Da li je ‘indie’ mrtav?
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Ovaj članak, koji prenosimo, pojavio se u februarskom broju 2010. magazina PASTE . Paste je američki muzički magazin koji pokriva ne samo indie muziku, već i indie filmove i literaturu. Nažalost, prenosimo ga u originalnoj verziji, bez prevoda. Članak je vrlo zanimljiv i smatramo da ga i pored eventualne jezičke barijere treba postaviti.
In 1966, John T. Elson posed a dangerous question. The Time magazine editor, in a now-legendary essay, asked: Is God dead? “It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no,” he wrote. Spelled out in red letters on the magazine’s bible-black cover, the question aroused dismay and dissent in newspaper editorials, family rooms and sacristies across the country, despite the fact that Elson skirted a definitive answer to his own loaded query.
Ten years later, another question was posed, though much less formally. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, beneath the surface of a placid mainstream culture, a growing mass in shredded clothes, with flailing bodies and untamed voices welled up, howling in unison: Are we dead? This movement started in scattered urban centers and then spread, flourishing on obscure LPs and in the black-and-white photocopied pages of fan-made ’zines, traded like fine tea from the Orient. It took refuge on low-frequency college radio stations, where DJs blasted the gospel of those wild men and women to listeners who scrawled their own parables with their own furious bands. God may have been usurped in the ’60s, but these kids were baring their teeth, sharpening their knives, preparing to slaughter the idol that rose in God’s place, the slicked-smooth supreme being of Pop. They wouldn’t make money doing it, they wouldn’t be famous, they wouldn’t fit in—and they not only braced themselves against these realities, they adopted them as their core tenets, their creed.
In 2010, we again find ourselves in strange times. More than 20 years have passed since the punk movement and its offspring ground a steel-toed boot into the shin of America’s cultural consciousness, and in that time we’ve seen it rise up, triumph and retreat in an endless cycle, each time leaving shards of itself behind to float or sink in the mainstream. What we’ve called it has never been stable—it’s been known alternately as “punk” for its early attitude, “underground” for where it happened, “alternative” when the mainstream held it up as an antidote to its own poison—each of these picked up then sloughed off when the semantic baggage grew too unwieldy.
Most recently, “indie”—long thrown around as a signifier of how it got done (i.e. independently)—has become the nom du jour. “When I first heard the term ‘indie rock,’ it was about business practices,” says Slim Moon, who came of age as a punk fan in the 1980s, founded the Kill Rock Stars label in the ’90s, and now helms Shotclock Management out of Portland, Ore. “Major labels being publicly held corporations, their primary motive has to be to make money for stockholders. And the distinctions that I think indie labels were trying to make was, ‘We’re independent of that system so we have lots of reasons for doing this: We’re doing this for politics, we’re doing this for cool factor, we’re doing it for aesthetics, we’re doing it for community, but we’re not just doing it for money.’”
Of course, the term “indie” is troubled now, too. Indie is, at once, a genre (of music first, and then of film, books, video games and anything else with a perceived arty sensibility, regardless of its relationship to a corporation), an ethos, a business model, a demographic and a marketing tool. It can signify everything, and it can signify nothing. It stands among the most important, potentially sustainable and meaningful movements in American popular culture—not just music, but for the whole cultural landscape. But because it was originally sculpted more in terms of what it opposed than what it stood for, the only universally held truth about “indie” is that nobody agrees on what it means.
We have several forces to thank for this growing, increasingly toxic confusion: a mainstream culture never above poaching; a precariously teetering music industry; an Internet booming harder than the Old West, with less rules and more cowboy posturing; plus, an aging movement whose original mix of urgent otherness and charming hubris has—for many members of its second generation—simmered down to solipsism and entitlement.
There’s this old parable, the tale of the blind men and the elephant. The men are asked to describe the enormous creature based on how it feels; the one who touches its trunk says an elephant is like a giant snake, the one who touches its tail says it’s like a rope, the one who touches its leg says it’s like a tree trunk, and so on. No one can see the whole beast, no one can feel it all, no one can tell what it is. Indie has become this elephant, and its attendants—its fans, practitioners and detractors—are the blind men, grasping for the truth about a creature that’s growing bigger all the time. It looms so increasingly large as to obscure its own hugeness—a writhing, hydra-headed beast that renders itself nearly invisible by filling up our entire field of vision. It’s a limping, disoriented creature unsure of its own nature.
And so today we ask yet another question: Is indie dead?
When Elson wrote his Time essay in 1966, he was responding to a sense of spiritual ennui gripping not only America but most of the West; a kind of grand-scale parochial identity crisis some 2,000 years in the making. In particular he was responding to Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion, more than 80 years prior, that God is dead—not that there had never been a God, but that there had been, and that we as humans had done away with him. When everything God offered—moral context, stability, certainty—had been questioned, abused or found elsewhere, when the idea of and word “God” no longer necessitated power, Nietzsche proffered that God as a force, as a being, became irrelevant, meaningless, hollow.
Elson wrote of some believers who accepted God’s death as truth but chose to continue as if nothing was different, just to maintain the order of their lives and the world. Indie is an artistic ideal, not a world religion, so while it faces the same dilemma—as a word that once meant so much, and still does to some, but has virtually lost all meaning and may now be doing more harm than good—there’s no need to be so careful. We can tear down this idol with reckless abandon because, to our question, there is a concrete answer: Indie is dead. It has killed itself.
SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY
Those around for punk’s clarion call could’ve never imagined that their festering rage would lead to this. If the movement’s earliest adopters had skipped forward 25 or 30 years to see what they’d indirectly wrought, they might’ve hung themselves by their guitar strings.
Stripped of all its developmental context, what they would see and hear would be jarring: “indie” bands on the radio, “indie” bands on television, “indie” bands on the Billboard charts, “indie” bands if not on the cover then certainly teeming inside mainstream magazines. And that’s only the small slice of the media landscape they’d be able to recognize on their own. We’d have to coach them through the whole Internet thing, pulling up Pitchfork, explaining “pageviews” and blogs, watching their eyes bug as they process the modern world and then narrow back down as they contemplate all these new names: “Spoon? Death Cab for Cutie? Pavement reunion? Who are these guys?”
“They’re indie bands,” we’d tell them, and then we’d give them a little time to let it sink in, maybe play Slanted and Enchanted—ease them in slow before dropping the first bombshell.
And what would that be? Well, for starters, what about how this Death Cab band is actually signed to, um, Atlantic Records: “Yeah, that Atlantic. It’s owned by Warner now. Yeah, that Warner. Anyway, they started out on an indie label—oh no, you wouldn’t know it, it’s called Barsuk, started in ’94. One of those Seattle labels. What’s up with Seattle? Let’s save that for later. Anyway, Death Cab, yeah—signed with Atlantic a couple years ago and everyone got all clammy and nervous about it, thought the band had probably sold out and figured we should resign ourselves to just loving The Photo Album and politely ignore whatever else was gonna happen down the line. Then the album came out and, you know, it wasn’t so bad. What’s that? Oh, yeah. People do still call them indie, yeah.”
Or maybe we’d talk about Spoon. That might be easier to swallow: “So there’s this label, Merge. Spoon’s on it, a bunch of other great bands, too. The Merge folks have been doing their own thing for a while now, and Spoon’s been with them for about five albums. People really dig ’em. But here’s the crazy thing—you know Billboard? Well, they’ve got this chart now just for independent albums, and every record Spoon’s put out has been on it. Except for the one they did with a major, Elektra—yeah, Elektra’s owned by a major now, too, or at least it was before it folded—anyway, that album sold like crap, but the others have all done pretty well. The past two were even up in the Billboard 200 with all the pop stars. I know, right?”
Then later, maybe after a few PBRs: “OK, so let me tell you about this label Sub Pop. You haven’t heard of it yet but you will pretty soon, I guess. These days, they’re kind of this hero label because they’ve been consistently awesome for pretty much the past 20 years, just bam bam bam, one great, super-relevant band after another. The first big one, Nirvana—God, just brace yourself, trust me. I can’t even explain. Anyway, they’ve got this reputation that precedes them. You know how you guys will go out to those gritty little record shops of yours and scrounge up everything you can find from, like, Homestead and Touch and Go and K and all that? We pretty much do that with Sub Pop. We just know it’ll be good. Venerable, ha, yeah. Except here’s the thing—they’re part-owned by Warner. Yeah, 49 percent. Wasn’t always that way, but it happened, you know? They’re still trucking on and all, but some folks won’t call them indie. Kinda revoked the badge.”
And then after a few more beers: “Oh yeah, her? That’s M.I.A. No, not ‘Mia.’ She’s Sri Lankan—Sri Lankan, that’s what I said. Well, I guess it would be electronica—yeah, like that guy Brian Eno, sort of. Most people now wouldn’t say that, though. She’s on Interscope, which is a part of Universal, which, right, is about as far away from indie as you can possibly get. But you know what’s weird? She probably sings more about political issues and gives less of a shit about what people think of her than a whole lot of ‘independent’ rock bands right now. And so yeah, she’s in with the indie folks, too. Where are all the guitars? I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”
And as they chew their bottom lips in deep thought, twiddle the zippers on their leather jackets and cross and uncross their ratty-jeaned legs, we’ll nod slowly and unsurely along with them. Because we’re confused, too.
Early on, “indie” meant what punk meant, which was a willful operation outside the mainstream music industry, a fully do-it-yourself approach to everything about music. It wasn’t about a specific sound at first, though with the limited elements prevalent in early punk bands—guitar, drums, bass, three to five white guys, technical proficiency optional—the music could only get so diverse. In England, the “indie” sound solidified much earlier than in the States; over here, it crystallized around the time punk broke in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The underground bands most visible to the mainstream almost all signed to majors sooner or later, and since they could no longer be defined by their label independence, they were defined by their generally similar sound: some imprecise amalgam of the Pixies’ howling melodics, Sonic Youth’s distortion, Pavement’s shambling swagger and Nirvana’s raw nerve. Meanwhile, back in the real indie dugout, bands formed that had little or nothing to do with the recently genrefied punk acts: riotgrrrls like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy, lo-fi bedroom maestros like Elliott Smith and Cat Power, junk-drawer gypsies like Neutral Milk Hotel—they were all indie, too, right?
Well sure, why not? Who was indie to turn anyone away?
But then, like a well-meaning pet lover who takes in a few strays, indie suddenly found its house overrun with weird cats and smelling like piss.
“There’s a part of me that can never shake the indignation that [indie] once was about ethics and business practices,” Slim Moon says. “… There’s a grumpy old man about me that’s really upset that that’s not what most people mean when they talk about indie anymore.”
In 2006, CNN attempted to reign in the unwieldy concept with a web feature that proclaimed, “If it’s cool, creative and different, it’s indie.” “That is a statement by a mediocre mass-media outlet with little clue about music,” says writer Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, the definitive history of the transitional period between punk and alternative rock. “Hip-hop artist Ghostface Killah answers that description. Does that mean he’s indie, even though he’s on Def Jam? Classical composer Osvaldo Golijov fits those criteria too. Is he indie as well? Or Lady Gaga or M.I.A.?”
It used to be easy to say what was indie and what was not. “The term ‘indie’ originally referred to labels which had no connection whatsoever to the major labels,” Azerrad says. “That used to be a meaningful distinction, because the underground wanted nothing to do with corporate America. Obviously, things have changed.” What’s changed is this: In addition to direct relationships like Sub Pop’s with Warner, most of the labels now widely considered to be “indie” powerhouses—like Domino, Merge and Matador—are distributed by the Alternative Distribution Alliance, majority-owned by Warner. This means that acts like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent, Spoon, Arcade Fire and others noted as the seminal “indie” acts of our time are not actually “indie” at all. (Even Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the eponymous label founded by the band that became famous in 2005 for having no label, is distributed by the ADA.) Azerrad distinguishes these artists as part of a broader genre of “indie rock,” defined as a “genre which takes as its antecedents the truly indie rock of preceding generations,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the fiscal status of the label on which it is released. It should really be called ‘indie-influenced rock.’” The designation “indie” he reserves for artists making music on labels that remain wholly independent.
These days, most people don’t make that same distinction, perhaps because they don’t share Azerrad’s interest in semantics or his knowledge of history. From its earliest years, the word “indie” has been a badge of honor, something to distinguish between underground authenticity and mainstream pablum. Those once-oppositional forces have become ever more confused, which some might say is all the more reason to reclaim indie’s true meaning. This would be easier if we all agreed with Azerrad’s definition—or any definition—but we don’t.
Given its “by the people, for the people” punk roots, indie’s most relevant definition would seem to come from its fans, its most fervent believers. But take to the Internet—the homeless home of this decade’s most important scene—and you’ll find that any definition set forth has been swiftly and furiously countered. On leading playlist-sharing site Last.fm, the description for the 422-member group “Indie is not a Genre” proclaims, “indie music is not a genre or stlye [sic] of music, but a label affliliation [sic].” “Finally a group that understands,” reads one of the 242 comments left on the message board. “you dumb fucks,” another responds. “indie is now a genre, there is an ‘indie’ sound which you can apply to certain bands. it does not mean independent.” (Of course, the commenter declines to specify what that sound might be.) “Yeah, it’s like … um … everything you don’t know what is it, it’s indie,” another advises.
So much for that.
Even the ostensibly indie music industry is divided. Perhaps the most stunning example of this came late last year, when former Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein asked dozens of industry types, from label owners to musicians to publicists, “What does ‘indie’ mean to you?” She published the results on her NPR Music blog, Monitor Mix, and the lack of consensus was astounding. The definitions invoked everything from sound to label affiliations to level of personal hygiene.
“It means music not known by or supported by the greater populous [sic], residing in its’ [sic] own little niche or community, being music for music’s sake,” wrote Portland music scene stalwart Rachel Blumberg. “That is what it has always meant to me. And I think that still exists.” But what, exactly, is “music for music’s sake?” Is it just songs played with friends on a back porch, or does it change when you sign to even a tiny indie label, like Portland’s own Hush or Jealous Butcher? And if music is made in that kind of environment, but then somehow—like Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire—happens to catch on with the greater populace, do we revoke its indieness? (A friend of mine actually does this, re-labeling artists tagged as “indie” in her iTunes library if they sign to a major label or “get bigger,” upgrading them to “alternative.”)
“It means a band who cultivated a fan base for at least one album before they had any kind of money or marketing behind them,” wrote Tristan Aaron, media director of The Women’s Media Center. So do we need to vet all bands claiming to be “indie,” to ensure their debuts were wholly unmarketed and recorded in essential poverty? Is there someone in charge of that, or do we just do it ourselves? And again, if the band signs to a major after that first album, is the “indie” distinction dropped?
Carly Starr, head of international marketing at Sub Pop, replied more precisely. What does indie mean? “Nothing,” she said.
That’s more like it.
“For myself, it is kind of split between two different definitions,” says Brownstein, who notes that she “wasn’t surprised” by the inconclusiveness of her informal survey. “One is a shortcut for explaining to someone what music sounds like. I think most music fans would acknowledge that’s a vague definition, but it’s a quick way to let someone know—like if someone asks what something sounds like, you can go, ‘Oh, they’re sort of indie-sounding.’ For most people that have been listening to music for a while, that’s going to conjure up something. And then I think that I would also revert to more literal definition as well, to mean someone that’s independently minded, or following a set of rules or a philosophy that separates them from corporate music culture.”
Sleater-Kinney released its two earliest albums on Chainsaw Records and four more on Kill Rock Stars—both wholly unaffiliated with major labels, then and now. The band’s final record, The Woods, was released by Sub Pop in 2005, but Brownstein considers it an indie release. “I think that the artistic and business decisions of the Matadors and the Sub Pops speak for themselves,” she says. “I think of Sub Pop and Matador as indie labels, but I’m sure some people would maybe not.”
Here’s an update on the elephant parable: So we’ve got these blind men, right? And then we’ve got the elephant—which is, as established, a mutant elephant, bigger than any elephant has ever been before, with multiple screaming heads and all that. And we’re pretty sure this thing is dead. And these poor blind men are being asked to grab and grope and pat it all over. They’re bound to fail, of course. They’re bound to give him all sorts of ridiculous descriptions. But what they don’t know is that even if they could see the whole of this rotten pachyderm, they still wouldn’t know what it was.
Pretty much all anyone agrees on, beside the fact that indie does exist in some form, is the issue of authenticity. Whatever indie is, whatever this weird elephant is, we know one thing: It’s gotta be real. Or as the Sex Pistols famously sneered back in ’77, they’ve gotta mean it, man.
IT’S GONE BIG
Why do we care what indie is? We care because some version of it is being thrown in our faces more and more every day, and in the strangest ways. And just like there’s a spectrum of what we consider “indie” (in terms of artists’ actual releases), there’s a wide range of degrees to which indie is commodified and sold back to us. In some regards, this is nothing new. In 1993, writer Thomas Frank—during his tenure as editor of counterculture ’zine The Baffler—mourned the replacement of ’80s glam-danger marketing with co-opted punk tropes to hawk cars and sodas. “With the ‘alternative’ face-lift, ‘rebellion’ continues to perform its traditional function of justifying the economy’s ever-accelerating cycles of obsolescence with admirable efficiency,” he seethed in his essay “Alternative to What?,” penned at the height of punk’s commercialization. “Since our willingness to load up our closets with purchases depends upon an eternal shifting of the products paraded before us, upon our being endlessly convinced that the new stuff is better than the old, we must be persuaded over and over again that the ‘alternatives’ are more valuable than the existing or the previous.”
The way indie appears in mainstream advertising today is quite different, in that there’s more emphasis on the art itself than there has been with any previously co-opted subculture. In the ’90s, ads mimed attitude and attire to sell products that would’ve hardly passed muster with members of the movement whose style was being ripped off, but the real punks could hardly control it—no one owns the copyright on a look. Today, ads are more likely to employ songs—or at least 15-second clips of them—that work as ever-so-brief soundtracks to a larger message, which is generally more subtle, less associated with a specific ideology and, thanks to the checks and balances of licensing, almost always approved by the artists themselves, whether they’re on an indie, a major or something in between.
“All my life, I’ve heard people talk about issues of co-optation and underground and mainstream, and I even use that language myself sometimes,” Slim Moon says. “But I can’t quite think of it in those terms. I think it just isn’t that simple or that nefarious.”
Dawn Sutter Madell is the co-owner and music supervisor of Agoraphone Music Direction, a Brooklyn-based company that works with advertising agencies to place music in TV commercials. She was a music writer before she got into advertising; her husband, Josh, is also a musician and co-owner of New York’s Other Music, arguably America’s premier indie-record retailer. “I once licensed a super-obscure ’60s band called The Monks and put them in a Powerade ad, and someone said to me—not knowing that I had done it—like, ‘I can’t believe they found that band!’ And I was like, ‘They didn’t find it,’” she says. “The closest you would come would be that the advertising company found it. It’s not like the people at Coke are gonna come to you and say, ‘We really wanna use The Monks in this Powerade ad.’”
Volkswagen’s 2000 Cabrio commercial, featuring Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” is often cited as a watershed moment for underground music in advertising. Lance Jensen was part of the team of writers that plucked the song out of their personal libraries and placed it in the ad; he’s since co-founded Boston ad agency Modernista. “Advertising is firmly in the crossroads of the unholy alliance of art and commerce,” says Jensen (who describes his staff as “just a bunch of misfits, really”). “It just is.”
“Personally, I don’t mind it so much because it’s been happening so long and I know the reality of it,” says Brandon Stosuy, senior writer for music blog Stereogum, who pens the site’s Quit Your Day Job column about musicians pulling paychecks from diners and record stores while not on tour. But he realizes it can be tough for fans to deal with the possibility of their favorite band’s appearance in the mainstream, however limited. “Some people feel like it’s their private thing,” he says. “They see these blogs as secrets that no one knows about, so if something shows up on TV or the six o’clock news, they freak out.” Stosuy knows because he’s been there; back when Matador struck its deal with Atlantic, he and his friends were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who agonized over whether Pavement was or was not indie anymore. (These days, he generally falls into the indie-as-sensibility camp.)
For those unsure even now of the practical worth of musicians licensing their songs for commercial use, the finest bit of apologetics on the subject is probably John Leland’s 2001 New York Times Magazine piece about The Apples in Stereo licensing their song “Strawberryfire” for a Sony television commercial, which made it possible for the band’s husband-and-wife frontman and drummer to buy furniture for their new baby. ‘‘You imagine that it’s a crass process,’’ Apples lead singer Robert Schneider told Leland at the time. ‘‘But it’s not like Sony used our song in the commercial, which is how it looks to the indie kid. It’s just one guy who liked our music.’’
Maybe that was true for “Strawberryfire”—it was a musician friend of Schneider’s working in advertising who suggested the song for the spot—and it may often be true for the work Modernista and Agoraphone do, though Madell admits she can’t speak for any other ad agency: “Not every company works like we do.” But despite all intentions, what that indie kid—or what any one of us—sees in a TV commercial for a mega-corporation soundtracked by a popular song, indie or otherwise, isn’t a mirage. Maybe we’re too charmed by the serendipitous pleasure of hearing a song we love out in the wild, or we’re too busy trying to push any and all unwanted associations from our minds—or maybe we just don’t care. Still, the fact remains: It’s a band making money from a company trying to make money off of us by using the band to imply that they—the company, the brand—share some values with the song, and if you like the song, or at least the way the song pairs with the images in the ad, then you’ll like the company and what they make, which includes this big TV, which you will probably love as much as this song, if you love the song, so won’t you please buy it?
This is the approach of all modern advertising, no matter what label a band is on or whose baby needs a crib or who’s working double-shifts at the coffee shop just to make ends meet when he’s not on the road. Ad agencies aren’t in the business of entertaining; these commercials aren’t made just for funsies. You don’t need to be Don Draper or even Thomas Frank to recognize this. Bob Seger sells strength, dependability and rugged nostalgia (perfect for Chevy); The Shins sell whimsy, sensitivity and an off-kilter hipness—perfect for… McDonald’s?
What makes indie such an odd example of a subculture being sold back to the masses is that, in practice, its main selling point is its uncoolness. Its presence in an ad doesn’t imply rebelliousness like alternative-culture tropes were once meant to; its songs and stars don’t lend an air of dangerous sex appeal as did rock’s earliest spokespeople. Instead, it’s offered up as a different kind of different, something simple and honest and true, a little weird, a little funny—rebellious, if anything, in its delightful ordinariness. In late 2007, The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn identified this “aesthetic principle” as “quirk,” defining it as “an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream.”
“It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions … and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits,” he wrote. “Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.” He then doled out a cross-platform cut down of pop culture’s then-current pantheon of quirk: This American Life, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Flight of the Conchords. He missed Juno by just a few months, but the movie likely would have altered his take dramatically; as it was, his thesis was supported by taking shot after gleeful shot at This American Life’s “self-styledly quirky” host Ira Glass, lamenting the radio show’s climate as “a kind of permanent 70 degrees, moderate humidity.”
Imagine if he’d had as fodder Diablo Cody’s stripper-to-screenwriter story, Ellen Page’s eerily natural portrayal of Juno’s hyper-offbeat title character, the movie’s stringently precocious and best-selling soundtrack (featuring Belle and Sebastian, Kimya Dawson and proto-indie rockers The Velvet Underground), and the film’s predictably unexpected Oscar nods. And that’s to say nothing of the deluge of quirk that’s flowed forth since: all of Michael Cera’s other movies, Where the Wild Things Are, Zooey Deschanel. It would’ve been an embarrassment of twitches.
Few doubted the honesty of Juno’s weirdness, and Hirschorn himself didn’t necessarily take issue with the authenticity of quirk, just its ubiquity—but it would have been easy. In early 2009, Comcast rolled out a clearly Juno-inspired marketing campaign called “Dream Big,” the commercials for which were part Sims and part Sesame Street, featuring hiply (or square-hiply) dressed actors all singing about the joys of hi-speed Internet in a hushed monotone jingle that sounded like The Moldy Peaches on quaaludes. There was also a hat-wearing, guitar-playing squirrel, and a social networking site, “Comcast Town.” It was, as Hirschorn once deadpanned, “Random.” Then came Miracle Whip’s “We Will Not Tone It Down” ads, in which a scruffy guitar-based song played over footage of a hyper-diverse array of attractive co-eds laughing, running around, playing with kids and eating sandwiches oozing with gooey-white goodness. “We’re not like the others,” the voiceover intones. “We won’t ever try to be.” Well, thank God! Except, didn’t they see the Hellmann’s “It’s Time For Real” commercial that ran in the summer of 2007? You know, the one where the jaunty piano-based song plays over footage of a hyper-diverse array of attractive co-eds laughing, running around, playing with kids and eating sandwiches oozing with gooey-white goodness?
This aesthetic might shock our time-traveling punk forefathers most of all. How did indie go from the scalding, thrashing fury of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag to toy pianos, ukuleles and polite handclaps—to selling mayonnaise, apparently the patron condiment of youthful rebellion?
Frank and his Baffler screed have already done well to answer the mayo conundrum. Perhaps, like the “greenwashing” that’s spread in the wake of the eco-chic movement, we’ll dub this “indiewashing.” Still, we’re left wondering how this particular sensibility (the fey instrumentation, the aw-shucks cutesiness and all that goddamn hand-lettering) has become broadly synonymous with “indie.” Apparently, this is just what happens when you tell anyone they can make music—screw the mainstream, screw the man, screw labels, screw lessons, screw context—and then give them the thrift-store instruments, a bootleg copy of Pro Tools and the MySpace page with which to do it. The democratization of technology and ever-increasing Internet access have done a thousand wonderful things for the music industry, making it easier than ever for more people to find more music, and easier for artists (new and old) to be heard. The Web has usurped power from major labels (maybe more so than it would have if it struck a decade earlier, when majors weren’t in such violent flux), but in many cases, it has also removed a crucial filtering element—all those local fans or fellow artists or booking agents or studio folks an artist would have had to impress before getting any kind of break. The last decade has seen a huge boom in already-excellent local scenes—Austin, Portland, Brooklyn, Chapel Hill, Omaha—but for every act like TV on the Radio that was ready for its national debut thanks to the galvanizing challenges of making it in its hometown, there’s a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that’s quite clearly, and rather painfully, hashing out its musical identity in public.
The increasing premium on ordinariness and amateurism that makes this all OK isn’t just limited to indie. Across the board, we’re seeing more credit given to citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing and ever-more-inscrutable “grassroots” efforts. Since its founding in 2005, the website Etsy.com has become a hub of commerce for independent artists and crafters, and while there are millions of beautifully wrought items for sale, there’s an equal number of creations that should’ve never left the craft room. (In a pretty meta-D.I.Y. move, Regretsy—a blog founded to chronicle the most baffling Etsy listings—has become one of an increasing number of blogs to score a book deal based on its online popularity.) And, as many have theorized, there’s a very special sense of entitlement among this generation known as “millennials”—kids that grew up in the flush 1990s, when business was good and everyone’s parents told them they could be whatever they dreamed of, but, like, whatever, you don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. In all cases, just because you can do something—or want to do something, or were once told you could do something—doesn’t mean you should. But as a musical movement founded on sheer hopelessness and utter lack of popular appeal, one that relished the freedom to be unruly, untrained and unconcerned, that’s a tough stance for indie to take.
“It’s all so independent,” filmmaker Jim Jarmusch lamented to The Guardian’s Lynn Hirschberg in 2005. “I’m so sick of that word. I reach for my revolver when I hear the word quirky. Or edgy. Those words are now becoming labels that are slapped on products to sell them. Anyone who makes a film that is the film they want to make, and it is not defined by marketing analysis or a commercial enterprise, is independent. My movies are kind of made by hand. They’re not polished—they’re sort of built in the garage. It’s more like being an artisan in some way.”
Remember, this is the guy behind Night on Earth, Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes. The guy credited with sparking the independent-film movement in America. The guy who seems quirky enough that if he did shoot anyone for calling him that, it would only reaffirm that person’s word choice. In this day and age, Jarmusch’s movies getting slapped with the “independent” label (which they truly deserve—he makes them all without a studio, then shops them around later) could only help him, could only drive people to his work. But if even he’s no longer buying it, why should we?
MILK THAT SOUND
At indie-rock scout meetings, few traits earn more merit badges than “authenticity.” Whatever is meant by “independent” or “quirky” and all of these code words, there’s an expectation of some level of organic craft—real art made by real people, not manufactured and mass-produced.
Of course, there’s no quantitative gauge, no canary to lower into the mine to check for noxious fumes of fakery. It seems weird to go around eyeing every new band like they’re the indie *NSYNC, but a little honest self-policing probably wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes it’s an easy call—Brandon Flowers donning bulky shoulder pads made of animal pelts and feathers for The Killers’ most recent album cycle was as clear a grab for weirdo-cred as we’ve seen in a while, especially given the band’s tepid paean “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll,” which takes on the same subculture as Sebadoh’s infamous “Gimme Indie Rock” without any of the sly self-deprecation, undercurrent of subverted loathing or, uh, involvement in the scene in any way. But usually authenticity is an imprecise, continual assessment, prone to personal bias and human error—not exactly something to build a whole musical movement upon.
Indie never seems more insular than when it complains about its own sound. Some unconventional artists have cruised into the indie world not because of their D.I.Y. acumen or ability to channel Stephen Malkmus, but because of the pure power of their realness. But for every LCD Soundsystem or M.I.A. there are 50 other legit artists left prowling at the gates. If authenticity is the key to the indie kingdom, then those gates need to open up and indie needs to recognize the validity—indeed, the kinship—of like-minded artists from other realms. Lyle Lovett lives on an honest-to-God ranch in Texas, and is about as authentic as they come. So maybe now he’s indie. Gucci Mane raps about crime, and at press time is locked up in Fulton County Jail—what could be more authentic? Ghostface is a singular talent, as true to his own crazy muse as any guitar slinger. Michael Azerrad would disagree, but for those who equate “indie” with authentic artistry, perhaps Ghost makes the cut, too. Sure, these artists are all on labels owned by majors—but that’s hardly pushed Death Cab or No Age from the fold.
Current indie orthodoxy rarely embraces artists this far out of bounds, but in some respects it’s more diverse than it’s ever been. “I think the people making music today, in general, are far more open-minded, more adept at synthesizing influences,” says Lou Barlow, who co-wrote Sebadoh’s jabbing ode at the early-’90s indie scene. “At the time we did ‘Gimme Indie Rock,’ it seemed like our peers were still in a post-hardcore macho rut. We were chastised for making acoustic music and singing softly—no one seemed particularly ready for anything ‘sensitive.’ That’s obviously changed. If I was protesting anything back then, it was the narrow-mindedness I heard in most independent music.”
Now, though, things have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. Azerrad sees a recent shift toward “more sophisticated indie rock”—led by artists like Animal Collective, Deerhoof and Joanna Newsom—as a rather punk reaction to mainstream America. “To insist that underground music be snarly and abrasive is to subscribe to a hidebound cliché, which is ironic since the whole idea of the music is to dispense with hidebound clichés,” he says. “Underground music stands against and apart from mainstream culture in order to offer an antidote to it. In eras past, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied. […] But now, mainstream culture isn’t complacent, it’s stupid and angry; underground culture reacts by becoming smarter, more serene. That’s not wimpy—it’s powerful and productive.”
Still, there are growing complaints that indie has gone “too soft” or “too comfortable,” which of course is nothing new—it sounds a lot like early punk’s complaints about the new rock of the ’70s mainstream (which included not just ABBA but also Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon, now considered artful, seminal acts). And the complaint does seem salient right now. Indie’s prevailing sound has shifted away from noisy rock and toward lush symphonics, a more studied pace and more emphasis on lyrics and emotional ambience—Sufjan Stevens, Feist, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver. Wrote Carrie Brownstein on her Monitor Mix blog in late 2009: “Though I enjoyed many a song by all of [these] artists, the terms I’d use to describe their music are ones I wouldn’t wish on my enemies: pleasant and nice.”
In a world where a car commercial or Target ad could feasibly “break” a band, it’s fair to be somewhat suspicious of palatability, which can be just as easily feigned as the sound of a calculated chart hit, especially when certain tastemaking pockets begin to establish their preferred sound—like the unknown, just-barely-off-kilter singer/songwriters picked to soundtrack the earliest seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, or the sassy, exuberant kitchen-sink pop recently favored by Apple to sell its iPods and iPhones. This kind of artist-driven calculation might be even more dangerous than the mainstream calculation we’re used to. At least mainstream pop is generally marketed and approached under the default assumption that it’s dross, with any arguments for “authenticity” hashed out only after the fact—and in that way it’s more artistically honest than most modern indie music.
The indie world certainly isn’t above kowtowing to trends, especially when those trends are of its own design. Thanks to the speed at which songs now proliferate, what happened in the ’90s with grunge and alternative is happening again, but on an evermore genre-fragmented scale. This isn’t like the early indie bands of the ’80s all coming up and claiming The Velvet Underground as a major influence. It’s not even like Gavin Rossdale’s terrible band Bush making a sweet buck in post-grunge America by sounding like a poor man’s Nirvana. Instead, it’s Wavves dropping its first single and then, less than six months later, Neon Indian being not only hailed as the next Wavves, but also as the torchbearer of a whole new genre—chillwave. (Of course, this stuff moves so fast that, by the time anyone reads these words, “chillwave” probably will be just about as relevant as polka, having since been replaced by the next brief thing, perhaps “frostycore,” coming soon to a Wendy’s ad near you).
Over the last three decades, indie has built itself a subculture that is just as dependent on trends, superficiality and the whims and caprices of the listening public as the pop mainstream has ever been. It’s generally less egalitarian toward female and minority performers than the mainstream. And even within its most narrowly defined bounds, indie is susceptible to its own ravenous appetite for the next big thing. The goal used to be generating some amount of buzz as a means to an end—a record deal, a decent-sized tour. The lightspeed Internet has made buzz an end unto itself, a seal of approval that one hand slaps on these acts while the other pushes them out the back door. This, of course, only reinforces the most widely held negative stereotype about indie rock—its cooler-than-thou elitism.
“Everyone is out there searching for the next big thing, but it’ll never be the next big thing on the scale Nirvana was,” Stosuy says. “It’s Wavves, which is a little depressing in context.”
In that iconic Time essay, Elson quoted 19th-century theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote, “The day when Christianity and the world become friends, Christianity is done away with.” Indie has always been ragged on for its tendency—both actual and perceived—to cloister itself, to shun the mainstream, not just because of the commercial complications but in the interest of remaining willfully obscure as a point of pride. But given indie’s increasing visibility over the last 10 years, this accusation now rings increasingly false. Maybe if it were more true, we wouldn’t have found ourselves with this dead elephant on our hands.
SINK THIS POSEUR’S SOUL
So what do we do now that the one common factor in anyone’s definition of “indie,” the one thing about indie we thought we could ever rely on—its authenticity, its unsullied artistry—has been indicted?
Some have suggested that we throw out “indie” and come up with some new, less-loaded, more accurate term to describe the strange landscape that has grown up around us. “Post-indie” almost does the job, signifying, at least, that we’re moving past something—though we’re still not sure what that something might be. Perhaps a campaign could be launched to educate fans on the distinction, a la Azerrad, between “indie” and “indie rock”—though it’ll be tough to strip indie cred from labels and artists who believe they’ve truly earned it, and in many ways have. In 2008, Idolator blogger (and Paste contributor) Michaelangelo Matos suggested we trade “indie” for our old friend “alternative,” writing, “So embrace your real heritage, kids. After all, if the most clueless of the current crop of downloaders-without-portfolio are any indication, the next group (which will likely have heard even more and have even less of a context to discuss it in) really won’t know the difference anyway, for all the semantical gatekeeping in the world.”
This points to an issue even larger than word choice—indie’s increasing historylessness. As more fans are folded into the ranks every day, as more music is made and as time lumbers ever onward, indie’s present becomes all the more unwieldy and its past all the more distant and obscure. “It is marketed as lifestyle, but the lifestyle isn’t that different than [that of] the frat boy I wanted to avoid at that age,” Stosuy says, recalling his earliest interest in indie. “It’s listening to the music but not really caring about anything outside the music. It’s not in the context of a scene. It’s more about knowing the group and getting the leak before everyone else and arguing about who’s best.”
Music may be increasingly democratized, but a 30-year-old stay-at-home dad or a 57-year-old big city lawyer or a 43-year-old college professor are all still going to approach music and its context differently than a dyed-in-the-wool ’70s punk fan, or an Animal Collective-obsessed bloghead of the ’00s. And then of course we have the ever-booming population of American teenagers, which each year foists upon us a new crop of would-be rebels on our hands. These kids are no different from the kids of the ’80s and ’90s in that they want something new and different and dangerous, not necessarily because the TV told them they want it, but because of the insatiable teenage need to carefully, specifically delineate a personality in a big, scary world—to stand out from one crowd but still fit in within some smaller world defined by clothes and style and mood.
These kids—and these adults—may or may not know what punk is or once was. They may think SST is a vaccination or a test you take to get into college. They could learn, of course, through the unofficial punk civics course so many have taken before—scouring record stores, stuffing ears full of noise or, hell, these days, just reading Wikipedia. But if indie’s going to whine about a lack of context, it should remember this: For as much as the late ’70s and ’80s are seen as the Garden of Eden for independent music, where it was first carefully rendered and ultimately defiled, punk was hardly the first to fight that particular incarnation of The Man.
When labels like Homestead and Touch and Go and SST were formed, they offered outlets for creative support and funding and provided direct alternatives to big labels like Capitol and Reprise, connecting a strange circle. Capitol Records itself had been co-founded by singer/composer Johnny Mercer in 1942 as an alternative to the majors—gramophone-company-subsidiaries (EMI and Decca) established to sell products to be played on their products or music-publishing arms of major film studios (Warner and Universal) founded to keep a hand in the pocket of actors-turned-recording stars. After EMI began its slow takeover of Capitol in the ’50s, the label’s mega-star Frank Sinatra left for Verve, which had been briefly independent before being subsumed by MGM, and in 1960 Ol’ Blue Eyes broke off on his own to form Reprise, which operated independently for a few years before being bought by Warner. And on and on: Smaller independent labels like Sun, Stax and Sire either folded or were eventually subsumed by a major, setting a precedent for our modern indies.
Take the really longview and you’ll recall that Mozart established himself as not only one of Western civilization’s first teen idols but also one of its first independent-music powerhouses, working outside the patronage of the Austrian courts and premiering some of his most important works at a suburban theater back in the hale 1780s—not in the courtesans’ Italian but in German, the peoples’ language. The young Amadeus knew what so many others would also realize in time: Sometimes, to do something right, you’ve gotta do it yourself.
In 1977, Shaun Cassidy topped the Billboard charts with “That’s Rock ’n’ Roll,” a song in which he sang about screaming his heart out and buying new guitars, a song that involved zero screaming and more sax than axe. It was a world where rock ’n’ roll had become little more than thinly veiled tokenism, less an idea and more a word used to sell records by a child star (whose older half-brother had, a few years earlier, starred in the similarly-unintended music-industry meta-parody The Partridge Family). It was in this world that punk began to break through, declaring rock dead and carving its own space for what was to come. This thing we call “indie” now finds itself at a frighteningly similar juncture.
To borrow another sentiment from Nietzsche, is this not modern music’s own eternal recurrence? In The Gay Science, from which his “God is dead” notion also comes, Nietzsche writes, “What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
Indie is dead. What’s next?
Iz magazina PASTE, napisala Rachael Maddux