on uniquely voiced indie rockers and the perception of authenticity

Everyone’s favorite film lecturer/ Southern folk artist, Sam Beam; promo photo by Emily Wilson

Indie rock (in the broadest of senses) lives and dies on credibility, so much so that ‘indie cred’ is a common phrase. Sure image helps and gimmicks help and music/ songwriting ability may also help, but cred is very important. People still cry sell out if artists appear to be cashing in on their music. Subtler still are fans turning away when artists grasp at music that may not lend itself to credibility.

And yet, indie rockers often take on genres they are not intimately familiar with or don’t have some born right to play. That is, they lack immediate credibility. Beirut takes on Balkan brass music. Iron & Wine (or Will Oldham’s or…) takes on Southern/ Appalachian folk.

Even when indie rockers are not taking on other genres, they are often tackling music that is, in some way, new to the listener. Sufjan’s epic folk, Joanna Newsome’s weird harp screeching, Andrew Bird’s experimental, looped violin pop and Neutral Milk Hotel’s emotive fuzz pop are all examples.

What do these artists have in common? Unique voices. And none of them lack credibility[1]. A significant audience wholeheartedly buys into what they’re doing.

The unique voices lead to the listener to view these artists with more authenticity than otherwise. If they not going to sing “normal” then they must mean it, the listener thinks.

I’m not sure this is a conscious thought on the artists part. Perhaps they just want to differentiate themselves from other artists or that’s the voice they’ve always sung with.

Palace Brothers – I am a Cinematographer (mp3)

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[1] While there is some skepticism of Beirut’s authenticity, the critical majority seems to not have taken notice.

8 responses to “on uniquely voiced indie rockers and the perception of authenticity”

  1. Lizzy says:

    “The unique voices lead to the listener to view these artists with more authenticity than otherwise.” –I didn’t realize that observed correlation equated to causality in the study of human behavior.

  2. adrian says:

    It doesn’t, of course, and I didn’t say it did. (Furthermore, correlation never implies causality; the “study of human behavior” doesn’t enter into that.)

    This is in no way scientific proof or really anything more than throwing an idea out there. The theory I’m putting out there for people to consider is that there is causality.

  3. Anna says:

    I actually wouldn’t classify Sam Beam’s, Andrew Bird’s or Sufjan’s voices as unique – they have really lovely voices, which seem to reflect solid training, but are not necessarily unique. Especially when compared to Joanna Newsom or Jeff Magnum or Devendra Banhart.

    I wonder if instead, listeners perceive these musicians’ grasp on less obvious genres as credible because they manage to bring these unusual musical influences to a new level?

  4. adrian says:

    Anna, I’d call them unique as in they are immediately recognizable. Perhaps moreso than unique in many of these cases, what I actually mean is that they sign in an affected manner. At some point, Sam Beam, for instance, consciously decided to sing in a whispered style.

  5. Lizzy says:

    Did he consciously decide that? Maybe that is just what came out?

    “(Furthermore, correlation never implies causality; the “study of human behavior” doesn’t enter into that.)” –Yes, I know that. The point is that you treat your assertion as though it is acceptable to imply causality (regarding listeners’ behavior,) whereas I can’t imagine you implying causality between observed phenomenon in other fields. Suggesting that the color of macbooks is responsible for the popularity of the OS, for example. It’s a pretty big leap. There is a lot of room between those ideas that begs a bit of real science. Human behavior has a science to it as well. That was the implication. You have made some pretty bold claims in a field that I question your credibility in– the music I completely value your opinion on, but the sociology seems a bit sketchy. …like me talking about engineering.

    Anna- I am curious what you mean by “new level”? I think I agree that it is exactly the willingness of those musicians to reach out to different genres that I find appealing. I don’t see Beirut claiming expertise in the world of Balkan music, I see them as indie-rockers willing to follow their artistic path, even if it is not entirely within indie-rock.

  6. adrian says:

    Lizzy, I leave the possibility open that it is just what came out–read the last paragraph. There’s certainly evidence that others, Sufjan, for instance, consciously decided on the current voice he sings in–he sounds quite different and varied in his early recordings but has been very consistent since Michigan or possibly before.

    To use your analogy of engineering, if someone wrote a post about the color of the original iMacs leading to the resurgence of Apple as a player in the computer market–I’ve read articles about that, in fact–I would think to myself, ‘that’s an interesting theory.’ It’s true that I may want some proof or evidence beyond what was presented. But what I have here is not proof–as I said, it’s a theory. It’s food for thought for the readers. If you read a thesis paragraph of a researched paper, it might provoke thought even lacking the rest of the evidence in the paper.

    All I’m doing is sharing a thought that I’ve had and doing so in a somewhat abstract manner. I’m not attempting to prove any theories and I’ve been quite plain about that.

  7. Anna says:

    Lizzy – I guess by “new level,” I mean pretty much what you said, that these musicians reach out to new genres and do so quite well. A well-done, successful interpretation, I suppose, though not necessarily a demonstration in expertise.

  8. Lizzy says:

    Yup, I totally agree with you Anna. “Interpretation” is just the right word for it.

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