‘Folk Opposition’ is a timely call for the reclaiming of folk culture, from both left and right – but first we need to reclaim it from the music industry.
At the heart of ‘Folk Opposition’, Alex Niven’s recently published first book, is a call for the left to look to folk identity as inspiration for new networks of working class solidarity. It’s an important suggestion, and one that recognises the metropolitan left’s chronic inability to connect with life outside the M25. As Joe Kennedy’s review in The Quietus points out, Niven’s book is also a lament for the theft of folk culture – co-opted as it has been by an acutely southern elite, fetishising the idea of folk while propagating a laughable misinterpretation of the countryside as some peerless idyll, populated by noble peasants and ripe for cultural pillaging.
There are, of course, few areas in which this fetishisation is more pronounced than in the crashingly dull wave of faux-folk music that arrived tsunami-like around 2008. A quick perusal of this week’s many end-of-year lists proves that the wave is yet to subside. Spurred on by the catastrophic success of arch barndancers Mumford and Sons, major labels have spent the last couple of years throwing cash at anything with a beard, a guitar, and vague sense of rusticism – and we are still feeling the results.
Distaste for the faux-folk revival is nothing new. For every broadsheet music correspondent boshing out a couple of hundred words on the ‘maturity’ of the second Emmy The Great record, there have been a thousand snippy blog posts wishing death, or at least enforced silence, on the West London brigade.
But faux-folk is more than a mere irritation. It is not ‘just’ another depressing major label construction to be ignored; not simply another passing phenomenon to keep The Sunday Times magazine ticking over. As Niven says, the lionisation of this painfully upper middle class clique is indicative of the fact that we apparently care neither about the creative industries being dominated by the offensively moneyed, nor about the fact that they are currently amusing themselves by siphoning through the rubble of English heritage in order to find something marketable.
But it is also the apotheosis of a strategy of diversion; the absurd embodiment of efforts to paper over the widening fissures in a fundamentally unjust society by appealing to some latent Albion-lust – and the culmination of attempts to distract us from our chronic atomisation through the construction of manufactured shared experiences.
The enormodome performances of cash cow artists like Mumford and Sons are little more than the final opulent act in the gradual recuperation of the folk tradition. This preternatural absorption of ideas or expressions of rebellion or outsiderness into the very heart of the consumer system is one of the foundations on which our ‘post-political’ society has been erected.
We live, as Mark Fisher so convincingly writes, beneath the pall of capitalist realism. As the well-worn phrase would have it, it is (or rather, it was until about six months ago) easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. This is in part because capitalism positions itself as post-ideological, as the only common sense solution, and in part because of its talent for assimilating cultural rebellion. Folk music was about communication between ‘ordinary’ people; about telling stories and, frequently, about stirring insurrection, in a manner totally removed from commodity exchange. Its value was in its lack of quantifiable value. It is an illustrative testament to capitalism’s extraordinary strength, then, that the country’s supermarket aisles are now stacked high with products that are marketed as folk records. The old tools of peasant communication are seized, bastardised, and mobilised for capital.
This is, of course, nothing new. Capital has always been good at cooption, and there are few industries in which this is more aggressive or pronounced than in music. But the faux-folk pox is particularly troubling because it aims to reconstitute the very things that capitalism destroys – solidarity, humanity, co-operation without a profit motive – and sell them back to us.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the live arena. The faux-folk live show is an exercise in manufactured shared experience. The gigs are heavy with the fug of self-satisfaction, laden with unbearable pseudo-profundity. The crowd go expecting an ‘event’; a moment of breathtaking humanity under the thousand watt floodlights. They will tell each other in the car home how real it all was, how alive they felt, because that is what they think they should do.
The sepia-tinged promo shots, the endless self-satisfied tours of windswept Scottish islands, the fucking waistcoats: these are all illustrative of what Elizabeth Outka calls the commodified authentic. The labels behind these acts (and, of course, the acts themselves) aren’t just selling music. Rather, they are selling a feeling of realness; a sense of connection with the rustic England of some imagined yesterday, away from the consumerism and vulgarity in which their predominantly middle class audiences otherwise embroil themselves.
Companies are trying to sell authenticity everywhere, from Fender’s Road Worn guitar series (bashed up during manufacture to give the impression of years of whiskey-soaked gigging), to the backwoodsy packaging of coffee chain food, to the Lomo-aping Instagram – Lomography itself, of course, a way of selling an evocation of Soviet Russia. We lap up this manufactured authenticity because we lack realness in our lives – the genuine human connection of social solidarity. We are aggressively instructed to define ourselves not by our relationship with other people, but as the nexus of a web of interests: as the unit of consumption connecting the music we buy, the clothes we wear, the blogs we read. Instagram, coffee packaging, and Mumford and Sons are the means by which we are encouraged to persuade ourselves that we are still human, still connected with tradition, with history, with the earth, and with each other. The undeniable enthusiasm for the manufactured shared experience of faux-folk suggests that there remains an appetite for genuine human connection – but the version we are sold is an animatronic approximation, built solely for profit. We travel to the arena to experience a ‘moment’, before getting back into our car and driving back to our flat, where we live alone, where we worry alone about work, about money, about waning youth. The grand faux-folk event draws on the imagery of egalitarianism while leaving us fundamentally atomised.
Today, the spectacle is more offensive than ever. The nauseatingly engineered folksiness, the all-in-this-together wink; they are unbearable because they play on the very basic human structures that we will need if we are to kick back against the Conservative-Liberal project – a project that has in its sights no less than the return of pre-Victorian wealth inequalities.
We need genuine human solidarity if we are to respond to this. By encouraging us to satiate this need with a plasticky corporatised pastiche, the faux-folk vanguard quickens our death march towards social oblivion.