Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros caught the eyes and ears of music audiences about two years ago with their debut album, Up From Below. A summery mix of pastoral psychedelia, the album was a Village Green Preservation Society for the desert-roaming West Coast hipster. Buoyed by the adorable, jangly duet "Home" and the vintage visual aesthetic of its accompanying video, the band lassoed the Hipstamatic zeitgeist and got pulled along for the ride.
But hang on! Turns out lanky, bearded-and-tressed frontman Alex Ebert used to front the L.A. punky dance-fashion band Ima Robot, and dressed and looked the droll, disaffected part. Critics reveled in posting images of the two Eberts side by side. Terms like "hippie-ster" and "focus-grouped" were bandied about in online forums and in formal reviews. Seems he went through a bit of a personal crisis and came out on the other side of partying and, then, addiction, as a lot more feel-good. Those of us in the music-loving community laud Bowie and Beck for their shape-shifting. Do we accept it more from them because they at least were up front about it?
Ebert and his crew isn't the only act that raises questions of disingenuity when it comes to the visual presentation that accompanies the band's tunes. Take, for instance, last weekend's Railroad Revival Tour. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros chugged through town in vintage railroad cars, joined by retro-folk sensation Mumford and Sons and fiery old-time string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Would Mumford and Sons have the huge following if they weren't all gussied up in suspenders? This is a valid question, and not one that's easy to answer.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are scheduled to perform Sunday, May 1, at The Compound Grill.
Vampire Weekend had similar barbs tossed its way, but it's nothing new — critics like to point out that Bob Dylan's real last name is Zimmerman. Hell, even Big Bill Broonzy's "authentic" overalls weren't as legit as people thought, but he had to get buy-in from skeptical audiences.
Perhaps it's just that with the bevy of musical choices available to listeners, a band has to do whatever it takes to grab people's attention and cling to it. If everyone's desperate, then nobody's accountable, right? (Perhaps, too, it's folks who write about music who make too big a deal out of these kinds of things — but probably not.)
"Honestly, we've never even talked about it. Wow, I've never thought about how the band looks," says Christian Letts, the group's guitarist. "We've never talked about how we dress on stage or what's appropriate or whatever. It's never come up."
If that's the case, the visuals of the performance may not matter to the band, but there's a high probability they matter to the crowd. Would folks accept a band dabbling in a pastiche of '60s psychedelia and folk if they aped Kratwerk's shtick, all motionless automatons in black turtlenecks?
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Maybe it's a bit hyperbolic, but it seems as though we're at a point in human history where we're able to shape the image of ourselves we project to a greater extent than ever before. Is your Facebook profile an honest and authentic reflection of who you are as a person? Or is it aspirational, representative of how you think you are, and pointing toward how you'd like to be seen by others?
Can we also say that those who want to question authenticity are just critics coming from an entrenched and privileged point of view, eager to tear down things that don't cut the mustard? Sure, but rigid worldviews are not the purview of the elite alone. In fact, they can be pretty helpful for any subculture that reacts to a larger culture and carves out an identity for itself. Where things get fuzzy is when a subculture group calcifies, becoming just as rigid and catholic as what it was reacting to. Are there any people more uptight and anal about authenticity than crusty gutter punks? Hip-hop practitioners keeping it real? If the music's what matters, would hacky-sacking hippies dig a band performing in business suits, as long as the music jammed?
So what do we do? When Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros take the stage at this weekend's McDowell Mountain Music Festival, what's the proper response? Do we snicker with superiority and pull up the music video for Ima Robot on our smartphones to show Ebert's fashion mullet to our friends? Do we abandon critical thought and, wide-eyed and without judgment, embrace the guy and his band for who he is and they are now, regardless of what came before?
We've all had our own struggles with identity and image, and most of us are loath to pull out photos from high school and college; Ebert's struggle with identity is public, though, and maybe we're all a little embarrassed for him because we don't like being reminded that we've all worked through similar issues. So maybe the best stance to take is one of measured skepticism, a middle path. Cynicism's corrosive; naivete's unproductive. It's a messy thing, this being human, and maybe we should cut a dude who wants to dress like Jesus some slack. He's happy, or at least sings about being happy, and acts like he's happy. If the incongruity between Alex Ebert's current bare feet and fashion boots of old bothers you, well, maybe just close your eyes. Plus, hey, that song "Home" is a winner.