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Noah Kahan: The Death of Folk or the Revival?

If you were looking for another artist in his late 20s who plays the banjo and slightly resembles Jesus, look no further. Noah Kahan’s rapid rise to fame has given the music industry whiplash as his hit album Stick Season, which was released in October of 2022, gained popularity on TikTok in 2023. The album is honest and raw — it speaks to Kahan’s personal experiences with love, alcoholism, and growing up in New England, specifically in Vermont. He cites his inspirations as hard-hitting folk-rock groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Counting Crows, and Cat Stevens. Kahan turned that raw lyricism from his predecessors into something a bit more poppy and mainstream, but is that such a bad thing? The music purist's debate wreaks havoc on every genre, but for a dying genre like folk, there may not be a commercial future without artists like Noah Kahan.

Folk is known most distinctly for its oral storytelling, as something to be passed down from generation to generation, communicating stories and cultural traditions. It’s the music of the people, and it has a historical and cultural significance that transcends what can be found on the Billboard Top 100. That being said, orally transmitted music has no use if nobody cares to transmit it. If an artist coming from a rural region is releasing music with folk instrumentals, a meaningful message, and a nod to his culture, why call the music purity card to discredit him? Without genre crossover in folk, we wouldn’t have Paul Simon’s poetic lyricism or Bob Dylan’s protest anthems. There would be no music industry without integrating different sounds and genres into each other. Of course, Simon and Dylan are folk-rock and not folk-pop, but the tendency to label anything with a pop sound as inauthentic will hurt folk more than it helps it. 

Noah Kahan has the ability to make his lyrics simultaneously niche and relatable to all of his listeners, and in listening you find yourself feeling each lyric and emotion as your own. In the UK, listeners from Northern England have claimed the song Northern Attitude, and Kahan even collaborated with popular Northern indie-rock singer Sam Fender in his hit song ‘Homesick’. His fan base varies from men in their 20s relating to his lyrics about alcoholism and anger issues, to Vermont natives relating to lyrics about New England weather, to parents relating to his lyrics about seeing your children leave home and wishing them well, to teenage girls relating to his lyrics about loving someone who won’t even call you back. It transcends gender, age, and nationality, which is exceedingly difficult in songwriting.

At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, Kahan is also a genius in the way he interacts and collaborates with artists in the folk-rock and pop industry. He has collaborated with artists like Hozier, Gracie Abrams, Gregory Alan Isokav, and Lizzy McAlpine, all of whom are wildly successful, have their own cult fan bases, and can add a unique sound to his songs. These collaborations have sparked great excitement in the subgroup of boot-stompin, granola-eating, flowy skirt-wearing teenage girls. It is because of this subgroup that I think the most Noah Kahan hate has arisen, speaking to a sense of misogyny in the music industry. Any artist that teenage girls claim as a fan favourite ends up fighting for validity, being labelled as TikTok artists with songs that all sound the same. Does utilising a social media platform like TikTok take away from an artist’s gift? If Paul Simon was born in the modern technological age and he was a starving artist putting songs on TikTok to gain recognition, would we mock him too? While Noah Kahan may not be a full-on folk singer from Appalachia, he is bringing a youthfulness to folk that is drawing in fans from every demographic, which will inevitably allow more obscure folk singers to grow to prominence if more people start listening to the genre. Any publicity is good publicity and could lead to a resurrection of storytelling in music, which is sorely needed in an industry fueled by dopamine-hitting songs that rely on a repetitive chorus lacking a message.

Illustration by Sandra Palazuelos García

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