Lo-Fi: In Search of an Honest Aesthetic

By Jonathan Maier
7/1/99

In hindsight, the 1980ís seems to have been a decade flavored by both its prosperity and a sort of unintended decadence. So when the 1990ís opened with a mild recession, that "excess" of the 1980ís received a thorough backlash at the hands of a resurgent cultural and political movement. These were the environmentalists, who gained new life and tried to change the face of American culture away from the escalating use of the 1980ís and back to the cry of conservation. Also during this period of change and transition, the digital revolution invaded many levels of the culture, including the popularization of the now ubiquitous compact disc in place of vinyl records and cassettes.

That transition from analog to digital recording and playback technology brought about a change in the sound, or the aesthetic, if you will, of most popular music. Increasingly drum-machines, sophisticated synthesizers and samplers, and MIDI began to replace human performers. However this transition was not as rough and controversial as the change in tide from spending to thrift. In fact, this digital musical revolution went quite smoothly--and the pop, country, hip-hop, and other musicians of the day enjoyed more success than ever. At the same time this digital recording and reproduction technology made recording sound cleaner and crisper than ever before. To the general public, these changes went either unnoticed or embraced.

But to some discerning musicians and audiophiles, this trend was disturbing. Smaller artists were being lost to an elite oligarchy of record labels and well-known studio musicians. ĎRealí musicians were being replaced with digital instruments played by computers, and even the sound of music was becoming cold...antiseptic. This was music taken too far by technology, just as the prosperity of the 1980ís was taken too far by its decadence.

Therefore just as a social reaction sprang forth in the form of environmentalism, a musical reaction sprang forth as well, although with much less fanfare. Dozens of individual artists around the globe created this little revolution by shunning studios, big record labels, and digital instruments altogether. In fact, they recorded only from their own home--their own living room, garage or basement. This music falls within the umbrella of "lo-fi," a reaction to the excessively "hi-fi" music of the 1980ís and 90ís, a reaction to the dishonest aesthetic of big budget recording artists, controlled by marketers and increasingly narrow niches of popular music.

During the early 1990ís these lo-fi musician--for they are truly musicians, and not mere recording artists--were noticed in their individual locales, and small labels began to recognize them and publish their music, most often on cassette, although sometimes on vinyl records and even occasionally on CD. The music of these early lo-fi releases stands as creative and unassailable as any new and innovative movement in the history of music.

Labels such as Shrimper, Sing Eunuchs!, Rotten Windmill, Cactus Gum, and countless others have now become legends in their respective locales, and the subject of many ardent fansí devotion. And at the twilight of the 1990ís, these labels and their lo-fi musicians are as active and creative as ever. Their existence and success stands as a tribute to their musical value and cultural legitimacy. For so many fans, including myself, this music is more real, more creative, more worthwhile...in so many ways simply better and more honest than all the music pervading the commercial culture.

To myself and other musical adventurers like me, lo-fi is an answer to the search for an honest aesthetic. But a simple essay can never fully convey that. An hour spent listening to the Mountain Goats, or Wio, or Simon Joyner, or Alistair Galbraith, or Franklin Bruno, or Emil Snizek, or Refrigerator, or the Bingo Trappers, or Wckr Spgt, or Party of One, or Neener, or Lou Barlow, or any of dozens or hundreds of musicians in this genre (I have only named some of my favorites) will convey my meaning better than any page of words.

Bringing back the song as the heart of the musical endeavor...bringing the listener into the musicianís very living room...that emotive, story-telling personal connection...that often-experimental, uninhibited, and sometimes spontaneous flash of genius...that transcendence of the culture of greed and shallowness...that is lo-fi. That is lo-fi music....lo-fi, an honest aesthetic.