First, I want to be honest. I have never liked Mumford & Sons. I wish I could tell you that without sounding pretentious. It’s not because I’m too hipster for the hipsters. There are a number of reasons why their music rubs me the wrong way: the guy’s impassioned “English Dave Matthews” voice annoys me. And I feel like all of their songs sound the same: How many times can you listen to the same banjo arpeggiating, kick drum stroking, guitar hyper-strumming, generic lyric moaning redundancy? I really don’t care how well it’s produced or how polished it has become. It just doesn’t hold my interest. Mumford & Sons is to indie folk what Jack Johnson is to surf pop. And if you like both of these music-by-numbers artists, well, I’m sorry—you probably also think Thomas Kinkade beats out Rembrandt as the “painter of light.”
Redundant consistency has been the mainstay of pop movements for quite some time. But that isn’t what really irks me about Mumford & Sons. What annoys me is that Mumford & Sons and many of the other mainstreaming “indie” bands seem to be selling sincerity without being sincere. And people buy it because it looks sincere. The popularity of Mumford & Sons and bands like them originates from the fact that the general population is tired of cynicism and the ironic distance. But I hate to see what will happen to people when they find out that yet another “authentic” voice turns out to be nothing more than a hollow receptacle for their own longings.
What makes me say this? First off, Mumford & Sons lyrics are absurdly vague. I’m sure they all mean something to you. Just like they mean something different to someone else. In matter of fact, they mean very little on their own. They have that semblance of deepness that Neitzsche pointed out in the poets of his day: “They muddied their waters to appear deep.” But when you really dig into Mumford & Son lyrics, they could mean just about anything—or just about nothing. College Humor had a telling quiz where you had to distinguish between Mumford lyrics and Gandalf quotes. This wouldn’t work, and it wouldn’t be that funny, if Mumford & Sons were talking about real and personal truths in a straightforward way.
And this abstracted generality is by design. Most pop lyrics work that way. Because the fastest way to gain the largest audience is to create an emotional experience that excludes no one. Anyone can relate to lyrics that have no intrinsic meaning. You just pour your own circumstantial details into the emotive framework provided by the artist, and voila—you’ve just had an authentic experience you attribute to the artist.
But even this would not totally turn me off. I am also used to vague and carelessly written lyrics, after all. What really gets to me is the contentless lyrics coupled with Mumford’s extraordinarily earnest look and sound. There is an invocation of organic roots and folk, Depression-era style and sepia nostalgic tones—the band’s sound and style just emanates earnestness and fervency. Yet, when coupled with the lyrics, there’s just not that much there of real substance. Mumford’s style promises great substance. On the surface, they seem like just the band to represent our generation’s new return to authenticity and transparency. But the substance of what they are doing is the same as what has come before.
This is worse in my opinion than just embracing the frivolous effervescence of pop in both style and content. This is like a politician convincing you he’s honest while, in substance, he’s no less a grasping politician than the next guy. In other words, Mumford & Sons is capitalizing on the modern thirst for authenticity while continuing to pursue a two-faced hipster cynicism.
Their newest music video seals the deal for me:
First off, it is really funny. I laughed almost the whole time it was on. But then I wondered: what does the band think of this? Well, it turns out, the parody is the official music video for that song. As much as I like the video as a parody of a band I don’t care for, I don’t know what I think of it as an “authorized” parody. What does that even mean? What was Mumford & Sons hoping to accomplish by this?
While on one hand, I tip my hat to the band for wanting to appear like it doesn’t take itself that seriously, the juxtaposition of this official parody with the song itself is very jarring. Does this mean that Mumford & Sons doesn’t really care about what they are saying in this song? That appears to be the inevitable conclusion. Most of the ire about this video has come from fans who don’t realize it’s the official video or from fans who are annoyed that it is the official video for a song that has meant so much to them. See, most fans take Mumford & Sons very seriously. Fans don’t want to think that Mumford & Sons, like so many other bands, are just in this because they like money, attention, and playing music (probably in that order). Fans want Mumford & Sons to be a cause. They don’t want to be sold a cause. But that is exactly what is happening.
Whether you like their music or not, Mumford & Sons is one of many indie bands that is cashing in on “irony fatigue.” People want something real. And they’re willing to pay for it. And whenever people are willing to pay for something, you know there will be a whole group of people ready to sell it to them—whether it’s the real deal or not.