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with or without uke

In Defense of the Ukulele

Two Mondays ago, an episode of How I Met Your Mother ended with the mother breaking off an engagement and somberly strumming a ukulele while crooning “La Vie en Rose.” Arrestingly performed live by the Tony-nominated and Grammy-winning Cristin Milioti, it felt to me like a TV moment in a DVR-centric era lacking in TV moments. The next morning, however, I discovered that many viewers didn’t share my opinion; recappers and commenters alike slammed the scene for being twee, cliché, too cutesy. After being taken aback by the response, I realized these grumbles were less about a show's decision to express a character's pain through music and more a feeling that’s become increasingly knee-jerk in recent years: ukulele hate. As the ukulele has grown in popularity over the past decade or so, the instrument has concurrently become a stand-in for things that many people can’t seem to tolerate — hipsters, twee, sensitivity, cutesiness — when all it wanted to do was sound nice.  

The ukulele was born out of the machete, a small, four-stringed, guitarlike instrument the Portuguese brought to Hawaii in the 1800s. It was introduced Stateside in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and quickly became a hit. It was featured in popular music for decades, but became a joke after Tiny Tim used it in his 1968 novelty song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” This interregnum of disfavor is essential to both the modern appeal and recent backlash of the instrument, as it lended the ukulele an old-timey and quirky quality, and, right or wrong, branded those who chose to play it as being purposely ironic.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the ukulele’s resurgence began, but 1999 is most likely. That was the year that both Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s uke version of  “Over the Rainbow” was used in a ubiquitous commercial and the Magnetic Fields released 69 Love Songs, an incredibly influential indie album that prominently featured the ukulele, especially on its stand-out track “Book of Love.” It also coincided with the rise of the contemporary hipster, a subculture that grew in tandem and eventually merged with the pervasiveness of the instrument, until the ukulele had become another throwback thing associated with hipsters, along with beards, skinny jeans, and the like.

Zooey Deschanel, magnet for all disdain for cutesiness, codified the public’s hatred of ukuleles with her embrace of them, even though she didn’t pioneer the cliché. "There’s so much ukulele playing now, it’s deafening," wrote Julie Klausner in a blog post takedown of the Deschanel aesthetic. That screed was written almost three years ago, and the ukulele has soared in popularity since (sales increased from 581,000 to more than one million between 2010 and 2012). The glasses-wearing, ukulele-playing dude or the wide-eyed, diminutive ukulele-playing lady have become enemies of the state and the ukulele an itty-bitty weapon of mass destruction that must be forever banned.

But that would be a wholly bad thing. The primary defense of the ukulele is the most direct, as Cristin Milioti put it to me in an interview from earlier in the week: "Everything sounds awesome on it." An instrument just needs to sound good — it doesn't need to be played by a diverse group of subcultures. The ukulele sounds good, able to be strummed and feel totally pleasant or slowly fingerpicked and sound heartbreakingly lonely. (When releasing his Ukulele Songs album, Eddie Vedder told the New York Times that he wanted to see if you could “make this happy little instrument as depressed as [he was].”)

Beyond sounding nice, ukes are defined by their smallness. To some, its teensiness is emblematic of its cutesiness, but I'd point to how this informs its most tangible benefit: that you can take it anywhere. Ryan Gosling's character can bring a ukulele on a date in Blue Valentine; I can bring my ukulele to a Connecticut cabin this weekend (twee as fuck) —schlepping is avoided in both cases. But more so, its smallness results in the standard ukulele being an incredibly quiet instrument. It's what makes it, as Milioti put it, the ultimate "alone on the porch" instrument. Played normally, it can only be heard by you and perhaps someone sitting near you. That was the apparent goal of these movies and TV shows: The ukulele created an intimacy and specificity to the scenes in Her and How I Met Your Mother that a booming guitar wouldn’t have. In both, the ukulele trenchantly serves a clear and indisputable narrative purpose. It might also say something about the characters playing it, however viewers violently differ in how they perceive that characterization.

Though seemingly rooted in the same place, it's probably best to separate the hate by gender. First, the hatred for men who play the uke: In many ways, it comes from a similar place as Garden State hate, a cultural discomfort with male sensitivity. To cite one recent example, in her negative review of Her, Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote, "We're supposed to feel so much for Theodore in his Tom Selleck mustache, oh-so-winsomely plucking at a ukulele as he lounges in his underfurnished bachelor apartment; his life is as empty as his bookshelves." But such sentiments have the effect of shaming men for daring to have feelings. As progressive as so many cultural critics can be, the protagonists many of us routinely celebrate and fetishize, even in 2014, are "manly men," a term that is as limiting and problematic as "girly girl." Every character is not and should not be an antihero, and the hatred of the melancholy-song-listening, ukulele-playing male character is just a highbrow version of the "be a man" taunt. It’s a point of view that became clear when a male co-worker sent me a link to a pleasant ukulele cover of "Skulls" on the Rookie site, saying it ruined his favorite Misfits songs. Ruined was code for made girly.

And it's the same for female ukulele-ing. For many, the sight of a woman strumming this tiny instrument is to summon all hatred of the manic pixie dream girl trope, with its vapor trail of immaturity. We live in a media landscape that so incredibly and thoroughly celebrates and profits the infantile pleasures of boys (whether it's video games, comic books, pranks, or sports), yet the woman-child is too twee for many. (Even though there's obviously a decent-size market for twee things — hence, Etsy.) And there's always a suspicion that it's an act, that a woman playing the ukulele is doing so in a concerted effort to be seen as lovably whimsical; this inauthenticity should be shamed.  This reflexive disdain follows Zooey Deschanel and anything associated with her around. It's why a conversation about why Deschanel is so terrible sprouted up in the comments section of our Milioti interview. (Not coincidentally, Milioti, Deschanel, and Kate Micucci — a sometimes-condescended-to ukulele-playing comedian —all have vaguely similar looks: petite and large-eyed, like sad Pixar characters. It's an aesthetic that lends itself to suspicion of cuteness.) So, I'll let Deschanel make the case for the ukulele and everything like it through two quotes by her. The first is from an episode of New Girl, in which her character, Jess, defends herself when an attorney (played by Lizzy Caplan) disparages Jess's girliness.

“I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours…And that doesn’t mean I'm not smart and tough and strong.” 

The second is Deschanel's response to the Klausner article, from her 2011 New York profile.

“I can’t be girlie? I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. I don’t think that it undermines my power at all.”

The word power reminded me of the song "Powa" by Tune-Yards. The song is fun, cool, sexy, and, for a lack of a better word, powerful. Like every Tune-Yards song, it features a ukulele, and like every Tune-Yards song, there is a girliness to it, and like every Tune-Yards song, it's fucking badass. Watch the half-young-girl-, half-Tune-Yards-starring video for "Bizness" below and just try to condescend to the ukulele.

My favorite movie scene ever is that part in The Jerk when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters walk along the beach singing "Tonight You Belong to Me." Some might write it off as being overly twee — they are, after all, taking a clichéd, overly sentimental beachside stroll, with Peters seemingly wearing a vintage navy officer costume you'd buy a female teddy bear — but they'd be too quickly discarding such a touching and funny and, yes, cute scene. And there's the ukulele, doing what it does best: being portable, creating intimacy, and sounding nice.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Shutterstock.com