Mumford & Sons has taken quite a beating the last couple of days. Jonathan Fitzgerald has the gory details here. The best critique of the bunch comes from my fellow Nebraskan Matthew Schmitz at First Things.
Mumford and Sons are a kind of musical Pinterest. They “collect” without really linking together a variety of quaint, beautiful, and touching things. A little gospel here, a little Chesterton there, a little waistcoat here. Because of their penchant for gathering any and every sartorial, lyrical, and instrumental oddment, their coy references to the gospel and GKC become just the “pinning” of another striking and well-wrought thing. We don’t know if they’re Christians (or indeed if they have any existential commitment), or if they’re just aesthetic reactionaries of a limited type. Eclecticism precludes evangelism.
Four brief responses:
a) Critiquing a band in 2012 for taking a Pinterest approach to their music and image seems rather like critiquing a fish for being in water. After all, we live in an era where a French art museum that houses Asian art is marked by a glass pyramid inspired by the pyramids of Egypt. And this isn’t just a philosophical issue. Part of it is communal. Large numbers of immigrants in the United States and western Europe inevitably lead to more hodge-podge type cultural identities. Joie and I live in a neighborhood with a large Mexican population. One of the consequences of living in a neighborhood like that is that some amount of crossover is going to happen. But I don’t think that necessarily means I’m snatching at disparate cultural influences with no regard for context. Indeed, it’s precisely because I do have regard for context that I’m being influenced by my neighbors.
Another factor feeding into this is technological. I’ve never been to New York City or Washington DC. But I’ve been tremendously influenced by both through media. Between immigration and new technological possibilities – as well as, I suspect, a certain broad philosophical malaise – it’s not at all surprising when a new cultural artifact comes off as somewhat patched together. Indeed, I suspect the only way to successfully go viral in such an atomized, pluralistic society is to be a bit eclectic.
b) Mumford are outselling Justin Bieber. Even if you aren’t a big Mumford fan, surely you can admit that this is a positive cultural development? If you can pick a band to be going great guns on the Billboard charts, who would you rather have? A band like Mumford whose worst crimes are writing about weighty issues in a sometimes precious way and failing to have firm cultural allegiances… or Justin Bieber.
Admittedly, this could be construed as a false dichotomy. Why can’t we have something better than either of them? Fair enough. But the reality is that Mumford is one of the best bands to go viral in many, many years. Even if we have issues with them, their popularity is worth celebrating.
c) One of the things Alan Jacobs helped me see in his defense of e-readers is that it’s very easy to react to a product’s connotations rather than the product itself. I was ready to open fire on the Kindle even though I’d never actually handled one. If I had, I would’ve realized that Kindles aren’t the orgy of distraction and short-circuited attention spans that I thought they were (that’d be reading on an iPad… kidding). I still don’t own one – and I have my reasons – but Kindles do not signal The End of Reading or The End of Intelligence.
Same thing goes for TV and movies. Here Stephen Johnson’s case in Everything Bad is Good for You is instructive. Contra the technological pessimists, there’s reason to think that some forms of pop culture – Johnson’s argument for TV was his strongest – are actually getting more intelligent rather than less. I see similar reasons for hope in the popularity of Mumford. Would it be cool if popular culture still loved Mozart and Austen? Sure. But that’s not the world we live in. So I’m grateful for any sign of health or growth – the popularity of Mumford & Sons strikes me as such a sign.
d) This speaks more to Schmitz’ critique than any of the others, but I do wonder what exactly makes something culturally coherent? Put another way, what isn’t a “Pinterest” approach to creating a cultural artifact? For instance, can’t the critique that Matt is making regarding Mumford be directed at a lot of C.S. Lewis’ fiction? It can, or at least Tolkien thought it could. Tolkien found Lewis’ allegorizing sloppy and inconsistent. Allegories had to be this not that. He made the same critique of Lewis’ use of many fantastical creatures, which he found to be arbitrary and sloppy. But Lewis’ eclectic tendencies didn’t harm his work in any significant way – at least not according to his millions of readers.
To be clear, simply snatching at whatever grabs your fancy without making any attempt to knit it together is lazy and poor art. But ours is a world of a million sub-cultures and a million technologies that make crossing over from one to the next rather seamless. In a single day I can read blogs by authors in DC and New York, a book published in India that I got at a conference in Kansas, eat lunch at a local deli with meat from Nebraska, edit manuscripts to be used by schools in New Jersey, and then have a dinner at a Greek restaurant. And when I’m done with that, I can watch TV shows made in California about life in New Mexico or on a remote desert isle.
Put simply, coherence is hard to come by in a world so fragmented. Sometimes the best that can be done is snatching at various elements from disparate groups and attempting – even haltingly – to knit them together into something sensible. I’ve only listened to it twice, but Babel seems to do that.
One last point to keep in mind – This is only Mumford’s second record. They’re still newbies at this thing. But, for better or worse, they’re newbies whose first record went viral and now they have to mature before us as artists under a level of scrutiny usually put upon artists with five times their experience. Even in listening to Sigh No More, you can tell that they’re a young, somewhat green, band. I have no doubts that they’ll continue to grow. As a lyricist, Marcus Mumford has real promise, as performers they’re already quite good, and as musicians they’re able to create fun – if somewhat redundant – songs.