Ukuleles: Suddenly The Hippest Instrument Going
Trends in music can be as prevalent - and subsequently fleeting - as they are in fashion. Though the eagerness to join trendy-indie bandwagons can be puzzling, music's most recent instrumental trend, the ukulele, grabbed our attention, especially after SXSW.
Among the dozens of SXSW-related showcase announcements that flooded our inbox was the announcement of the fest's second annual Beatles Ukulele marathon, in which guest musicians play Beatles songs alongside Austin's Beatles tribute band, The Eggmen. Clearly, there's a growing market for the 'ol uke.
Just days later, Eddie Vedder announced plans for his solo album, entitled Ukulele Songs (due out May 31), an album consisting entirely of the Pearl Jam front man performing originals and covers on the eponymous instrument.
But Vedder isn't necessarily breaking new ground; many musicians have played the plucked lute since its development in the 1880s. Its use became a fad during World Wars I and II, as Tin Pan Alley songwriters introduced the Hawaiian/Portugese-rooted instrument into mainland U.S. pop. Artists like the Beatles steadily used the instrument throughout their catalogue as well.
While some artists surely continued use of the uke, it generally grew noticeably absent from pop music over the years - until last year. Dresden Dolls front woman Amanda Palmer released a seven-song solo album of Radiohead covers, Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele.
Bands including Beirut, Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, Fanfarlo, She & Him, and William Fitzsimmons, not to mention the Animal Collective-discovered Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, also included the instrument in live shows and/or recent recordings.
As Rocks Off trudged through the musical madness of SXSW, we made myriad notes of the high number of bands incorporating ukuleles onstage. With such a sudden onslaught of ukulele-based songs, it became clear this had become a genuine trend; we wondered how music stores were supplying the demand.
Andrew Twenter at Austin's Musicmakers told us while the store usually has "five or six ukuleles on the wall," post-SXSW they currently have "only two in stock". But Twenter doesn't scoff at the uke's sudden indie hipness.
"I think it's great that musicians are expanding their 'flavor' of instruments," he says, even recommending us to check out Kansas City-based band Tut Tut, evidently known for often incorporating the instrument into their songs. Austin duo Folk Uke has been lacing their lilting stringed melodies with R-rated lyrics for nearly a decade.
But not everyone is as keen on the uke's sudden trend as Twenter; an anti-uke Facebook page has even been created, pledging to just "say no to ukulele playing hipsters." Hip this trend may be, but it doesn't seem to be exclusive to "hipsters," as we derisively define them.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain recently put a uke spin on Talking Heads' classic "Psycho Killer," while nine-person cover band the Ooks of Hazzard artfully covered MGMT's anthem "Kids." Cee-Lo Green, Lady Gaga, and other modern pop artists' repertoires have spawned a YouTube movement of ukulele covers as well.
Perhaps what's most curious about the desire to incorporate something considered "novel" at the same time everyone else is doing it directly contradicts the key principle of "alternative."
Nevertheless, while we snicker at the literality and bandwagonness of this trend, we, like Twenter, generally welcome hipsters' embrace of the ukulele because hey, it's music - there's nothing wrong with the uke - and it certainly makes a better statement than indie staples of days past, like, say, the trucker hat or skinny jeans.
So while droves of hip indie-rockers may feel novel for incorporating what used to be a (relatively) rarely-used instrument into their songs, this trend will likely fade and be replaced by some other curious instrument faster than said bandwagon hipsters can grow out their equally ironic beards.
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