I have a tendency to think of lo-fi recording as a kind of guerilla warfare against the music business, as amateur songwriters subverting the notion you meed an industry behind you to make entertainment, as friends getting together and discarding the idea that you should consume rather than make entertainment. Or the heroes of lo-fi are recording music so raw and personal and intimate, they only feel comfortable doing it alone in their bedroom — the Lou Barlows and Daniel Johnstons of the world, getting their therapeutic self-analyses out on tape, not because they want to be rock stars necessarily, but because they want to capture the maximum amount of insight occluded by the least amount of marketing.
But these received ideas about lo-fi are all troubled by the fact that this approach began not with some pioneering nobody, some deeply personal artist who had to use primitive methods to defy music industry filters. The first lo-fi rock musician was probably the most famous pop star ever, and he used the technique not out of subversion or defiance or necessity but out of what seems to be sheer laziness. Inside the gatefold of Paul McCartney’s first solo album, released in 1970, among a bunch of pictures of McCartney being the domestic superdad, there is a picture of him picking his nose. It’s a telling photo — on the surface it’s supposed to show us that McCartney can goof on himself despite being the megastar, but it suggested something more incisive as well: “I’m so beloved, I can release a record of me basically picking my nose, and it will go gold.” McCartney is arguably the first lo-fi album ever released, and if it’s a testament to anything, it’s to the rampant narcissism that led him to believe the world would be fascinated by the half-finished sketches, song doodles, nonsense exercises, and practice jams he self-indulgently released to break up the Beatles. (The scary thing is he was right; I know I’ve listened to McCartney and its equally half-baked follow-up Ram far more than all the other albums that could be classifed as lo-fi put together.) Lo-fi in McCartney’s hands was a matter of stringing together some melodies, playing all the instruments himself, and trying to demonstrate how effortless and uncalculated it was for him. McCartney seems deliberately to attempt to be spontaneous with the album, and that paradox sums up its contradictory stew of arrogance and self-deprecation. The songs become candid snapshots of Paul the homebody just naturally effusing magical melodies in the midst of keeping his horses or doing home repairs or what have you (also pictured in the gatefold) that he just happened to jot down with the studio equiment he had lying around. In this sense he really did set a path for later lo-fi artists, conjuring a sense that music was not separate from the conduct of everyday life. Only with McCartney, this synthesis was totally bogus — McCartney’s quotidian life is not anything like anyone else’s, it’s in fact a hermetic bubble he could afford only by being insanely wealthy. His record exudes smug domesticity and peace with the status quo, not any kind of critical alienation. The equipment itself he used to record these fragments was far beyond the reach of average people until only recently. We might initially think McCartney has made a humble and accessible record that reveals him to be an ordinary guy, but in fact the album’s very existence is extraordinary, its manufacture and distribution even moreso — those factors just reinforce how far above us all he is: when he blows into a microphone and records himself tuning his drums, there’s an industry that was confident that thousands would run out to buy it. And it must be impossible to know what effect that has on your ego unless you’re in that position yourself.
But that idea, that fantasy, is what ultimately animates all lo-fi records — not the wish to challenge the entertainment industry or escape the machine or undermine the syustem or perform self-therapy. The essence of lo-fi is possessing an ego that allows you to believe that you transcend craft, you transcend the process of hard work and polish that all other artists are subject to, that your work is so vital it needs not pander to any of the patrons who make the art of lesser mortals possible. When I fart, the lo-fi artist thnks to himself, the world has to hear this. In the lo-fi fantasy, the primitive recording conditions become evidence on tape of how much the artist is willing to overcome to get his message out, on the one hand — yet it also allows the diametrically opposite fantasy in which the artist can imagine that he’s so important that sound quality and fidelity doesn’t matter — in other words, the message, the form is insignificant, what’s important is that I made this. When assesssing the lo-fi recordings that make it to a wider audience, critics tend to stress the former and ennact that affirmative fantasy, and they overlook the latter. This may be because critics want artists ideally to be egoless; this reserves the right to be egotistical all to themselves.