There’s a scene in “Walking Dead,” AMC’s zombie apocalypse miniseries, when Sheriff Rick Grimes reveals to his band of survivors that they are all infected with the zombie virus. This is, of course, met with shock, despair, revulsion, etc. I hope you take it better when I tell you that, like me, you are all hipsters.
Calm down, calm down; it’s not quite as bad as being a zombie. I’m not even accusing you of sneaking off to your room to wear flannel and listen to Lana del Rey on vinyl. But even if you’ve never listened to a record in your life, even if you’ve never seen a record in your life, you have heard of Mumford and Sons, right? The Avett Brothers? “Wagon Wheel”?
Even if you’ve never bought a record, you’ve certainly heard music that sounds like it could be on one. The past few years have seen a revival of genres and sounds that appeared to have quit the limelight decades ago, from blues to bluegrass. And this isn’t a fringe revival. Grammys and album sales continue to pile up for bands who sound like they’ve been cryogenically frozen for 40 years, Austin Powers-style. Vintage sound has gained a mainstream currency. Pop is a little hipper than we think.
There might be nobody who exemplifies this better than The Black Keys. Two gawky white guys playing the blues in the basement of an Akron, Ohio, condo is rarely a recipe for commercial success. And yet after a few years of blog buzz, they attracted popular attention with 2008’s “Attack and Release” and exploded with 2010’s “Brothers,” even scoring a minor hit with “Tighten Up” while still sounding like, well, two gawky white guys playing the blues (albeit aboveground this time). Mumford and Sons followed suit with an album that somehow went gold despite opening with a banjo, and The Lumineers recorded this year’s folk smash hit with “Ho Hey.” I know, it sounds weird to me too: folk smash hit?
There’s something refreshing about bands and songs like these that make their point with little or no help from a computer. I’ve already ragged on electronic music, so I won’t do it again, but there’s an authenticity and an immediacy to old-school bands, the feeling that if you saw them playing for spare change on a street corner, it wouldn’t sound that different from their records. As much as I love T-Swift, it’s impossible to imagine “I Knew You Were Trouble” being played entirely by humans. So there’s something reassuring about being able to see, onstage, which musician is producing which sound. And here we reach common ground between two hipster favorites, in that authentic music is like organic food: It feels good to know where your ingredients are coming from and what they are.
This obviously isn’t the only thing we want in an old-school band, seeing as we aren’t all walking around listening to Robert Johnson on our iPods. (He’s a blues musician. Duh.) All our favorite throwbacks combine their crunchiness with an acute pop sensibility. “Ho Hey” might be a folk song, but it’s a catchy song above all else. Pop music must conform to pop sensibilities. But the fact that old sounds and radio friendliness are compatible at all is remarkable.
This all started, of course, with The White Stripes, who were to good indie music what the Big Bang was to … other stuff. Jack and Meg exploited national boy-band fatigue in the early 2000s to sneakily sell a series of blues albums masquerading as mainstream rock. Maybe the vintage music of today is essential as a counterpoint to increasingly electronic pop music; maybe every dubstep drop makes us crave an acoustic guitar. Even some modern pop has adopted anachronistic elements in lieu of pure adherence to modern axioms. Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” has a lot more in common with Run-D.M.C. than with Kanye. That such sounds maintain relevance suggests that music doesn’t go extinct, but rather evolves. Sounds may become outdated only if they aren’t updated. One could easily have pronounced the blues D.O.A. at the turn of the millennium, but it’s stuck around in a new form. So, back to “Walking Dead”: Genres, like zombies, never really die. Unless you shoot them in the head.