What does that song mean?

Point/Counterpoint: The Ukulele

Posted Jun 1st 2014, 12:02

Welcome to a friendly little discussion between me and my friend Em about the merits and drawbacks of the ukulele. First, some history: the ukulele dates back to the 1880s as a derivation of several Portuguese guitar-like instruments. -It was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, and has since become strongly associated with Hawaii. -It experiences ebbs and flows in mainstream popularity as it dances on the line between twee novelty prop and legit musical instrument. -Now that we've got some backstory, let's get to the conversation.


Me: First of all, Em, thank you for agreeing to talk to me about the ukulele, which I know is your favorite topic.


Em: No, no, thank you. For the coffee that you bought me, as a bribe.


Me: Okay, so it's pretty clear that you are taking the 'anti' stance in this discussion. Why all the uke hate?


Em: It's not hate. Hating a ukulele is like hating macaroni artwork. Sure, it's aesthetically offensive, but it's so benign that there's no real point to hating it. But I do not enjoy the ukulele, and I think it's that whole doe-eyed-Zooey-Deschanel schtick that really ruins it for me. Also, the word 'uke'.


Me: Well... okay. So you're not a fan of the cutesy ukulele thing. I get that. But there's a whole lot of non-pigeon-toed actual artists making actual music with the uke...ulele (sorry, almost said it again). What say you of them?


Em: What, like tUnE-yArDs? That seems like everyone's go-to these days. First, just that weird capitalization of the name bugs me. The music is alright, I guess, but it still seems gimmicky to me. There, that's it. The ukulele is a gimmick, and I think that if the music is really that good, it shouldn't need to rely on gimmickry.


Me: I think that's fair to say, but I think your distaste for gimmickry is unfairly spilling over onto the ukulele. I mean, for every Tiny Tim, there's a Jake Shimabukuro, who's like a ukulele savant. Or what about George Harrison? He loved them so much he used to buy them just to give them away. For heaven's sake, even Eddie Vedder, the most un-twee musician you could imagine, recorded a ukulele album.


Em: Yeah, and how's Pearl Jam doing these days? I'll give you George Harrison, but Eddie Vedder's foray into the ukulele world, I would argue, was more about him using it to try and be relevant again.


Me: Ouch, dude.


Em: -Nothing but love for Pearl Jam, I rocked out so hard to them. In 1992, where they belonged.


Me: Well, moving on. The list of ukulele enthusiasts is a long one. Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley, will.i.am, The ROCK. Come on, man, even Dwayne "THE ROCK" Johnson loves the ukulele.


Em: Okay, you've been playing defense this whole time. How about you tell me why it's so great?


Me: Okay. First of all, as a uke player myself--


Em: Bias!


Me: Yeah, okay, you got me. But anyway, as a uke player myself, I love it for its portability. I love that the tone is different from a guitar, but that it still functions in a similar way. I love that it's accessible; something about only having four strings makes it a lot less intimidating than a guitar. And I love that there are always people taking it out of its niche. Like I said, for every Tiny Tim, there's an Amanda Palmer or a James Hill-- someone who goes beyond making "ukulele music", to making music that just happens to be on a ukulele.


Em: Hmm. I guess I just haven't heard too many of those.


Me: I think perhaps you avoid them because you see "ukulele" and you immediately tune out.


Em: That could be true. Well, I tell you what: you give me your list of the ukulele songs that will make even the most calcified hater warm up to the instrument, and I'll give it an honest, open-minded listen, and tell you what I think.


Me: It's a deal!


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Five Ukulele Songs for Ukulele Haters


Victoria Vox- "Out The Back Door"

Amanda Palmer - "Creep" (Radiohead cover)

James Hill - "Ode To A Frozen Boot"

Beirut - "Elephant Gun"

Jake Shimabukuro - "Ukulele Weeps"


Epilogue: Em, being the exceptional friend that she is, gave all of these a listen. While she's still not entirely sold on the ukulele as a legitimate instrument, she finally recognizes that it's not the exclusive domain of cutesy twee hipster girls, and that's as much of a triumph as I could've possibly expected.


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