In several circles of independent music criticism, amateurishness and low-fidelity are equated with the concepts of true music and realism. In turn, this has inspired artists to shift from clean, produced sounds in favor of ascetic tendencies.. Low quality is seen as a realistic depiction of artists’ lives and emotions; the term “intimate” is often thrown about by critics.1
This is not without precedent. The late noughties saw an introduction of hyper-processed mainstream music that coincided with the re-establishment of electronic music production styles as a dominant force, as seen by the countless dubstep artists with Billboard Top 40 releases. Independent musicians understandably reacted: bedroom pop was – and still is – a trending force throughout the early 2010s. The garage rock-revival hit new highs with the enormous output of Southern California artists John Dwyer and Ty Segall, in addition to others on the Castle Face record label,2 which is known for its noisy, psychedelic content.
Music critics currently praise musicians that forsake the perceived confines of trained musicianship for amateur songwriting and production styles. A great example is Zentropy by bedroom pop musician Greta Kline, who at 19 years old had over twenty albums in her discography under the moniker Frankie Cosmos. Pitchfork Media rated Zentropy an 8.0/10, praising its “playful but disciplined” structure, where her “simplicity is her mask.” Critic Mike Powell is dismissive of the songs whereby Kline attempts studio effects, i.e. where she “steps back into a bigger sonic picture,” stating that it these take away from intimacy by reminding the listener of “the world outside.”3
In the business world, presentation of ideas in a less refined context is called “low-fidelity prototyping.” It certainly has its advantages: LFP allows designers to present their ideas at a very low cost, and often in a way that, according to Smashing Magazine’s Laura Busche, “facilitates listening rather than selling.” The product requires less attention on behalf of the listener, and the focus remains on the presenter rather than the aesthetics of the product. LFP also allows presenters to focus on feedback “rather than execution” of the idea itself.4
So, what about when the prototype is the product? Independent music takes the concept of low-fidelity prototyping to a logical extreme by purposefully producing the final product to sound like a prototype. One of the most famous examples is Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 release Nebraska, whereby the record was originally a series of four-track demos recorded by Springsteen to present to his E Street Band for full recording, but was advised by his manager to release the demos instead. Down Colorful Hill, the 1992 debut of Red House Painters, was released under similar circumstances: the album’s six tracks are slightly remixed versions of a demo that bandleader Mark Kozelek submitted to the 4AD record label.
However, low-fidelity in music does not necessitate authenticity; in some cases, it is manufactured in a context that its fan base curiously disregards. Dean Essner, a writer for Consequence Of Sound magazine, alludes to this dichotomy in his favorable review of the album DSU by Alex G, another precocious young bedroom pop artist. He states that bedroom pop has “frustratingly inauthentic signifiers … deliberate ‘mistakes,’ tape hiss, the sound of 3 a.m. [sic] backyard sprinkler brushing up against the side of the house.”5
This is most frustratingly noted in Yeah Yeah Yeah’s vocalist Karen O’s debut solo release, Crush Songs. Heather Phares mentions the album’s “wonder and intimacy … that reaffirms why her music is … so affecting” in her review for Allmusic.6 Stephen M. Deusner of Pitchfork Media mentions its “intention[al] modest[y]” with “thematically appropriate” brevity, and praises its tone of “sparse demo arrangements.”7
However, even Pitchfork calls out Karen O on the album’s manufactured “austerity of presentation,” saying that “we can only imagine what is lost” without a fully-fleshed out recording. After all, such albums are made to sound like demos, to which Duesner himself agreed.8 This is not low-quality due to financial or time restraints. Tracks such as “Beast” would sound fantastic if it weren’t for the incredibly low quality that is grating to the ears.
Mainstream media is partially responsible for the obsession over the demo as real music. The past decade was super-saturated by a glut of anniversary-edition albums with bonus discs filled by outtakes, demos, and other studio flukes. It has convinced some artists – and their listeners – that such inclusions are a truer representation of the music. In the face of the aforementioned hyperrealistic quality of modern mainsteam production, the saturation of the independent music clime with low-fidelity production is neither surprising nor necessarily irresponsible, as long as the fans understand that it is not due to lack of access to recording quality but because they are made on purpose to sound that way.
Leading half of your songs with “one, two, three” is not the answer. False mistakes are not cute; they are insulting. Lyrics that recycle the same standards in pop music that are decried by pop magazines do not suddenly become meaningful when they’re played on a mistuned acoustic guitar.
At the risk of diving into the nuances of socioeconomics, most artists that record in low-fidelity styles in the current clime are white, middle-/upper-class young people, with Frankie Cosmos and Karen O being the most obvious examples. There is a certain air of discomfort that arises knowing these artists have all the access to recording materials to which the lower classes can only dream of having access, and they use it to make music that sounds, quite frankly, poor. That mindset apes the troubles of a different class in order to make the artist sound more intimate; the lo-fi artists do not recognize their inherent advantage. Those are not easily reconcilable thoughts.
Critics and listeners simply must be wary in viewing amateurishness through the lens of realism. It runs the risk of derogating other styles and genres simply because they play their instruments well and sing above a whisper. Truism is a dangerous game to play in independent music. It is especially disingenuous when such studio additions are planned mistakes that aren’t actually a result of someone’s newness to music but is instead a manufactured condition. Then it is not intimate – it is, instead, counterfeiting the very emotions that are so devoutly espoused.
1. Ooo – (1:28) – ★★★★☆
2. Rapt – (1:47) – ★★☆☆☆
3. Visits – (1:33) – ★☆☆☆☆
4. Beast – (2:57) – ★★★☆☆
5. Comes the Night – (1:06) – ★★☆☆☆
6. NYC Baby – (0:56) – ★★☆☆☆
7. Other Side – (1:11) – ★☆☆☆☆
8. So Far – (1:33) – ★★★★☆9
9. Day Go By – (2:16) – ★★★☆☆
10. Body – (2:27) – ★☆☆☆☆10
11. King – (1:23) – ★☆☆☆☆
12. Indian Summer [The Doors cover] – (1:03) – ★★☆☆☆
13. Sunset Sun – (1:12) – ★★★★★11
14. Native Korean Rock – (2:27) – ★☆☆☆☆
15. Singalong – (2:06) – ★☆☆☆☆
1“Rising: Frankie Cosmos | Features | Pitchfork,” Pitchfork Media, accessed 22 April 2014, http://pitchfork.com/features/rising/9345-frankie-cosmos/
2Honestly, I like a lot of their releases.
3“Frankie Cosmos: Zentropy | Album Reviews | Pitchfork,” Pitchfork Media, accessed 17 February 2014, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/19130-frankie-cosmos-zentropy/
4“The Skeptic’s Guide to Low-Fidelity Prototyping – Smashing Magazine,” Smashing Magazine, accessed 17 February 2014, http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/10/06/the-skeptics-guide-to-low-fidelity-prototyping/
5“Alex G – DSU | Album Reviews | Consequence of Sound,” Consequence of Sound, accessed 17 February 2014, http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/06/album-review-alex-g-dsu/
6“Crush Songs – Karen O | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards | AllMusic,” All Media Networks LLC, accessed 22 April 2014, http://www.allmusic.com/album/crush-songs-mw0002707286
7“Karen O: Crush Songs | Album Reviews | Pitchfork,” Pitchfork Media, accessed 17 February 2014, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/19794-karen-o-crush-songs/
9I actually quite like this one. Great example of what bedroom pop can be.
10Sweet Jesus, that fucking screaming.
11Those background strings? Yeah, those are a perfect addition. I dig them.
12I was tempted to give it 1 and-a-half stars, but songs “Sunset Sun” and “So Far” are actually pretty good. They’re examples of what bedroom pop could be if it weren’t trying so hard to be indie, and I’ll come back to them when I’m thinking about what the genre does right.