by A.R. Canzano
In the contemporary music culture, the ukulele has become inexorably associated with the Quirky. Zooey Deschanel, as the Quirky’s poster child, wears polka dots and strums. Ingrid Michaelson strums, too—and sings about sweaters. She rhymes words like “honey” with words like “money” and “funny.” Like the sweaters in her songs, the ukulele is perhaps a bit too comfortable. Sweaters are nice, and ukuleles are nice—but that’s all there is to it.
In theory, the accessibility of the ukulele should lend it a kind of D.I.Y. aesthetic, a certain democratizing aspect. A black-painted “economy” model only costs $29.99 from Amazon. A standard uke weighs less than two pounds. Most people can learn how to play one in an hour. When it comes to the ukulele, talent is unnecessary. But there’s something about the sound—the saccharine plinking, the last vestiges of its Hawaiian origins fading out in a beachy twang, the muted, monotonous strumming. The ukulele—a hollow instrument—is bereft of soul.
Perhaps its mechanics are to blame. With only four strings, the instrument faces severe limitations. Strumming patterns are repetitive and simple. This combination of strumming and four strings tends to produce homogenous songs. Unlike more complex stringed instruments, the ukulele’s lack of necessary practice-investment leads to appropriately low returns. On the other hand, advanced techniques such as fingerpicking usually require a mentor, which removes the appeal of the D.I.Y. ethic. YouTube tutorials can only go so far.
Sometimes, only sometimes, is the ukulele acceptable: for example, when the player can play more than 5 chords. Master players such as Jake Shimabukuro and Jake Hill are not held back by the limitations of the instrument— their virtuosic playing transcends what so much of contemporary ukulele music has made us expect.
One band that manages to transcend these limitations is Beirut, whose inclusion of the ukulele began out of necessity. As a teenager, frontman Zach Condon broke his wrist, thus preventing himself from playing guitar. Although most of Beirut’s songs do feature a repetition of three or four chords, Beirut couches the ukulele within the sound of a full ensemble. Stripped of the rich arrangements, Beirut’s music might verge on Michaelson’s cheery cutesiness.
Another band that achieves a certain redemption of the ukulele is the Magnetic Fields. The extensive use of ukulele on their 1999 triple-album 69 Love Songs is appropriate to the ironic concept of the album. Moreover, the Fields eschew base Quirkiness by way of lyrical complexity. The song “Queen of the Savages” features repetitive strumming, but frontman Stephin Merritt redeems the instrumentation with lines such as, “She don’t know this modern world and its ravages/ Instead of money she’s got yams and cabbages.” The rhyme here and the lyrics are much richer than Ingrid Michaelson’s nice sweaters.
More recently, since around 2008, the contemporary music culture has become itself saturated with the ukulele. Since then, perhaps due to the popularity of artists such as Deschanel and Michaelson, it seems that more and more people have tried their hands at it. Gone are the days when the ukulele could posture as an innovative or novel instrument—now, hordes of teenagers use it as a cheap validation of hipness-sans-effort. A faux signifier of musicality, of alt-elitism.
Post-recession ukulele, if it is to break free of the Quirky designation, must be used to innovate. On the 2011 Tune-Yards album w h o k i l l, Merrill Garbus manipulates and layers her ukulele to such a point that it becomes nearly unrecognizable as such. Garbus’ vision points towards a hopeful future for the instrument, yet artists such as Michelson continue to define the ukulele culture.
To those uke-toting teenagers I say: Adopt the virtuosity of Shimabukuro and Hill, the scope of Condon, the lyricism of Merritt, or the innovative vision of Garbus. Only then will your playing transcend your current phase of wannabe hipsterdom. Or better yet, go learn a real instrument. Why not try the theramin? That’s still under the radar—for now.