The Decemberists Are Not Pretentious Hipsters

On Wednesday, May 27th, The Decemberists perform at Red Rocks with Spoon and Courtney Barnett. In certain circles, it's de riguer to refer to Portland, Oregon's the Decemberists as a pretentious hipster band. 

Let's first dispense with the term “hipster.” Hasn't it lost its currency as a criticism at this point? It has meant so many things at different times with perhaps a sense of irony being a common component on some level. Well, there goes the Beat Generation, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Maria Bamford into the dustbin of modern cultural history. What makes the Decemberists a hipster band anyway? Because it uses compelling imagery in its visual representation of itself? Doesn't Kiss do that? Didn't David Bowie? That sort of thing is part of rock theater and the Decemberists, especially at this point, give this to us.

Maybe it's the band's use of various instruments instead of the basic rock and roll cliché set-up of guitars, vocals, bass and drums? Ever hear of the Rolling Stones? Wasn't Brian Jones in that band and wasn't he very much a multi-instrumentalist? Prince, anyone? Didn't those guys employ back-up singers to give the music even more of a soul vibe fairly often? The Who used synthesizers extensively and even the Clash got into using studio tricks by the time of Sandinista!. It's what a band does when it wants to go beyond the musical limitations of its original configuration, and the Decemberists are no more guilty of such things as so many other bands that aren't dismissed as hipsters.

If, in fact, some of the band's fans can be considered hipsters in the very narrow yet somehow vague, cliché sense of the word? When you're in a band, you can't choose your fans no matter how hard you may try to alienate a certain segment, because once your art goes out into the world it's not fully your own anymore. It seems obvious that a band that is now touring and playing Red Rocks isn't spending a lot of time wondering what their fans are like, but is instead spending more time on making music they can still care about and hope that they put on a show that people who show up don't think was a waste of time.

Facial hair isn't new to this decade. People in bands have had facial hair for decades, and members of the Decemberists aren't exactly setting a trend or necessarily even following one. And how about that Jenny Conlee? She, of the Decemberists, who hath no beard? Perhaps an absurd assertion, but for the record Colin Meloy himself hasn't always had a beard either.

Now to the subject of the band's alleged pretentiousness. What does pretentious mean? To put on a pretense of some kind? To put on airs and to pretend to be something you're not? It seems as though that some of those allegations come down to the band's lyricists using uncommon words and using literature and knowledge of history as source material for its music. If that's pretentious, then a whole swathe of popular music qualifies. At least when the Decemberists write a song about one of those tired pop music tropes like love and relationships and the meaning of life, it is couched in more creative terms instead of the same old clichés supposedly less pretentious bands trot out on the regular.

If The Decemberists really were pretentious literature and history nerds would the band not have released its latest record, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World on June 16, 2015 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta? After all the song “Cavalry Captain” references Alfred Lord Tennyson's “The Charge of the Light Brigade," but you don't need to know any of that to enjoy the song, because it is about a more general human experience, as are many of the group's songs.

Dickens regularly referenced other literature and human oddities in his storytelling. Moby Dick is filled with brilliant literary allusions and use of well-known works of literature to illuminate a point without the reader needing to be intimately, or at all, familiar with those works to enjoy the novel on its own. That content is there like an easter egg in a movie release for those in the know to enjoy the work in question on a different level without discriminating against the potential enjoyment of someone not clued into that information. This isn't pretentious, it's an attempt to create rich work.

Cultural references in art and literature are at least as old as ancient Greece, when Aristophanes poked fun at politicians and cultural figures and religion and mythology in his plays. Shakespeare drew on the Plutarch's Parallel Lives as a source for his own historical plays. As a writer, Shakespeare also had an unparalleled vocabulary in the English language, but you don't see a lot of pitchforking of Shakespeare as a pretentious art douche. Oh yes, the Decemberists borrowed a Shakespearean word for “Lake Song” – “prevaricate.” That's just a good, very specific word for the subject of that song about troubled interpersonal politics.

Being knowledgeable, well-read and intelligent used to be considered virtues. If you hold those things over other people that are less so you're kind of a jerk putting on airs, perhaps, but merely using your knowledge in your art is hardly pretentious. This isn't to say the Decemberists haven't had songs that qualify, but generally speaking maybe the music isn't exactly pushing boundaries or expanding what can be called music but that isn't a standard many people apply to every musical act that comes along.

Most people put on airs in their everyday life just to get by in the world or with friends and family for various reasons. This applies to artists, politicians, business people, customer service employees, scientists, janitors and people from all walks of life. It's sometimes necessary. Some people do it more often than others and hide behind a persona et cetera. Actors do it for a living. Can we just reserve calling something or someone pretentious when it really does apply to someone or something trying to be something it's not in a way that isn't creative or interesting? And when it comes to music that really is a matter of taste.

And you don't have to like the music. It's essentially like what happens when musicians listened to a whole lot of In An Aeroplane Over the Sea and Bill Callahan coming up. But calling the Decemberists a pretentious and/or a hipster band doesn't make it so and reveals more about the prejudices and chips on the shoulders of those making such accusations.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.