The year-end countdowns of the most popular musical hits of 2010 all seem to be agreeing on Train’s "Hey, Soul Sister" as the song of the year. But not enough credit is being given to the sound of the year. It’s been building for a while, but in 2010, the soundtrack of American pop culture was played on the ukulele.
Numerous articles have been published across the country, even internationally, about the "ukulele trend." The theory is that the instrument suits recession-era sensibilities: It is relatively inexpensive to purchase (compared with, say, a piano or a violin), easy to learn, small enough to carry if you end up losing your house and able to be stashed on a shelf if your "music room" ends up becoming an apartment for relatives who have fallen on hard times.
The soaring voice of the ukulele fits the times as well. It can bounce with optimism, swing off cares like drops of water, but also sound so mournful and lonely when in the right hands.
Most credit the artistry of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and the business savvy of Mountain Apple records with bringing the ukulele back to prominence. Before Iz’s "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/ What a Wonderful World," the ukulele was associated outside Hawaii with Tiny Tim’s novelty song "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Then Iz’s hauntingly lovely recording was used in a string of movies and television shows starting in 2000 and throughout the decade. In commercials for breakfast cereal, laundry softener, toy companies and cell phones, the ukulele, played by Iz or played to sound like Iz, has become the soundtrack to an idealized family life, where children are cherished, the sun shines golden and hazy through spotless windows and the bed linens always smell clean.
Jake Shimabukuro has taken the instrument to new levels and built an international fan base. Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, even SpongeBob SquarePants use the ukulele prominently as part of their signature sounds. Taylor Swift plays an ukulele in concert. "American Idol" contestant Jason Castro did a cover of Iz’s song, complete with ukulele, in the competition. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has rocked out on an ukulele.
All that energy built up to 2010, when the ukulele was all over the radio, all over TV commercials, all over the poignant scenes of TV dramas and the closing credits of movies.
"Glee" star Matthew Morrison busted out his Kamaka ukulele on the show last year as well as to sing "Mele Kalikimaka" to President Barack Obama and his family. Kamaaina Bruno Mars, red hot now on the music scene, played his ukulele in concert.
Though called the "ukulele trend," it has been more like "ukulele domination." What’s most satisfying about it is that something from Hawaii is being seen not as a kitschy novelty but as serious, artistic and beautiful.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at email@example.com.