It used to be that “lo-fi” was something you just had to put up with for necessity’s sake, like listening to a crummy transistor radio at summer camp. Lo-fi was slightly shady enterprises such as bootleg recordings of popular bands and poor quality pornographic films and books; lo-fi was handwritten signs for garage sales and other neighbourhood events; lo-fi was underground comics like Zippy The Pinhead. These things had an aesthetic all their own based on a limitation of resources, and were accepted more on the basis of content rather than presentation. Your favourite recording of your favourite band might have sounded like it was recorded through someone’s dental work, but that was part of the sense of owning something rare and hard to get. Today, lo-fi culture has permeated all forms of media. Self- published zines have spawned widely-read catalogues like Factsheet 5 in the U.S. and Broken Pencil in Canada. A flood of impressive CDs, tapes, movies and comix done on the cheap have gained increasing prominence in the public consciousness. The seventies punk ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality is what has encouraged so many writers, publishers, artists, musicians and film-makers to produce their work at a lower economical level than was previously considered legitimate’. This has come about from a combination of an increased availablity of ‘DIY’ technologies (photocopying, desktop publishing, high 8 video and home recording studios) and the desire to get stuff ‘out there’ regardless of what the prevailing mainstream tastes are. One of the appeals of this lo-fi media culture is its sense of immediacy and authenticity. Somewhat like documentary film, it feels more real. These works aren’t addressing large audiences, and therefore seem more intimate. Lo-fi media often gives the impression of peeking into someone’s private life.
For instance, the reader explores cartoon artist Chantale Doyle’s fantasy world of comix, knowing they were drawn while Ms. Doyle was listening in on the fantasy world of Sebadoh’s lo-fi recordings.World after world of obscurity opens up to the lo-fi afficionado. In its typical co-opting and appropriating fashion, multi- national, global and corporate industry has lately decided to employ the lo-fi aesthetic to sell its usual stuff. Suddenly, lo-fi is the preferred aesthetic of just about any and all products; Hollywood feature films, television dramas, and commercials have adopted documentary style. A few examples of big money’s entry into the lo-fi arena include: the very annoying Bank of Montreal ad staging a ‘grass- roots revolution’ with ‘average looking people’ holding handwritten signs framed by jittery camera work in black and white grainy stock; slick magazines employing elaborate computer design software to mimic cruddy typeface and sloppy cut and past collage (see any Spin magazine); and the very slickly-produced disco diva Alanis becoming a smashing success after her grunge makeover (compare her first relaeases with the new album). Why are corporate megaforces doing this? Because the proliferation of accessible lo-fi media has set up a dichotomy between the ‘real’, gritty, hands on STUFF, and the slick, fake, glossy, mainstream that can’t be trusted to do anything but SELL. As with the appropriation, repackaging and selling of sixites and seventies culture gutted of any content, big business is using the surface aesthetic of lo-fi culture because people trust it, but it’s using it as a marketing tool, as usual.
In a truly twisted fashion, multinational companies are pretending not to be hiding behind production values, while in fact that is exactly what they are doing — hiding behind lo-fi, back-to basics, ‘small is beautiful’ production values! Like the sixites revolution, and transformation of traditional sexual role in the seventies, the real meaning of lo-fi culture is lost on the mass market consciousness. Lo-fi is a reaction away from the blandifying, homogenizing forces of corporate monoculture through micro-activities at the local and community level. Ideally, with its freedom from commercial market ties, lo-fi offers people an alternative to the prescribed tastes, desires and styles of the mainstream culture.