Andy: interesting question, because one of my other favorite groups, The Silver Jews, is the apotheosis of non-genuine
7:30 PM
Andy: they are the inconsistency that is present in Shep's Dog taken to the extreme, and therefore awesome
James Isbell: does it vary in importance depending on the genre?
Andy: well, Silver Jews is still pretty folky
James Isbell: ahhh i'm no familiar
Andy: but they don't try to sell it as something profound or coherent
Andy: well, they have lines like "When the sunsets on the ghetto all the broken stuff gets cold"
Andy: or "Holding up your trousers with extension chords"
Andy: while the singer is almost spoken word, and constantly off key
James Isbell: do you think Sam Beam just gets looped into that? i think he might be more comfortable touring with Phish or String Cheese just to jam
Andy: agreed, definitely at this point he is
Andy: and I think the power that Beam holds comes from intimate shows where his genuine-ness or authenticity can be explored by the listener
Andy: because it almost doesnt matter how genuine he is
Andy: as long as the listener believes him
Andy: and its hard to believe sam-as-phish
James Isbell: i agree that maybe that's where he shines...maybe because he's not the most talented musician...unlike Andrew Bird who could say whatever the hell he wanted and i would still think he's amazing
Andy: yeah
Andy: and when jrit took a turn away from the 'authenticity'
Andy: he did it in a pleasing, entertaining fashion
Andy: thats present all over historical conquests
Andy: even in the title
James Isbell: you think this last album is away from his style?
James Isbell: or maybe himself?
Andy: oh yeah, definitely
James Isbell: is it him growing though?
Andy: but its intentional and awesome
James Isbell: or do you think it's uncomfortable for him?
Andy: i dont know if i'd call it growing
Andy: hmm good question
Andy: since i dont think he's uncomfortable
James Isbell: I guess you would say...a stretch
Andy: maybe you could call it growth
James Isbell: maybe forced by his keyboard guy?
Andy: but not stretched like a screen, because i don't think its more thin
James Isbell: kind of pushed?
Andy: i'm not sure the affect sam kisserer has on josh
Andy: maybe not even pushed
Andy: lets say, laterally transposed
James Isbell: I'll take you think it is a a step away from his former more authentic music....but not offensively so?
Andy: well, if you're equating authentic to autobiographical
Andy: then yes
Andy: and definitely not offensively so
7:35 PM
Andy: because alot of his songs are ridiculously relateable
Andy: like "right moves"
James Isbell: how about authentic as original or maybe even inaccessible...does his music speak to that?
Andy: inaccessable?
Andy: how so?
James Isbell: sometimes i feel like inaccessibility....the intensity or difficulty of listening to a particular genre....i'm not sure if i'm being clear here....can be considered a plus by insiders....maybe like a lot of radiohead....or mabye even harder punk or metal
Andy: ah, okay
James Isbell: do you think ritter's clever lyrical content makes it a more challenging and therefore pleasing listen?
Andy: well, i'll answer your question in two ways
Andy: first: i think ritter's accessability is key
James Isbell: melodically and emotionally?
Andy: his knew album has been called "MOR"(middle of the road)
Andy: man, both, really
Andy: i don't think he's exploring depths of the human soul
Andy: i think he's making clever, relatable rhythms and rhymes
Andy: but then again i probably don't represent normal people's feeling on that
Andy: since i just finished Paradise Lost for the fifth time
James Isbell: you always were the smarty pants
Andy: heh
Andy: as to "being a plus for insiders"
Andy: i think theres merit to that
James Isbell: it definitely took me a lot of listens to get a grip on his content
Andy: but not with ritter, realy
7:40 PM
Andy: *really
Andy: i think with Sam Beam there was more
James Isbell: which might just speak to my lack of attention to lyrics
Andy: especially when people thought he "sold out" for the garden state soundtrack et all
Andy: but then he turned around and performed his masterwork for a no-where movie (in good company)
James Isbell: i thought that came out of nowhere
James Isbell: but amazing
Andy: and he killed his own darling when he said that -- "i just watched the movie, had a feeling about it, and wrote the song [trapeze swinger]"
James Isbell: i'll never forget how many times you played that in your basement
James Isbell: haha....oh Sam
Andy: i'm close to 3000 plays over all
James Isbell: disgusting/awesome
Andy: but still, that song has a relatability that completely eclipses his intent

i'm inside with my friends we build fires and pretend that the night could just bend on forever

A conclusion to my previous discussion with Steffen about some of these themes surrounding Josh Ritter, the folk genre, and a breeding internet culture...

James Isbell: well...i was going to ask how you got introduced to Josh Ritter?
Steffen: harrisburg was the first song
Steffen: it was in andy's basement
Steffen: andy had left the song on for over 1000 plays
Steffen: so it was on a lot
Steffen: then i started diving into more of his stuff
James Isbell: Oh god...i remember when he did that with the trapeze was like 100 years of sadness down there
Steffen: so word of mouth/ p2p sites
Steffen: or wonderment
Steffen: how ever you want to look at it
James Isbell: do you normally get into newer're the guy i go to...but where do you hear about this stuff?
Steffen: reading blogs
Steffen: downloading a lot
Steffen: i may have all the music
Steffen: but i have my people finding what i should download
Steffen: the confederossy has a music thread
Steffen: and i can see who is listening to what
Steffen: JonET, Joe Y, Andy, Ross
James Isbell: i would you say that it's an internet culture? kind of technologically spurred?
Steffen: yes
7:10 PM
Steffen: i don’t think i would be into as much if i had to buy all these albums
Steffen: joe on the other hand buys all the music'
James Isbell: is that unique to this culture...or would you say all music these days?
Steffen: he hears of a band and buys their album
Steffen: and checks it out
James Isbell: that's right..he did buy those albums in chicago just kind of out of the blue
James Isbell: it seems like something that either of us would never do
Steffen: having free access to all of it makes it easy to sample what ever you want
James Isbell: and get the best?
James Isbell: this all kind of leads me to my next big there an underlying culture around Josh Ritter/ all this new alt country/folk music...if so, how can you categorize it?
Steffen: i think the independent music culture lets people attach themselves to an artist that is just coming up
Steffen: they can feel some personal commitment to the music
Steffen: and feel they are supporting the artist by spreading the word
James Isbell: but is there a community among listeners?
Steffen: i think Ritter is a big with our group because he seem genuinely like someone I would hang out with
Steffen: people love to talk shop like minded people
7:15 PM
James Isbell: No, I couldn't agree more about that...and it seems that his authenticity and just good nature are really what win him over for all of you guys
Steffen: yea i think people can see that he is authentic
Steffen: and they like that
Steffen: there are not many people who are authentic these days
James Isbell: do you think he's in danger of losing that authentic appeal as he grows in popularity...or would it be possible for him to keep his same Idaho small town appeal
Steffen: i don’t see him loosing it
Steffen: i think that is just how he is
Steffen: so his music will always reflect himself
James Isbell: but that theme seems prevalent with other upcoming artists
James Isbell: he has a higher immunity to it by nature?
Steffen: yes
Steffen: you don’t hear talk of Josh ritter selling out to the man
Steffen: but there was a bunch of chat about the decemberists
Steffen: when they were getting older
James Isbell: well...he did get very lucky recently getting dropped by V2 with all of his own rights
Steffen: and there albums began to change
Steffen: their intent changed
Steffen: where i feel ritters is the same
7:20 PM
James Isbell: I imagine that it could have gone a different way for him if the timing of their collapse hadn't been so perfect
James Isbell: I understand that he got to record Historical Conquests on his own without any corporate input...but will that model really hold for his next...probably highly anticipated and more easily marketed album?
Steffen: josh ritter is not seeing any radio play
Steffen: except for NPR
Steffen: i don’t see how he could get commercialized
Steffen: is his next album going to be highly anticipated?
Steffen: i don’t think so
James Isbell: but he is getting critical acclaim and internet buzz...and the way things have gone, i think you could make an argument that these are becoming more important
Steffen: by us it will
Steffen: his target market is middle aged women
James Isbell: haha really?
Steffen: who don’t use the internet
James Isbell: i think my mother loves him
Steffen: the internet buzz may seem big just because he is huge in our eyes
Steffen: i don’t disagree that he is getting more press
Steffen: but i think it is good press
Steffen: the fact that pitchfork will not even touch the guy seems good for his career
James Isbell: i understand that it is a little bit different that I actually google his name and check him out
Steffen: they reviewed an album a while back
James Isbell: oh god...pitchfork gave Historical Conquests like a 6.4 because a guy said it was too methodical and perfect...not enough spontaneity
7:25 PM
Steffen: but they don’t report news on him
Steffen: just review 2 of his 4 albums
James Isbell: i noticed they didn't review animal years, which was very interesting
Steffen: yep
Steffen: and the review for Hello Starling was more about Golden Age of Radio
Steffen: but he is authentic and i believe his music
Steffen: i dont see him making any big change
Steffen: his music has progressed but it is built on the same foundation
Steffen: as i watched the decemberists add crazy antics to their live show and crazy epic songs to their albums i believed them less and less
James Isbell: just more of an act at that point?
Steffen: then the masses (who are not as smart as me) flocked to them because it is entertainment
Steffen: but i am in it for the music
Steffen: that happens to entertain me
James Isbell: ahhh...
Steffen: not the entertainment that happens to sound alright
James Isbell: i know...the kind of man that prefers to sit at a concert
James Isbell: my kind of man
James Isbell: well great man....i guess that covers the stuff that i wanted to ask...mainly the internet community connection
James Isbell: anything else you want to say on that?
7:30 PM
Steffen: i would not have the music i do without the internet
Steffen: and the p2p connections are great places to find new artists

Sunday, December 2, 2007

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