How Jack Johnson Burned A Path For Some Of The World’s Worst Artists

There was grey and gravel-flavoured BlokeMusic before him. But, argues David Bennun, the tepid indie-folk mumbler’s commercial success ensured that an awful lot more came after him – and we’re still living with the consequences 20 years on

Somewhere in the North Shore district of Oahu, third largest of the Hawiian islands, lives a fellow by the name of Jack Johnson. Although it might be more accurate to call him a dude. A particular kind of dude. And not just any old particular kind of dude. Johnson is the Platonic ideal of the laid-back socially conscious surfer dude, the enviro-hunk to make all other enviro-hunks greener still with envy. If Lisa Simpson’s never had a poster of Jack Johnson on her wardrobe door, somebody in the writers’ room has missed a trick.

Why any of this should concern us, why we should find cause to turn our gaze for a moment to this by all appearances pleasant and benign individual and what we may take to be his agreeable existence, rather than just wishing him the best of his seemingly splendid luck and leaving him to get on with it, comes down to a thing that happened 20 years ago, and that thing was this: he released a debut album called Brushfire Fairytales. It was a record, and the start of a career, that has brought gentle pleasure to millions. And for a smaller, more baleful coterie of which I am unabashedly a member – perhaps you, the tQ reader, are too – it was the origin point of something dreadful.

Now, one should always be wary of blaming an artist for their influence. A case in point would be Bob Marley. Marley’s influence is vast and varied, and we cannot hold him at fault for the fact it encompasses any number of wholemeal American college types who have devoted themselves to plunking on acoustic guitars while attempting to replicate the vocal style of ‘Redemption Song’. But we can absolutely hold Jack Johnson at fault for being one of these. True, he was far from the first to do this. From the mid-Nineties to the early Noughties you could scarcely move without bumping into some such lumpen iteration of post-Marleydom, whether they were busking throughout the cities of Europe and America, or being foisted on the public by hefty record-company publicity budgets, their character wryly summarised in the Onion headline, “Bob Marley Rises From Grave To Free Frat Boys From Bonds Of Oppression”. But Johnson did something the others had not. He sold records, and he sold them by the eco-friendly articulated truckload.

There were other precedents for Johnson. He slotted neatly into an established market, a school of American music united not so much by a style as by a feel: a torpid, hempen earnestness, recognising no boundaries on its mission to bore the will to live out of anyone insufficiently stoned to withstand it. His acoustic-based sound may ostensibly have had little in common with Counting Crows, The Dave Matthews Band or Blues Traveller, other than its drabness. But these acts shared an outlook and an audience. Certainly, Johnson resembled Hootie & The Blowfish by unplugged means. Yet he was more than that – unfortunately.

It wasn’t just that Johnson was a solo act. (The more overtly poppy and winsome but undeniably similar John Mayer was also a big success in the States around that time, and although he never had quite the international impact of Johnson, it seems apt that whenever you go into a pound shop today, the PA will be playing some kind of cloying, twee indie-folk-pop that resembles a cheaply made John Mayer knock-off, and is no worse than John Mayer himself.) Johnson was buff, he was rugged, he was handsome, he was easy-going, he was sensitive, and above all he was authentic. He was authentic the way expensively marketed jeans and pleasantly appointed woodland cabins and ethically sourced coffee beans are authentic. He had actually been a surfer, reputedly a good one, until injury knocked him out of that game and he focused on the guitar. It wasn’t just the bong-fancier fraternities, both scholastic and drop-out, who loved the guy. He brought the sororities in, too. Dude was catnip to the ladies, and when you look at him, it’s hard to blame those ladies. Plus, he understood. You could tell from his songs that he understood. Granted, he understood in the most generic fashion conceivable, the way your horoscope or an inspirational meme understands. But then, sometimes a thing becomes hugely popular because it dazzles the senses and stirs the passions of a multitude, and sometimes a thing becomes hugely popular because it’s basic af.

Thus it was that, bringing together his love of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (yes, really, and we’ll get to that presently) and Bob Marley, then diluting them to a formulation in which their notable qualities were present only at homeopathic levels while their most unremarkable attributes constituted the watery solution, Jack Johnson established Sensitive Authentic Moody But Essentially Good-Hearted And Positive Indie-Folk Guy as a commercial proposition for the 21st century. If at this point you’re asking yourself just how well that proposition has gone down since, now would be the moment to note that the biggest solo male act in music at present, and star of the highest grossing tour in history, is Ed Sheeran.

Did Jack Johnson make Ed Sheeran happen? That is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Which is to say, there’s no way to know. Ask it another way: could Ed Sheeran have happened without Jack Johnson? Almost certainly; especially considering the generational difference between the two men’s audiences. But would Ed Sheeran have happened, or happened quite the way he has, without Jack Johnson? It never hinders an artist to have it established both in the broader culture – even unconsciously, as such things usually are – and, more knowingly, within the music business that they are a type that can succeed. Johnson may be the stuff of collegiate wet dreams, and Sheeran the slightly geeky and all the more endearing for it boy next door, but musically, aesthetically, and in their thoroughgoing hey-I’m-real-me dreariness, they are, if not twins, then siblings. And they are far from alone; they’re simply the ones who hit the big time. Sensitive Authentic Moody But Essentially Good-Hearted And Positive Indie-Folk (or blues, or soul, or whatever other homogenised and pasteurised roots music) Guy has been everywhere these last 20 years. I would name names, if I could remember them. The BBC Sound Of longlist routinely features a selection, most of them indistinguishable to the outside eye and ear.

Brushfire Fairytales itself was not the album that sent Johnson’s career into orbit. That would come four years and two albums later with In Between Dreams – the very title is a three-word sedative, a promise that absolutely nothing of note will happen and that’s the way you like it – which topped the UK charts and went quintuple platinum here. (Sheeran was then 14, and already releasing music independently.) But Brushfire Fairytales did very nicely, thank you, setting out Johnson’s stall and eventually going platinum both here and in the States (the follow-up, almost perfectly, was titled On And On. Well, quite.) Returning to it, I find the intervening decades have not been unkind to it; it was dull, beige and interminable then, and it is dull, beige and interminable now. It is genuinely difficult to believe that it’s 45 minutes long. It feels as if it should be at least a double album – or at least that one should be paid time-and-a-half just to listen to it. There is much to be said for hearing it on Spotify Free, where the ads come as a welcome interruption.

It starts as it means to go on, with some blues-folk acoustic twanging, a clatter of close-mic’d drums, Johnson’s faintly sleepy murmur of a singing voice, and that pulled-up, cut-off guitar strum that signals right away: here is Real Music. Artisan, hand-carved, organic, sustainable music. The song is called ‘Inaudible Melodies’, which is flagrant false advertising, and its refrain runs, “Slow down everyone, you’re moving too fast”. Which seems an uncontentious echo of a sentiment almost as old as civilisation itself – that civilisation itself is overly mechanised and furiously paced, to the detriment of humankind’s native affinities; a sentiment voiced in one way or another by Emerson and Thoreau, and Wordsworth before them (“The world is too much with us”). Maybe Johnson deliberately took up the tradition of the Romantics and the transcendentalists, or maybe he simply fell into it. His persona was that of the humble yet rugged Rousseauian naïf instinctively aligned with nature, but humble yet rugged Rousseauian naïfs instinctively aligned with nature don’t tend to deploy the word “diagetic” in song lyrics all that often. It doesn’t matter much either way. What does matter is that, inadvertently or otherwise, he managed to mine those traditions for their most wearing elements and tropes, and combine them with the most wearing elements and tropes of the music he drew upon. Only a few years before smartphones put everyone and everything online, all the time, everywhere, he prefigured the ever fashionable and ever self-congratulatory advocacy for disconnecting oneself from modernity while using all modern means available for advocating this disconnection.

This contradiction is not necessarily hypocritical – one may of necessity participate in a system while arguing for its overthrow – nor does it invariably lead to bad art. It just so happens that it did here. Where Neil Young had applied similar ideas to both the cracked, lilting sweetness of After The Gold Rush and the frazzled, wrenching revulsion of the peerless On The Beach, Johnson used them to turn out fortune-cookie platitudes. Where Bob Marley offered a mystically derived but historically self-aware spiritual antidote to strife in Babylon, Johnson suggested you just don’t let Babylon get you down so much, and co-opted Marley’s accent and mannerisms to faintly denounce its synthetic charms on ‘The News’ and ‘Sexy Plexi’ (surely a candidate for any Worst Song Titles Of All Time list). And where Jimi Hendrix poured divine loving fire upon all he saw around him, Johnson (perhaps inevitably) saw fit to snaffle one of Hendrix’s most tender and low-key numbers, ‘Little Wing’, wring the lambent mystery and ardour out of it, and refashion it into the clumpy Play-Doh of ‘Fortunate Fool’. It seems too easy to point out that the penultimate track on the album is titled ‘Losing Hope’ and by God, by then, you will be – but it’s really not a joke. You will.

Brushfire Fairytales is the diametric opposite of a cult album: it succeeded in its time and is largely forgotten by posterity, while its creator attained stardom but has seen his reputation and profile fall away. There would be no reason at all to revisit it now but for its impact which, although little acknowledged, is substantial. It did not originate its specific manner of stodgy, blokey, folksy, mirthless, arse-aching monotony – but it did distill that manner, shape a vessel for it, clear a space for it upon the shelves. It did not invent Ed Sheeran, or Passenger, or Mumford & Sons, but Johnson did serve as a John The Baptist figure for the global triumph of their collective sensibility. Sensitive Authentic Moody But Essentially Good-Hearted And Positive Indie-Folk Guy may be little more than an over-promoted busker, but he is here to stay, to squat like a giant toad atop popular music – and Johnson was his accidental prophet, whose gospel is as tedious as it was prescient.

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