An Academic Explanation of the Jamband Moment (Minus Footnotes and, y’know, Proof)
BRAIN TUBA: An Academic Explanation of the Jamband Moment (Minus Footnotes and, y’know, Proof)
The jamband moment, as it were, grew from two parallel events in the early 1990s: post-modernism’s arrival in pop culture and the spread of the internet. The former, heralded by the Simpsons’ ascent to prime-time in late 1989, was a brief moment on its own. In musical terms, it described a mainstream that was still relatively narrow, such that it acted as something of a gateway for third world influences, like Paul Simon’s integration and interpretation of African rhythms on 1986’s Graceland and 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints. It also accounted for Phish’s entire genre-happy existence, mixing lowbrow vacuum solos with high-concept composition.
As post-modernism was completing its long maturation from ’60s camp to the indisputable forefront of popular entertainment, culture’s next vehicle was in its relative infancy: the internet. Having been a feature of college campuses and labs since the ’70s, along with hundreds of suburban BBSs, the internet was largely an underground phenomenon. There was still something unformed about it, too, the simple text interfaces implying wild untold futures of virtual realities and cybergrids. And that, more or less, is when jambands came into the picture.
Being on the internet was exciting. Far from its literal omnipresence today, all the world’s data capable of being grabbed from wifi-enhanced air with the proper machinery, there was something slightly occult about internet usage. In places, it was often unclear which BBSs offered passageways to the ‘net as a whole and which merely ended in self-contained cul-de-sacs.
Dead freaks primed the digital pathways for hippies for nearly a decade, with former Merry Prankster Stewart Brand founding the Bay Area’s first major portal, the WELL, in 1985, and enough campus ‘heads to warrant the establishment of rec.music.gdead, one of the first USENET groups. It seemed totally logical for jamband fans to embrace it. And, as waves of immigrants arrived on virtual shores via AOL promo discs, they did. Jambands’ appeal came strongly from the semi-anarchist grassroots allure of the internet.
Since then, of course, the internet has achieved ubiquity. With it, a tidal wave of forces that have forever changed the relationship between mainstream culture and the fringes. Thanks to a million innovations — ranging from ProTools to instant messaging to MySpace — it is more likely for an actual African beat to show up on the pop charts (see M.I.A., fer example) than any Paul Simon-processed variation. In that, it has nullified, or at least made less interesting, two of the more attractive non-hippie elements of jamband culture: the good-natured pastiche and the DIYness of the early internet. It’s just plain hard to get excited about a band’s MySpace page, let alone another semi-ironic cover.
Jambands still exist, and won’t go extinct any time soon. I saw one the other night in their natural habitat. On one hand, the central idea of jambands has become part and parcel with contemporary music, present in plenty of unexpected places as both a cultural reference point and an approach to making music. On the other, that same central idea is rarely enough to power an improvising rock band. There has to be something more than pastiche and some music available for download and trade. Who needs to trade anymore when everything is instantly accessible? When bootlegs lose their scarcity, they are no longer an effective currency for a fan community. Culture has met them all the way. Jambands are just bands now. And some of them still suck.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com