When Mumford & Sons won their Grammy this year, my friend tweeted, “So are hipsters not allowed to like Mumford & Sons anymore?” And I replied: “Hipsters haven’t been allowed to like Mumford & Sons ever.”
That’s because, from the get-go, Mumford & Sons has pretty much been everybody’s favorite band. They have cross-generational appeal, cross-cultural appeal, commercial appeal, sex appeal…they have a lot of appeal, and they play their acoustic guitars really effing hard.
One friend bought 15 copies of their debut CD to give out as Christmas gifts. “Who doesn’t like Mumford & Sons?” he said.
I didn’t really like Mumford & Sons. I didn’t like their cheesy lyrics, their repetitive songs, their played-out gimmicks (aka: banjo-breakdowns galore). When they’d come up in conversations, I’d call them a one-trick pony: “Their next album,” I said, “will be indistinguishable from their last.”
Hating Mumford & Sons became my sort of shtick, and — what the hell — I embraced it. I said they were a marketing creation, a money-grab, a lowest common denominator. I contrasted them with Frightened Rabbit, Fleet Foxes, the Avett Brothers — bands I said had “actual talent” — and when someone listed Mumford among their favorite bands (which happened often), I made a big show of rolling my eyes.
“Wait…you like Mumford & Sons?” as if this were an obvious mistake.
“Wait…they’re one of your favorite bands?” as if I’d never heard of such a thing.
“Wait…you own their actual CD?”
So, yeah, I was pretty much a total dick about it.
And this shtick, this hating Mumford & Sons shtick, became a weirdly significant part of my identity: especially weird considering I was now secretly listening to Mumford & Sons all the time.
Yes, all the time. But not because I suddenly found their music good. Not because I suddenly found them talented. I hadn’t changed my mind. Instead, it was their cheesiness, their gimmickry — the very things I hated about them — that I now found myself craving. The same way I was craving bad romantic comedies. The same way I was craving bad television. Mumford & Sons made everything feel better. Which was nice because, at the time, everything was terrible.
What happened was my company ran out of money. And once they ran out of money, they stopped paying me money. And once they stopped paying me money, I basically had no money. This was right around the time Babel was released.
I suspect I fell in love with Babel (and, by default, Mumford & Sons) for the same reason anyone falls in love with anything: that is, for no reason at all. While I drove around the city, interview to interview, rejection to rejection, their ferocious folk seemed to be — for whatever reason — the only thing capable of absorbing my anger, my frustration. They took it upon themselves, or at least commiserated, and I sometimes wondered if Babel was the only thing keeping me together.
My unemployment lasted three weeks: nothing in the grand scheme of things, but forever in the moment, and enough time to seal inside me a certain appreciation for Mumford & Sons, for Babel, and even for their debut, Sigh No More.
I was right: Their two albums are indistinguishable. But here’s the thing — who cares? Mumford & Sons can only do one thing, but they can do it better than anyone else in the business: That is, they can be Mumford & Sons. And that’s exactly who we need them to be. We needed Babel to sound exactly like Sigh No More for the same reason we needed Matthew McConaughey to chase down Kate Hudson at the end of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days: because we expected it.
I’ve never admitted my appreciation of Mumford & Sons to anyone, which is maybe why I’m writing this now: a confession, a coming clean.
It feels good.
Why do we listen to music the music we listen to? I’d like to think we’re looking for something — truth, maybe, or at least honesty — but most of the time it’s far simpler than that. We listen to the music we listen to because we have to. Because something makes us. Because the alternative is exploding into a million pieces. Or at least that’s how I felt for awhile, back when I was unemployed, back when the only thing I could bring myself to listen to was the very thing I was supposed to hate.
We don’t choose the things we like; they choose us. So, in a lot of ways, my coming to terms with Mumford & Sons was actually my coming to terms with myself. Could I allow myself to love a band loved by all? Could I allow myself to appreciate an album Pitchfork despised? Could I allow my taste to be my taste?
I guess, in the end, I never really had a choice.
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