One strength of music that has been the subject of countless guaranteed–A classes, pretentious YouTube videos, and perfunctory discussions is its capacity to serve as a means of cultural transmission. Passed down through generations, songs can become inextricably woven into the fabric of families, communities, and even the world at large, surviving well beyond anyone who would know where they came from. 

Sometimes, these songs are just the product of fortunate circumstances—is “Happy Birthday to You” really a compositional masterpiece deserving of its place in the cultural domain? But sometimes, these songs draw on a simplicity and universality that allow them to maintain importance among successive generations, becoming folk music in the truest sense of the phrase. But is folk music still being made?

If you limit your definition of folk music only to those songs which were passed down through direct transmission, obviously not. This is just a product of the contemporary music industry, and it’s certainly not a bad thing. There was a time when musicians like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell could go decades writing songs that would serve as the foundation for decades of rock and country music without reaching an audience beyond local street corners. 

By the 1960s, however, independent releases and mass–market LPs democratized music, making it to the point that recordings, rather than direct transmission, became the mode du jour of passing down folk music. Soon, folk reached a new zenith, with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and countless other musicians releasing music that will, at least by my modern estimation, be as enduring as folk songs from a century ago. 

The folk revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which included not only Greenwich Village, but extremely fertile Texas and Chicago scenes, presents to us an inarguable truth about folk music that brings the primitive recordings of Robert Johnson and the ostentatious rock–and–roll of Steve Earle under a common umbrella. Folk music means a lot more than acoustic music. It means simplicity, honesty, and universality. And those elements do not exist within the folk scene of the current decade.

Spotify’s “Fresh Folk” playlist gives us a good impression of what is currently passing for folk music—primarily autobiographical complaining over a crowded indie–pop mix in which there is, perceptible only if you crane your head far enough and meditatively tune out any other instruments, an acoustic guitar. Beyond this association, which itself is obviously not universally applicable to folk music unless you are willing to exclude basically all of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, these songs do absolutely nothing to fall within the paradigm of folk music. I can understand the desire to distinguish artists like Mt. Joy from those like Dua Lipa by avoiding simply calling them both “pop,” but if rock music can somehow contain both Jonathan Richman and KISS via its umbrella of subgenres, pop can do the same.

This reclassification is particularly relevant because the contemporary pop aesthetics that are being regurgitated by modern “folk” singer–songwriters are completely antithetical to the ethos of folk music. Not only are they generated for immediate mass consumption, as evidenced by the fact that Taylor Swift’s pseudo–folk single “willow” has six different versions of itself, but they contribute absolutely nothing to the lasting American songbook. When Swift sings on her song “invisible string” that “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab / On your first trip to LA,” there is nothing enduring about her sentiment. 

It’s a moment in time, a self–serving one at that, that will mean nothing to the American canon outside of Taylor Swift’s time in the spotlight. Beyond this, the subject matter of her songs, as well as those of many of her acoustic–pop contemporaries, is intensely personal, eschewing the universally applicable themes of love and loss common in folk music for songs about the paths she herself went down in the development of her own romantic life, experiences that only she can relate to. Once her moment as a cultural icon is over, there will be nothing left in these lyrics. Ironically, this same song, off of her amusingly titled album folklore, begins with the line “Green was the color of the grass,” which, admittedly, is so universal that it means absolutely nothing. There’s bound to be a middle ground somewhere.

At least Taylor Swift has only released two albums that anyone had the gall to consider folk music. But artists like Hozier and, more recently, Noah Kahan, have somehow been able to retain this label over the course of their entire careers, despite having many of the same problems. 

I could similarly dive into Kahan’s ridiculous lyricism, but instead I’ll consider another fundamental element of folk: its structure. Part of what gives folk music its enduring character is its songcraft, which ought to be simple and unadorned. It is this ideal that made songs like Van Morrison’s “Gloria” a part of the 20th century folk canon. It’s far from acoustic, but its structure and production allow for evolving interpretations, such as Patti Smith’s vastly superior 1975 semi–cover “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” and its lack of needless embellishment allows the song to stand on its own, regardless of evolving pop trends.

Noah Kahan’s breakthrough hit, “Stick Season,” exhibits none of these elements. It is unabashedly the product of numerous refined takes, consists of a dense and bombastic instrumental backing, and is highlighted by modern vocal stylings (“singing in cursive,” if you want to be more pejorative) that are double–tracked and lathered in reverb. The song’s production almost insists that you not allow it to stand on its own, instead requiring that listeners be attuned to a litany of contemporary pop trends, including the folk–orthogonal personal nature of its lyrics. Listening to this song decades from now will be like listening to Journey today—perhaps mawkishly nostalgic, but certainly not apropos.

Hozier’s music often exhibits many of the same realities, including his biggest acoustic hit, “Would That I,” whose vocals are more than just double–tracked and whose lyrics are sung in a very 21st century staccato style. Alongside these two are the likes of Mt. Joy and Caamp, as well as already–dated 2010s acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, who themselves prove the extent to which modern “folk” lacks the staying power necessary to become actual folk music. 

Perhaps the most amusing part about this conundrum is that good modern folk music is being released. And I’m not even talking about some secret underground folk movement; I’m talking about big–time, stadium–filling artists, like Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan. Both write songs with a deep connection to their regional musical traditions, singing about places and themes that are easily relatable, with songcraft that will allow for a century of relistens, covers, and reinterpretations. Yes, they sing in country accents, but so did John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and (for a weird few years) Bob Dylan! 

At the end of the day, it’s okay to just like pop music, but don’t bear unto it a level of durability it hasn’t earned. Folk music is alive, well, and entirely unrepresented in the modern folk–pop movement.