The rise of lo-fi

What makes imperfections so attractive?

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Keyboard with mixing desk

Unprofessional, unsophisticated, and unpolished. No, it’s not my most recent essay feedback, but instead three words used to describe lo-fi music on its Wikipedia page. Lo-fi music is a genre which incorporates imperfections from the production and recording processes into the final piece. It’s asserted itself in various genres over the years, including indie, hip-hop, and more recently house. But why do artists like DJ Seinfeld, XXXtentacion, and blu choose to include these imperfections in their works, and more importantly why do we listen to them?

Part of the reason seems to lie in individuals’ affinity for certain ages of the past. The ‘mistakes’ in lo-fi music are reminiscent of a time when recording equipment was fallible and produced an imperfect sound. Embedding oneself within the past is an appealing way of dealing with anxieties of the present. It’s easy to look back nostalgically to a time we never actually experienced and filter out any of the epoch’s negatives, instead focusing on its aesthetic beauty, or social authenticity. This coping mechanism is also evident in the way the record player has reemerged as a popular way to listen to music, or imitation of the 80s/90s fashion sense. Lo-fi music plays a part in this culture of creating a possibility for the past within the present, particularly when one considers that many use music as a form of escapism. What better way to escape from the present than to pretend, just temporarily, that it doesn’t exist at all.

Above all, lo-fi’s popularity seems to stem from the way it adopts our own flaws and becomes harmonious with the anxieties and concerns we have about ourselves and our abilities. Lo-fi music embeds itself within the materiality of the music industry through its imperfections. It serves as a reminder of the equipment used to record it, and lets this material culture become a part of the genre. Humans’ fundamentally self-conscious and anxious state has intensified with the rise of social media, where airbrushing, filters, and selectively posting all provide an image of others’ lives which is quite dislocated from reality. High quality music can point to these insecurities, and attempt to convince us of the producer’s struggle with them. The Script can try and convince us they’ve felt what we’ve felt in a break-up, Kanye West can claim he’s experienced the same frustrations about friendship, and Adele that we truly will find someone like you. But it’s only lo-fi music that allows us to fully engage with a song’s meaning, as it stoops to our own levels of imperfection. The genre recognises our worries and recreates them on a meta-musical level, deepening the connection between listener and producer beyond just a surface level acknowledgment of each other’s insecurities.

It seems contradictory that anyone would enjoy listening to a genre which is defined by its imperfections, yet we do. We do because we too are imperfect. The perfect art form is quite alienating and intimidating, it doesn’t and can’t really feel particularly relevant to us. It’s a different spec, a different breed. The lo-fi genre accepts human’s fundamentally flawed nature by presenting itself as a material product of human fallibility. It’s a genre which we don’t just have to listen to, but can participate in.

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