One of the underreported music health stories of last year was the trouble brought on by the Lumineers virus. At the beginning of 2012, a three-headed body from Denver released to the world a thing called “Ho Hey,” and it spread through ears and into heads and hearts until it had strengthened into a particularly virulent, if ultimately harmless, strain of ear worm.
It soundtracked ads for Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Blue Moon beer, scored a ubiquitous movie trailer for “Silver Linings Playbook,” bombarded adult alternative radio and ruled YouTube. The band trod hard all year, gigging late-night shows Ferguson, O’Brien, Letterman, Leno and, in mid-January, “Saturday Night Live” to perform “Ho Hey,” opening for Dave Matthews Band and embarking on a headlining tour. At each stop, their ditty hijacked psyches until a big chunk of America had at some point sung to themselves the words, “Ho! Hey! / Ho Hey! / I belong with you / You belong with me / you’re my sweetheart!”
It has hovered in the iTunes Top 10 for the last six months and is currently at No. 4. And 33 weeks after it first charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, it rests comfortably at No. 3. On Sunday, “Ho Hey” will arrive on a bigger stage, where it has hitched a ride all the way to the Grammys. The young trio – guitarist Wesley Schultz, percussionist Jeremiah Fraites and cellist-vocalist Neyla Pekarek – has been nominated for two awards, including the prestigious best new artist, where they appear alongside a varied roster that includes Frank Ocean, fun., the Alabama Shakes and Hunter Hayes.
The Lumineers formed in New Jersey, but after becoming frustrated with the New York scene moved to Colorado. In 2010, a fan uploaded a clip of the band playing “Ho Hey” at a Denver house party. That one amateur video led them to their Seattle management company, online buzz from a few choice Americana music blogs, a label signing, an affiliation with Mumford & Sons’ American publicist and a few well-placed fans among late-night talk show bookers. It’s the ditty that just won’t die; I’ve been struggling with an ear worm infestation on and off since May, and it’s hit me as hard as the killer “Poker Face” outbreak in 2009 and, before that, the “Tubthumping” plague of ’97.
Relentlessly hummable, the song embodies a brand of rustic folk rock that suggests a lost John Denver hit. Like its kindred spirits over the last few years – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ whistle-torture song “Home,” “American Idol” winner’s Phillip Phillips’ song of the same name, the deep, echoed folk of the Civil Wars and six-time 2013 Grammy nominee Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave” and “I Will Wait” – “Ho Hey” deftly channels timeless rural authenticity without getting its hands too dirty. Toss in the Low Anthem, the Avett Bros. and the Head & the Heart, and a pattern starts to emerge.
In 2013, the most pop-friendly purveyors of the “handcrafted” Etsy-folk sound are the yin to dance-pop’s yang, part of a crafty musical movement that appeals in equal parts to collegians, suburbanites, weekend warriors, edgy-ish indie high-schoolers, middle-of-the-road country fans and a host of beer-drinking chant-along souls barking out big-emotion choruses. It’s rural enough to appeal to the musical center but doesn’t risk alienating city-folk by feigning a twang.
Along with the similarly unthreatening – if stylistically divergent – sounds of Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons and indie rock breakout band fun., the Lumineers are the closest thing to a rock band in the Top 40 right now.
One would think that our computer world would have rendered such smaller folk tunes obsolete. But Mumford, the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe prove otherwise. As techno, disco, house, hip-hop and beat music have collapsed into one big mess of EDM beats thumping through nightclubs, Top 40 radio and more, the rustic-acoustics have planted themselves in the alley outside, busking and serenading the ecstatic masses with something singalong-simple, as if to say, “After all that pounding, here’s a dose of whistling and some call-and-response glee to tuck you in as you’re coming down.”
Such simplicity, in fact, isn’t so surprising, any more than is Etsy arriving as a foil to the corporatized, mass-market EBay and Amazon or knitting becoming hip among the smartphone set. Music technology may evolve to generate weird new sounds and approaches, but it hasn’t (yet) displaced the joy of singing in harmony and picking on a stringed instrument. As singer-poet David Berman described it in his poem “Self-Portrait at 28,” “We will travel to Mars / Even as folks on Earth / Are still ripping open potato chip / bags with their teeth.”
All the digital pyrotechnics and 130-bpm thumpers can’t drown out an infectiously whistled melody, a pleasingly mellifluous line of a chorus or, in the case of “Ho Hey,” a chant that harnesses the power of primal utterances to create musical communion. What is call-and-response, after all, but the ultimate democratic form? For every few steps forward in American pop’s evolution, bands like the Lumineers and Mumford remind us of the enduring joy of a song – even if at its worst it can be as cloyingly sentimental as a greeting card from Grandma.