Leftfield Music Definition Essay

Lo-fi (originally typeset as low-fi, from the term "low fidelity", and alternately called DIY) is an aesthetic of recorded music in which the sound quality is lower than the usual contemporary standards, or which highlights imperfections of its recording for artistic effect.[1] In the 1980s and 1990s, lo-fi was mostly associated with indie rock, cassette culture, and the DIY ethos of punk. The term may be invoked as a technical shorthand referring to home-recorded music, and is sometimes connoted with unskilled playing or casual performances.[2]

The term originally referred to a loosely related contingent of punk-rooted artists who recorded tracks at home with cheap equipment.[3] Its usage was popularized in late 1986 by WFMU DJ William Berger, who dedicated a weekly half-hour segment of his program to home-recorded music under the name Low-Fi,[3][4] although the term did not gain mainstream currency until the 1990s. Lo-fi aesthetics later served as the basis of music genres such as bedroom pop,[5]chillwave,[6] and hypnagogic pop.[7]

Origins and precursors[edit]

"Lo-fi" was first included in the 1976 edition of the Oxford Dictionary under the definition "sound production less good in quality than 'hi-fi.'"AllMusic writes: "Throughout rock & roll's history, recordings were made cheaply and quickly, often on substandard equipment. In that sense, the earliest rock & roll records, most of the garage rock of the '60s, and much of the punk rock of the late '70s could be tagged as Lo-Fi."[9]The Beach Boys' albums Smiley Smile (1967), Wild Honey (1967), and Friends (1968) were a trilogy of lo-fi albums recorded mostly in Brian Wilson's makeshift home studio; the albums were later referred to as components of his "Bedroom Tapes".[10]Pitchfork writer Mark Richardson credited Smiley Smile with "basically invent[ing] the kind of lo-fi bedroom pop that would later propel Sebadoh, Animal Collective, and other characters."[11] In the early 1970s, there were a few major recording artists who released music recorded with portable multi-tracking equipment; examples included Paul McCartney (McCartney, 1970) and Todd Rundgren (Something/Anything?, 1972).[12]Pitchfork's Sam Sodsky noted in his review of Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star (1973) that the album's "fingerprints are evident on bedroom auteurs to this day [2018]".[13]

Critic Ned Raggett believes that JW Farquhar's home-recorded 1973 album The Formal Female was a "forerunner" to "any number of" independent lo-fi artists, including R. Stevie Moore and Jandek.[14] Since 1968, Moore had been recording full-length albums on reel-to-reel tape in his parents' basement in Tennessee, but it was not until 1976's Phonography that any of his recordings were issued on an outside label.[15] Matthew Ingram of The Wire wrote that "Moore might not have been the first rock musician to go entirely solo, recording every part from drums to guitar ... However, he was the first to explicitly aestheticize the home recording process itself. ... making him the great-grandfather of lo-fi."[15]

1980s: Cassette culture[edit]

Main article: Cassette culture

With the emergence of punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, certain sectors of popular music began to espouse a then-novel "do-it-yourself" (DIY) ethos that heralded a wave of independent labels, distribution networks, fanzines, and recording studios.[16] In 1979, Tascam introduced the Portastudio, the first portable multi-track recorder of its kind to incorporate an "all-in-one" approach to overdubbing, mixing, and bouncing. This technology allowed a broad range of musicians from underground circles to build fan bases through the dissemination of their cassette tapes.[18] Music critic Richie Unterberger cited Moore as "one of the most famous" of the "few artists in cassetteland [that] established a reputation, if even a cult one." He also wrote that "[c]assette culture's influence upon alternative rock [was] slight but real."[16]

From 1979 until the early 1980s, Moore was a staff member on the New Jersey-based independent radio station WFMU, where he hosted a weekly "Bedroom Radio" show.[15] Whomever popularized the use of "lo-fi" cannot be determined definitively.[3] Generally, the term's popularization is credited to William Berger's weekly half-hour radio show on WFMU, titled "Low-Fi", which ran from 1986 to 1987.[3] The program contents were comprised entirely of contributions solicited via mail.[4] According to About.com's Anthony Carew, its dedication to "the disparate strands of underground cassette-culture" helped establish lo-fi as a "singular movement." As a result, lo-fi "became an extension of the punk-rock spirit, a liberating way of working for those who didn’t have the cash to sink into professional recordings. ... DIY at its best."[3] Similar followings were cultivated among DIY cassette-trading hip-hop and hardcore punk acts.[18]

Lo-fi musicians and fans were predominantly white, male and middle-class, and while most of the critical discourse interested in lo-fi was based in New York or London, the musicians themselves were largely from lesser metropolitan areas of the US. Throughout the 1980s, the indie rock spheres of the American underground (bands such as R.E.M.), along with some British post-punk, were the most prominent exports of lo-fi music. According to AllMusic, the stylistic variety of their tapes often "fluctuated from simple pop and rock songs to free-form song structures to pure noise and arty experimentalism."[9]

1990s: Reappraisal[edit]

Mainstream emergence[edit]

By the end of the 1980s, qualities such as "home-recorded," "technically primitive," and "inexpensive equipment" were commonly associated with the "lo-fi" label. Before the 1990s, there was virtually no appreciation for the imperfections of lo-fi music among critics, but this changed after the emergence of a romanticism for home-recording and DIY qualities. The tag was also extended to acts such as Guided by Voices, Daniel Johnston, the Mountain Goats, Nothing Painted Blue, Refrigerator, Chris Knox, Alastair Galbraith, and Lou Barlow.[3]

Alternately called lo-fi, referring to the rough sound quality resulting from such an approach, or D.I.Y., an acronym for "do it yourself," this tradition is distinguished by an aversion to state-of-the-art recording techniques. ... In a world of sterile, digitally recorded Top 40, lo-fi elucidates the raw seams of the artistic process

The New York Times, August 1994

In April 1993, the term "lo-fi" gained mainstream currency after it was featured as a headline in the New York Times.[2] The most widely-read article was published by the same paper in August 1994 with the headline "Lo-Fi Rockers Opt for Raw Over Slick". In contrast to a similar story ran in the paper seven years earlier, which never deployed "lo-fi" in the context of an unprofessional recording, writer Matt Deihl conflated "lo-fi" with "DIY" and "a rough sound quality". Writing in the book Hop on Pop (2003), Tony Grajeda said that by 1995, Rolling Stone magazine "managed to label every other band it featured in the first half [of the year] as somehow lo-fi."[2] At the time, music critic Simon Reynolds interpreted the seeming-movement as a reaction against grunge music, "and a weak one, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values." In turn, he said, lo-fi inspired its own reaction in the form of "post-rock".[2] A reaction against both grunge and lo-fi, according to AllMusic, was chamber pop, which drew heavily from the rich orchestrations of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, and Lee Hazlewood.[23]

Guided by Voices were particularly influential in the realm of lo-fi alternative rock in the mid 1990s, especially after winning "album-of-the-year" accolades for Bee Thousand (1995) in publications such as Spin and The Village Voice.[24] As a response to the "lo-fi" label, bandleader Robert Pollard denied having any association to its supposed movement. He said that although the band was being "championed as the pioneers of the lo-fi movement," he was not familiar with the term, and explained that "[a] lot of people were picking up [Tascam] machines at the time ... Using a four-track became common enough that they had to find a category for it: DIY, lo-fi, whatever."[25] Grajeda noted a pattern where every time "lo-fi" was covered by the media, the article "never fails to point out the increasing attention lo-fi receives in the media, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge their own role in contributing to the development of that trend."[2]


During the 1990s, several books were published that helped to "canonize" lo-fi acts, usually by comparing them favorably to older musicians. For example, Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-a-Rama (1995) contained a chapter titled "The Lo-Fi Top 10", which mentioned Hasil Adkins, the Velvet Underground, Half Japanese, Billy Childish, Beat Happening, Royal Trux, Sebadoh, Liz Phair, Guided By Voices, Daniel Johnston, Beck and Pavement. Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More and "the community of like-minded critics and fans surrounding him" were especially pivotal in establishing modern notions of the lo-fi aesthetic. According to academic Adam Harper: "In short, Unknown Legends bridges the interests of the [1980s] and the [Cassette Culture] Generation and those of [the 2000s], providing an early sketch, a portent – a 'leftfield blueprint', perhaps – of 00s movements like hauntology and hypnagogic pop". Among the lo-fi musicians prominently featured in the book were R. Stevie Moore and the Cleaners from Venus' Martin Newell.[17]

2000s–2010s: Hypnagogic pop and chillwave[edit]

Main articles: Hypnagogic pop and Chillwave

In 2003, the Oxford Dictionary added a second definition to "lo-fi": "a genre of rock music characterized by minimal production, giving a raw and unsophisticated sound," a reflection of the connotations "lo-fi" had received since the 1990s. After the 2000s, "bedroom" musicians began looking toward vintage equipment as a way to achieve an authentic lo-fi aesthetic.[27] Moore was also increasingly cited by emerging lo-fi acts as a primary influence.[28] When a 2006 New York Times article referenced Moore as the progenitor of "bedroom pop", he responded that the notion was "hilarious to me. I guess ... because of my bitter struggle to make a living and get some notoriety, I scoff at it."[29] Moore's most vocal advocate, Ariel Pink, had read Unknown Legends, and later recorded a cover version of one of the tracks included in a CD that came with the book ("Bright Lit Blue Skies").[17] In 2008, Oxford added a third definition: "unpolished, amateurish, or technologically unsophisticated, esp. as a deliberate aesthetic choice."

During the 2000s, a type of music dubbed "hypnagogic pop" emerged among lo-fi and post-noise musicians who engaged with elements of cultural nostalgia, childhood memory, and outdated recording technology. The label was invented by journalist David Keenan in an August 2009 piece for The Wire. He included Ariel Pink among his examples.[30] Simon Reynolds soon adopted the term and cited Pink, along with Spencer Clark and James Ferraro, as the "godparents of hypnagogic".[31] Subsequently, Pink was frequently referred to as the "godfather" of "hypnagogic pop", "chillwave" or "glo-fi".[32] Reynolds noted that before Pink, lo-fi acts were generally "vehemently opposed to the slick, big-budget AOR and '80s rock 'n' soul that he's so inspired by,"[33] while Carew wrote that at the time of Pink's emergence, "[he] seemed like a total renegade, a lone iconoclast harking back to the tape-trading days of his childhood. Yet, since [his self-released albums were given a wide distribution], there's been a growing yearning for lo-fi fug in the American underground."[3] Jeff Weiss of Pitchfork posited that his album The Doldrums (self-released in 2000, first issued on a label in 2004) "inspired chillwave and a lo-fi revival, as well as alter[ed] the perception of L.A. as an indie-rock backwater."[34]

By the 2010s, journalists would indiscriminately apply the term "bedroom pop" for any music that sounded "fuzzy".[35] In 2013, Adam Harper argued that Reynolds and other critics had significantly overestimated Pink's influence on contemporary indie music, and that "if we look at the history of home-recording and lo-fi, Pink can begin to look like the end of an era rather than the beginning of one."[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Harper, Adam (2014). Lo-Fi Aesthetics in Popular Music Discourse (PDF). Wadham College. Retrieved March 10, 2018. 
  2. ^ abcdeJenkins III, Henry; Shattuc, Jane; McPherson, Tara, eds. (2003). Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Duke University Press. pp. 357–367. ISBN 0-8223-8350-0. 
  3. ^ abcdefgCarew, Anthony (March 8, 2017). "Genre Profile - Lo-Fi". About.com Guide. 
  4. ^ abBerger, William. "Shit From an Old Cardboard Box, incl. Uncle Wiggly Tour Diary". WFMU's Beware of the Blog. Retrieved 2014-09-19. 
  5. ^Phaneuf, Whitney (January 9, 2013). "Toro Y Moi Eases Into Adulthood". East Bay Express. 
  6. ^Turner, David (March 14, 2016). "Is Indie Rock Over the White Male Voice?". MTV News. Retrieved November 8, 2016. 
  7. ^Masters, Marc (September 14, 2009). "The Decade in Noise". Pitchfork. 
  8. ^ ab"Lo-Fi". AllMusic. 
  9. ^Chidester, Brian (March 7, 2014). "Busy Doin' Somethin': Uncovering Brian Wilson's Lost Bedroom Tapes". Paste. Retrieved December 11, 2014. 
  10. ^"The 200 Best Albums of the 1960s". Pitchfork. August 22, 2017. 
  11. ^Simons, Dace (September 15, 2006). "Tips from the Top: The Making of Todd Rundgren's 'Something/Anything?'". 
  12. ^Sodomsky, Sam (January 20, 2018). "Todd Rundgren: A Wizard, a True Star". Pitchfork. 
  13. ^Raggett, Ned. "JW Farquhar - The Formal Female". Allmusic. Retrieved February 22, 2015. 
  14. ^ abcIngram, Matthew (June 2012). "Here Comes the Flood". The Wire. No. 340. 
  15. ^ abcUnterberger, Richie (1999). "Cassette Culture". AllMusic. 
  16. ^ abcdHarper, Adam (April 23, 2014). "Essay: Shades of Ariel Pink". Dummy Mag. 
  17. ^ abMantie, Roger; Smith, Gareth Dylan, eds. (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Music Making and Leisure. Oxford University Press. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-19-024470-5. 
  18. ^"Chamber pop". AllMusic. 
  19. ^Chick, Stevie (January 5, 2012). "Guided By Voices: Don't give up the day job". The Guardian. 
  20. ^Woodworth, Marc (2006). Guided By Voices' Bee Thousand. A&C Black. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-8264-1748-0. 
  21. ^Noisey Staff (August 18, 2016). "Bedroom Cassette Masters Want That Lo-Fi Electronica Your Uncle Graham Recorded Back in 1984". Vice. 
  22. ^Mason, Stewart (n.d.). "R. Stevie Moore". AllMusic. 
  23. ^LaGorce, Tammy (May 21, 2006). "In Their Rooms, Shrinking Violets Sing". The New York Times. 
  24. ^Keenan, Dave (August 2009). "Childhood's End". The Wire (306). 
  25. ^Reynolds, Simon (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 348–349. ISBN 978-1-4299-6858-4. 
  26. ^Raffeiner, Arno (September 14, 2017). "Interview: Ariel Pink". Red Bull Music Academy. 
  27. ^Reynolds, Simon (June 6, 2010). "Ariel Pink". The Los Angeles Times. 
  28. ^Weiss, Jeff (November 18, 2014). "Pom Pom". Pitchfork. 
  29. ^Adams, Sean (January 22, 2015). "The DiS Class of 2015". Drowned in Sound. 

Further reading[edit]


Bruno Nettl, a music and anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, lists some of the various definitions for “ethnomusicology.” Meanings, in terms of the material that is studied, range from “folk and what used to be called “primitive,” i.e. tribal or possibly ancient music,to “all human music” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 2-3). Definitions that categorize by type of activity involve denotations that include “a comparative study (of musical systems and cultures).” Nettl states that all musicologists, “at some level of conceptualization, they regard all musics as equal. Each music, they believe, is equally an expression of culture, and while cultures may differ in quality, they are bound to believe in the fundamental humanity, hence goodness, of all peoples” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 10).

Colonialism and the Production of Hybrid Culture

Colonialism affected the people who were colonized economically, socially, and politically (see Colonial Education). In addition, cultural changes manifested themselves in literature, art, and music. When elements are brought, coerced, or drawn together, they may either repel, mingle, or do a bit of both. Examples of musical hybrids abound as the post-colonial period of history reigns (see Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity). The colonized and the colonists affected and influenced one another. The diaspora of migrants contribute to the fusion of different cultures’ musical instruments, structure, and sound. The result of the hybrid musical forms demonstrates a new world sound, one that can not be compartmentalized according to land, language, and political borders.

Responses to Western Influences

Nettl cites three types or groups of motivation for non-Western societies in relation to their experience of colonization or the formation of cultural hybridity as expressed in their musical behavior in an essay entitled “Cultural Grey-Out” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 347-48). The first is “the desire to leave traditional culture intact, survival without change” (Study, 347 ). The second is complete Westernization, “that is, simple incorporation of a society into the Western cultural system” (Study, 347). The third is moderate compared to the first two and is the motivation of “modernization,” a term which Nettl defines as “the adoption and adaptation of Western technology and other products of Western culture, as needed, simultaneously with an insistence that the core of cultural values will not change greatly and does not match those of the West” (Study, 348).

Hybrid Music Forms

In addition to Westernization, one must also consider the influence that the colonies have had on Western culture. Since the 1960s, the promulgation of hybridity constitutes a large facet of music.

The band Yothu-Yindi derives its moniker from Aboriginal Australian identity as expressed by the mother-child or yothu-yindi link which is an organizational feature of traditional ritual song and popular music (Stokes,136 ). Aboriginal pop music groups formed in the 1970s and were powered by the business of the music industry, so that bands such as “the Galiwin’ku pop group, Soft Sands … accommodated familiar Western music styles by playing a mixture of Country and Western and Gospel songs” (Stokes, 146). Yothu-Yindi was part of a shift in the nature of Aboriginal pop as the group applied Yolngu worldview in their second album in 1991, entitled Tribal Voice. This album incorporated traditional songs with their original form and words. The “restructuring of song texts by incorporating a mixture of ritual symbolism and concern with colonial hegemony builds further resistance against European musical values” (Stokes, 147).

Miho Hatori, vocalist for the band Cibo Matto/CC Licensed

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a band such as Cibo Matto exemplifies the assimilation of Western culture and the band displays the effects of Westernization with extreme and indulgent lyrics. “White pepper ice cream / It’s like a line drawing / It’s snipped my heart / White pepper ice cream / In my mouth / It stings my lips, / It’s like an eclipse / As if I’m in the crossword puzzle / But I can’t fill in the blank… C’est ma égal.” The band also makes the most of the technology developed by Westerners and the suave style of the beat-poets, applying it to the Japanese group’s own purposes. All of the lyrics on the album Viva! La Woman, a hybrid combination of inter-Western language and motto, are in English (see also Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art).

The distance between the two ends of the spectrum of hybridity abounds with smart rhythms and fresh sounds that demonstrate the movement of people as they migrate and circulate across the man-made boundaries between land and sea. Ravi Shankar has been instrumental in fusing classical Indian music with Western sounds since the 1960′s, when he began collaborating with The Beatles, specifically, George Harrison. DJ and producer Talvin Singh released a compilation of dance tracks called Soundz of the Asian Underground, ranging from trip hop to jungle beats to ambient, created by Asian musicians and features instruments indigenous to their culture.

The multi-talented Ashwin Batish joins “contemporary rock rhythms with Sitar melodies and solos as the lead voice” (Sitar Power #2) in his 1986 album named Sitar Power. This album was followed up by Sitar Power #2, which blends tablas and sitar with synthesisers and guitars. Started by two brothers, the band Cornershop hails from England and composes songs that have evolved drastically over the course of their career. The band began with outspoken political views, most emblematically related to their denouncement of music icon Morrissey for his alleged racism. They were featured burning his photo at a concert. This activism was considered by many to compensate for what was thought to be less than proficient musical skill. This reputation was largely dispelled with the release of their album, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. The album marks the group as a fore-running example of the possibilities of mixing Eastern and Western instruments (dholki, sitars, and tamboura work alongside keyboards, samples, and fuzzy guitar) as well as languages (Tjinder Singh sings lyrics in English, Punjabi, and some French).

Another example of musical hybridity is the album Lambarena: Bach to Africa. This album is a tribute to physician, musician, and Bach scholar, Albert Schweizer ( 1875-1965), who spent a large part of his life in Gabon. African rhythms and the sound of the Western classical compositions of J.S. Bach meet and engage in an aural cross-cultural dance. A sample of a work with the sounds of consolidated cultures is the simplest way to demonstrate the aural fecundity that exists at this time in the history of music. On this page is a clip from track #2 of Lambarena. The piece is “Sankanda+Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen.” Against the rhythm of the Ndjobi dance from Haut-Ogooué, Bach’s horn part is blended with the sounds of the antelope horn, “an instrument which is used in both hunting as well as for invoking the spirits during ritual ceremonies” (Lambarena, liner notes).

Selected Bibliography

  • Banco de Gaia. Last Train to Lhasa. Mammoth, 1995. CD
  • —. Maya. Planet Dog, 1994. CD.
  • Batish, Ashwin. Star Power #2. Batish Records, 1994. CD.
  • Baumann, Max Peter, ed. Music in the Dialogue of Cultures: Traditional Music and Cultural Policy. Wilhelmshaven: Floren Noetzel Verlag, 1991.
  • Blacking, John. Music, Culture, & Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking. Ed. Reginald Byron and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Chamberlain, M.E. Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
  • Cibo Matto. Viva! La Woman. Warner Bros., 1996. CD.
  • Cornershop. When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. Luaka Bop, 1997. CD.
  • de Courson, Hughes, and Pierre Akendengué. Lambarena: Bach to Africa: An Homage to Abert Schweitzer. Sony, 1995. CD.
  • Godement, François. The New Asian Renaissance: From Colonialism to the Post-Cold War. Trans. Elisabeth J. Parcell. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Goonatilake, Susantha. Crippled Minds: An Exploration into Colonial Culture. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1982.
  • Harrison, Klisala and Elizabeth Mackinlay and Svanibor Pettan. Applied ethnomusicology : historical and contemporary approaches. ed. Klisala Harrison, Elizabeth Mackinlay, and Svanibor Pettan. International Council for Traditional Music. Study Group on Applied Ethnomusicology. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
  • Healy, Chris. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory. Cambridge: University Press, 1997.
  • de Jong, Nanette. Tambú : Curaçao’s African-Caribbean ritual and the politics of memory / Nanette de Jong. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2012.
  • Leftfield. Leftism. Sony, 1995. CD.
  • Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. On Colonialism: Articles from the”New York Tribune” and Other Writings. New York: International Publishers, 1972.
  • Nettl, Bruno. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • comp. The Western Impact on World Music: Change, Adaptation, and Survival. New York: Schirmer Books, 1985.
  • Nettl’s elephant : on the history of ethnomusicology.Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2010.
  • Post, Jennifer C. Ethnomusicology : a contemporary reader. ed by Jennifer C. Post. New York : Routledge, 2006.
  • Price, A. Grenfell. The Western Invasions of the Pacific and Its Continents: A Study of Moving Frontiers and Changing Landscapes, 1513-1958 .Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
  • Shankar, Ravi. In Celebration Highlights. Anourag Music Ltd.,1995. CD.
  • Singh, Talvin. Presents: Soundz of the Asian Underground. OmniLtd., 1997. CD.
  • Stokes, Martin, ed. Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford: Berg, 1994.
  • Walker, Eric A. Colonies. Cambridge: University Press, 1944.

Author: Yim Tan Lisa Wong, Fall 1997
Last edited: October 2017


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