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Look, being the world’s most famous banjoist ain’t nothin’. Last month, Winston Marshall, the banjoist for Mumford & Sons, quit the band. But it wasn’t over artistic differences or a disagreement over ambitions or the burnout of touring. In a lengthy missive posted on Medium, Marshall explained that he had departed because he’d like to speak his mind freely, and he wanted to protect Mumford and the rest of the sons from backlash and criticism.
Marshall’s exit was the latest turning point in a saga that began in March, when he praised a book by Andy Ngo, the right-wing provocateur who has made a career of demonizing antifa. “Congratulations @MrAndyNgo. Finally had the time to read your important book. You’re a brave man,” Marshall tweeted. Perhaps because the book had been called things like “supremely dishonest,” or perhaps because its author hung out with far-right hate groups — please, take your pick — the tweet caused a furor and Marshall apologized on Twitter.
The apology was, by all appearances, sincere. “I have come to better understand the pain caused by the book I endorsed,” Marshall wrote. “I have offended not only a lot of people I don’t know, but also those closest to me, including my bandmates and for that I am truly sorry.” After posting the apology, he announced that he will be taking time away from the band.
Late last month, he made that sabbatical permanent. In his Medium post, he described the apology as something he wrote “in the mania of the moment” to protect his bandmates. Upon some additional reflection, Marshall said he found that well, actually “the truth is that my commenting on a book that documents the extreme Far-Left and their activities is in no way an endorsement of the equally repugnant Far-Right.” He doubled down on the tweet he had once apologized for: “The truth is that reporting on extremism at the great risk of endangering oneself is unquestionably brave.” (After Marshall’s departure, the band posted a farewell message to Marshall on their Twitter, writing, “We wish you all the best for the future, Win, and we love you, man.”)
Out came the praising forces. Marshall “stands up to cancel culture,” said the New York Post. Conservative writer Bari Weiss wrote that the Medium post made her “stand up and cheer.” Meghan McCain gave Marshall mad props. Could all this drama really have been stoked over a banjoist’s right to tweet without restraint? Does one really give up being in one of the most successful bands of the millennium to...post?
Marshall’s decision to quit may be surprising to some, but it’s an evolution of the hollow, cosmetic idea of masculinity that the Mumford & Sons project once heavily relied on. (Mumford & Sons did not respond to requests for comment). At the height of their career, Mumford & Sons telegraphed a traditionalist aesthetic of masculinity and used it to build their image. But what are the consequences of romanticizing this kind of manhood? Does it risk giving the appearance of endorsing outdated values? And who, exactly, gets to dream of traveling back in time to the 1930s?
When you name yourself Mumford & Sons, it naturally raises the question: What kind of shop is this? The British band burst on the scene, banjos blazin’, in 2009. But why the folksy Americana-y direction? Was it, perhaps, the band’s down-to-earth British upbringing? Unlikely — Marshall, for example, is the son of Sir Paul Marshall, one of Britain’s richest hedge fund managers. According to the band, their sound’s inspiration came from the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a transcendent soundtrack made up of folk, blues, gospel, and country.
Mumford & Sons stepped forward with aggressive folk, folk that was loud, folk with guitars that went chugga-chugga-chugga, folk you could mosh to. And sure, patrons of Mumford & Sons were buying the music — “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” were positively colossal songs that led to their debut record Sigh No More selling more than 2 million albums. But the music was only half the inventory.
What are the consequences of romanticizing this kind of manhood? Does it risk giving the appearance of endorsing outdated values?
The other half was visuals: Mumford & Sons sold a facsimile of a bygone mode of masculinity (“I always felt I was supposed to be a highwayman,” the group’s lead singer Marcus Mumford once wrote). The four members wore suspenders and waistcoats. They wrote songs inspired by the work of Steinbeck — novels frequently held up as the ideal of “when men were men.” They dressed up like they were enamored with the Grapes of Wrath–ness, the Dust Bowl–ness of it all. This last part is not even metaphorical; the debut album literally features a song called “Dust Bowl Dance.” They seemed rather earnest — and in the world of reviews, this hurt them (the band is “in the costume business,” wrote Pitchfork).
Still whatever the product, people were buying in droves. “Why it took a British band inspired by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack to successfully repackage roots music for American audiences is still something of a mystery,” wrote the New York Times. No one could quite figure out how to explain the band’s outsize success.
Part of it was that Mumford & Sons was buttressed by huge songs. The band hit upon a formula of rising crescendos and repeated it over and over and over again. The group perfected the formula: Sometimes the music gets loud!!!!! Then shhhh, it gets real quiet again. And, wait for it, it gets LOUD! It was pleasant and taut, even if you didn’t quite believe what the group was selling. But a significant part of why Mumford & Sons conquered the early 2010s was because they were also cast in a role they probably didn’t specifically seek: At a time when EDM was ascendant on the pop charts, Mumford were the insurgency, the counterforce. This was real music with real instruments, bro.
To the extent they were the rebelling forces, the rebellion worked. The Mumford & Sons sophomore album, Babel, was a hit. The banjo part of its lead single, “I Will Wait,” was only out-banjoed by its other major single, “Hopeless Wanderer.” Beyond the pastiche and the foot-stomping, Mumford provided humongous hooks and sturdy pop song construction — “One Direction for a more grown-up audience,” wrote Slate.
Ultimately, the predictability of Mumford was irksome. Reviewers came with their pitchforks out — Spin wrote that they “don't seem remotely musically curious” (ouch); the A.V. Club critiqued them for using “the same rhythm guitar pattern over and over and a songwriting formula that is almost computer-programmable.” Not that anyone cares what reviewers think: Babel bagged the Grammy for Album of the Year (over Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange!) and has sold nearly 3 million copies in the US.
They filled arenas with what the New York Times called “bro folk.” Soon thereafter, Mumford began to have, uh, sons all over the place, with aesthetic and sonic descendants intent on riding the same coal-powered train to success. There’s the Colorado outfit the Lumineers, who are very good at shouting “hey!” There’s Of Monsters and Men, the Icelandic band that is...very good at shouting “hey!” The band fathered a musical moment, or perhaps more accurately, set up the model for franchising.
This is the part where I begrudgingly admit that the Mumford product sometimes works for me. Sure, the songs are vague and sweeping, in the grand tradition of U2 or Coldplay, obviously intent on stadium ambitions, but that in itself is not a crime. And on occasion, they’ve stuck the landing. For NPR, Ann Powers pointed out in 2012 that “to deny that widely shared notions of being good and strong and fulfilled — the things Marcus Mumford sings about — don't have power is to dismiss a lot of what lives in people's hearts.”
I am also not overly against the old-timeyness vibe that dominated the early part of their career; a gimmick is not a crime. Drake raps in a Southern accent, and we’re supposed to forget he’s from Toronto? The Mumford schtick did its job and made the band a household name.
But the gimmick opened Mumford & Sons up to a very particular kind of criticism: Why romanticize this masculinity? Why put effort into visually re-creating a time when white men were thriving at the expense of everyone else? Why is this your golden age? At best, it’s a naive romanticism. At worst, it’s something more sinister.
I am inclined to believe it’s the former. By their third album, 2015’s Wilder Mind, Mumford and co. benched the banjo and picked up electric guitars in favor of radio-friendly rock (though without the banjo, reviewers found they were blander). They followed that with 2016’s Johannesburg EP, recorded over two days of their South African tour, featuring collaborators such as the legendary Senegalese singer Baaba Maal.
For a time, Mumford & Sons successfully moved away from the fedora and waistcoat days, away from critiques over valuing a cringey kind of masculinity. But in 2018, they were brought right back to those questions again: There was a small internet furor over a photo featuring three of the four members with none other than Jordan Peterson, a once-obscure psychology professor who has become a sort of spokesperson of traditional masculinity (Marcus Mumford was not in the photo). Peterson rose to fame after refusing to use the correct pronouns to refer to a student and has since transformed into a right-wing celebrity. A lot of his writing and speaking is about defending masculinity (“The masculine spirit is under assault,” he told the New York Times). Marshall told CBC that Peterson came to the studio on his invitation because he’d been a fan of his “work on psychology.”
As it turns out, Marshall wasn’t the only band member excited about the Peterson visit. Ben Lovett, who is the band’s keyboardist, described Peterson to the Guardian as “an intellectualist more than anything,” and downplayed the political nature of how he is perceived. In the same interview, Marcus Mumford added that he does not agree with Peterson’s politics, but “will fiercely defend my bandmates’ rights to listen to the guy.”
But it wasn’t merely listening to the guy. After quitting the band, last week Marshall told Bari Weiss that one of the ways he felt restricted was that on the press tour for their 2018 album Delta, he couldn’t talk about how Peterson’s work heavily influenced his contributions to the album. All four members are credited on all the songs on Delta, so we don’t specifically know where Marshall peppered in the Peterson influences. It could be everywhere!
And then there are Marshall’s post-band choices: He followed up his appearance on Weiss’s podcast with one on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, who rose to fame among a crop of anti-Islam Muslims and has lately been on the march against “wokeism.” He wrote a follow-up to his Medium post for conservative newspaper the Spectator, where he declared that “in the current febrile political climate, many of us are just too scared to say what we think.”
Marshall is positioning himself as a sort of modern knight leading the culture to enlightenment against the scourge of “the extreme Far-Left.” He says he does not endorse the values of the far right, but he will not stand silent and watch the left’s excesses either — nay, he will give up being the world’s most famous banjoist over it! Once more into the breach!
This “extreme far left,” this “wokeism,” these excesses that are so supposedly so cancerous often entail critiques of traditional masculinity, the same one Mumford & Sons once saw fit to elevate and perform. Marshall may have left the band to shield his former bandmates from criticism, but in doing so he only highlighted questions that had been there from the start about whether the schtick was just for show.
In a post-#MeToo era, where masculinity is in search of a new story, those who want to cling to an old one cry out “wokeism!” The most efficient and popular way to assert masculinity on the internet is to align yourself with the anti-woke. Masculinity isn’t “toxic,” this assertion goes — it’s fine.
This is a lazy argument, to say the least. To be critical of how masculinity is changing does not mean to be specifically anti-men. The traditional notions of what it means to be a man have not lost favor because a “woke” mob pulled a fast one on society — they lost favor because they aren’t serving us.
It is not brave to provoke internet outrage by grandstanding. It is far braver for men to do the gritty, personal work of investigating where their ideas of what it means to be a man come from, and look beyond the cosmetic. There, we may find discomforts, demons, questions, and revelations that may be difficult to face, but at least it’s a meaningful place to start. Tremble, little lion man, indeed. ●