free-geek

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New Traditions

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As we have seen across the book, convergence culture is highly generative: some ideas spread top down, starting with commercial media and being adopted and appropriated by a range of different publics as they spread outward across the culture. Others emerge bottom up from various sites of participatory culture and getting pulled into the mainstream if the media industries see some way of profiting from it. The power of the grassroots media is that it diversifies; the power of broadcast media is that it amplifies. That’s why we should be concerned with the flow between the two: expanding the potentials for participation represents the greatest opportunity for cultural diversity. Throw away the powers of broadcasting and one has only cultural fragmentation. The power of participation comes not from destroying commercial culture but from writing over it, modding it, amending it, expanding it, adding greater diversity of perspective, and then recirculating it, feeding it back into the mainstream

The above quote is from the end of Henry Jenkins‘ book Convergence Culture. Earlier in the book he discusses the folk qualities of what he refers to as “convergence culture” in a section where he talks about fan videos. I read this piece and understood it from an abstract point of view and understood the potential for it, but I was unable to connect it with anything concrete in my interactions with geek culture. I’ve always seen the potential there, but I’ve been unable to directly tie that potential with my experiences with the traditional music scene in the mid 90s. Tonight, that changed.

Tonight was the first of two local shows on the Accio Bodyguard tour, featuring Lauren of the Moaning Myrtles and Lena of the Butterbeer Experience. The show was in Reisterstown, MD, at Constellation Books, a small indie bookstore that is set up in an old house. The girls played in a little corner, which would have been the house’s front hall. The audience for the show was small. There were four of us (including a store employee) at the start and may be 15 later in the evening. By the end of the night, we were down to five of us who were actively paying attention to the show. Given the small attendance and the fact that the girls were nearing the end of their first extended tour and were starting to show some wear, the show was played kind of loose. A fact that paradoxically tends to lead to great shows (general rule of thumb. The best shows tend to either be the band’s last show, or when the band is playing for a small, but attentive audience).

Adding to the situation was the fact that the girls had been hired to play for three hours, even though they usually only play about a 90 minute set. The extended show and loose atmosphere resulted in the girls doing a standard set of their own WRock songs and then following it with a set of random songs that the girls decided to play on the spot. The second set ranged from covers of songs from other WRock groups, covers from artists as diverse as The Hold Steady, Kelly Clarkson, The Dixie Chicks, and Pink, to broadway show tunes, to songs that consisted of Lena improvising lyrics while riffing on the keyboard. The latter category resulted in two epic moments, including the night’s finale which snaked through a variety of diverse songs and betrayed more then a little innate talent.

The review of this show is unfortunately brief. This is not because it wasn’t a fun show, but because what made it a fun show is not something that can be readily described in words. It was something that needed to be experienced to be understood. This is because it wasn’t a real “show” in a traditional sense, which brings us back to the opening quote of this essay.

It was near the end of the show, when the girls were playing a song from Rent, with two audience members (Grace from Snidget and another young woman whose name escaped me) not just singing along, but actively doing parts of the arrangement, that I had my little epiphany.

Last August, I attended my first WRock show, featuring Snidget, The Whomping Willows, and The Remus Lupins. That show was a rock show. It was a celebration and embracing of what it means to be young and a fan. It was about dancing and having fun and not worrying about the troubles that awaited us when the show was over. This evening’s performance was not that, though it represented something that is as intrinsically a part of the WRock movement as what the previous show represented. This was an evening where a group of friends got together to play music and laugh and just have fun. It was devoid of the spectacle which defines the modern rock show. Instead it had a certain purity of intent that I have only ever come across in traditional music circles. In short, this was modern traditional music.

I separate the terms “folk music” from “traditional music” for a reason. The term folk music is a marketing term that was invented in the 50s to market a certain type of acoustic music to a given market. Much in the same way that the term “new wave” was invented to market early punk music in the 70s. Traditional music though is simply the expression, in music, of a given culture. Traditional music sometimes intersects with the corporate world, but that is not the primary intent and the majority of traditional musicians have no expectations of ever being able to pay their rent with their music. They perform simply because of the enjoyment that it brings them and out of a love for the music that they perform.

My epiphany this evening was the realization that this definition of traditional music could very well be used to describe the WRock scene. Few, if any, of the people involved in the WRock scene have any expectations of making a living at it. A few do pay their rent with shows, but even these artists give the impression of viewing that fact as a pleasant surprise, not as an expectation that they entered the scene with. They do not play WRock to pay their bills, but instead have made the decision to devote their entire lives to the scene.

I have long seen geeky music less as a genre, then as a new tradition. A modern form of traditional music which expresses itself using the musical vocabulary of today. When I have spoken of this though it has always been an issue of potential, of what the future may bring. Tonight I realized that the future is now. WRock is only a part of this new tradition, but it is possibly the most pure in its intent and expectations.

For this epiphany, I thank Lauren and Lena, but I also thank Grace and the other people who were in attendance this evening. Traditional music is not a form of music that lends itself to the typical artist/audience dichotomy. The audience is as much a part of the equation as the artist. Especially, since the only thing that separates the two is a willingness to perform.

The last 40+ years have been defined, culturally, by the increasing domination of broadcast media. While there has always been a counter movement to this growth, it has increasingly be defined in opposition to broadcast media. Over the last 10 years though we have started to truly see the pendulum shift as a new form of traditional music has begun to reclaim its place in culture. WRock is squarely part of that correction. As the scene grows and evolves, it shows great promise. And with musicians like Lena and Lauren, that promise will surely be realized.

Written by Matt

June 7th, 2008 at 12:20 am

Posted in Thoughts,Wizard Rock