Like pretty much every other snobbish music critic, I greeted the news of Mumford & Sons’ “indefinite hiatus” with no small amount of sly giggling. It wasn’t quite Black Eyed Peas level of schadenfreude, but it was still a mean-spirited sort of emotion, the sort I don’t really like recognizing in myself. And I got to thinking: just why is it that people hate this band so much? With the Black Eyed Peas, it’s easy — they’re actual musical sociopaths, responsible for “My Humps” and that song that lifted the guitar part from “Misirlou” and then took a Cleveland steamer on it. Mumford & Sons, for all that they’re dull, have never been offensively horrible, but in their case there’s a huge disconnection between critics (who hate them) and the general public (who buy their records in droves). So why do they inspire such loathing?
The simple answer, of course, is that you’re one of the people who just don’t like their curious banjo-‘n’-sea-shanty schtick, which is an entirely valid answer and one to which I can relate completely. But then, there are plenty of neo-folk bands around who have explored similar territory. It’s not a huge leap from Mumford & Sons to, say, Fleet Foxes, a band that has enjoyed pretty much unanimous critical praise, or Bon Iver, who’s experienced his fair share of backlash but nothing like the visceral loathing that Mumford inspire.
There’s also the vexed question of authenticity; the band members are from pretty privileged backgrounds and went to private schools, which has earned them plenty of skepticism in their native UK, along with accusations that they’re pretending to be something they’re not. There are certainly questions to be asked here: there are few things more distasteful than rich kids slumming it and pretending to be working class (a phenomenon famously dissected in Pulp’s “Common People,” a song that just grows more relevant with each passing year, among other places), and the band hasn’t exactly done itself many favors when asked about this topic.
You can certainly understand hostility to four rich kids dressed in sort of faux peasant outfits playing bluegrass, a style that has nothing to do with the band’s native England and is generally identified with the working class of rural America. (There’s also the fact that Marcus Mumford’s parents founded some sort of strange Christian organization, and the fact that his brother is an enthusiatic evangelical who apparently once worked for widely detested UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and former Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith.)
But this comes back to tired arguments about appropriation. There’s ultimately no reason why a bunch of kids who love bluegrass shouldn’t play it, even if they’re not particularly good at it. I don’t know the band well enough to say whether their affection for the music they’re mining is genuine, although bluegrass seems a pretty curious choice if you were just trying to make a shitload of money. The clothes are indeed ridiculous, but, y’know, so was Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ overalls-‘n’-bandannas chic, and no one called them out on that (at the time).
And in any case, Mumford and cohorts aren’t exactly Robinson Crusoe here. Look at Laura Marling (with whom Marcus Mumford used to play, incidentally). She’s from a similarly posh background — her father is Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, a bona fide baronet, for goodness sake — and her music explores a similar Americana-influenced direction. She’s never faced the scrutiny that Mumford & Sons have faced — but then, she’s not nearly as commercially successful, either.
This, I think, is at least part of the reason why Mumford & Sons bother people so much: they are a sort of cardboard cutout band who have somehow become insanely successful. They’re inoffensive enough to appeal to the I-only-buy-one-record-a-year crowd, and through being in the right place at the right time, they’ve joined the likes of Travis and Snow Patrol in becoming unfeasible commercial juggernauts.
If they’d remained four earnest rich kids doing a sort of pantomime bluegrass act, they’d have been perhaps mild figures of fun. But fame has a way of magnifying people’s emotions toward you — whereas they may once have been broadly indifferent to you, they suddenly love you or hate you.
Even with all of the above in mind, Mumford & Sons remain particularly polarizing figures, especially for a band whose music and image are ultimately more dull than anything else — indeed, they seem to go out of their way to be as dull as possible. But then, I think that gets to the heart of the matter. As I wrote here recently, music is important, and there’s some instinctive understanding — in people who really value music, at least, rather than regarding it as innocuous background noise — that it should offer more than beige wallpaper sounds.
This is what makes Mumford so divisive: they’re successful because they’re boring, and if nothing else, such relentless mundanity is the sort of thing that really maddens music nerds (or, as we like to think of ourselves, aficionados). There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a shitty band go supernova while a million more deserving bands — bands that do have something to say, bands that do more than just sound relatively inoffensive over the Anthropologie stereo — toil in obscurity.
Clearly, no one has ever lost money underestimating the taste of the public, but still, the success of these clowns has been hard to take, and yes, it does inspire some pretty unpleasant emotions. I don’t begrudge Marcus Mumford and his cohorts their millions, but I’m hoping that the next band that explodes into unexpected commercial success will be at least vaguely interesting. Fingers crossed.