Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The Rise of Indie in the Age of Discontent
I couldn't help but notice a few days ago that the trailers for the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are is being marketed to young adults just as much as children, as evidenced by the inclusion of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" in the commercial. Indeed, that whole movie's soundtrack is done by none other than the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O.
In a way, that one ad seems to sum up what "indie" has come to symbolize: youthful rebellion that contrary to other past sub-cultures seems to want to hold on to some sense of innocence--or at least a sense of fun. But then, "indie" has always been something of an amorphous term. So broad has it been that it seems to have no limit to the ways in which it reinvents itself.
Essentially, this is what is put forth by Nitsuh Abebe in Pitchfork's "The Decade in Indie," part of the site's run-down of the first decade of the millennium. As Abebe lays out, this past decade has become one in which "indie" music has gone from, well, being "indie," to more or less the dominant fashion among young people today. It's also become very, very marketable.
That's a pretty hard trend to pin down--on all fronts--given that indie has never really had an easy definition, and insofar as it has it's been more than ready to shed any labels in favor of something new and fresh. It's interesting that the term itself started out referring not to a sound, but really a method of distribution. "Indie," of course, was short for "independent." In the wake of punk (and to a lesser degree hip-hop), young artists opted to go their own route on a level that really hadn't been seen before. Rather than vie for the major record contract, they simply started their own labels.
That most of these bands were either directly punk or part of the post-punk generation might explain how indie initially became a sub-section of rock. And like punk before it, the rise of indie was seen as a breath of fresh air. When the genre peeked its way into the mainstream somewhere around 2000, it had to shove aside the likes of macho nu-metal, meat-headed post-grunge, and a hip-hop schema that, with some very notable exceptions, seemed dominated by bling. While "alternative rock" had either faded into the background or become reappropriated by the industry, many of its own figures had spent the past several years regrouping and bringing its resolute independence back to the table.
As Abebe points out (and you'll have to excuse the long quote):
"This music was pleasant, accessible, and aesthetically interesting, but without making a whole lot of noise or sudden moves about it. There were things about the songs that were comfortable and traditional, which was how consensus got built around them: They were easy to like. But there were also things about them that, in the context of their time, seemed rare and special and worth getting behind. Some acts were soft-spoken and wry, which was a big contrast not only from pop but from buzzy, earnest alternative. Some, like Belle & Sebastian or Cat Power, had a sense of privacy and withdrawal to them, like they lived in your bedroom instead of blaring everywhere-- like there was something precious about them. There was a level of fantasy and whimsy around a lot of records, a light psychedelia, that hadn't been heard in a while and couldn't be gotten elsewhere-- this sense, when listening to the Lips or Stereolab or Elephant 6 bands, that the artists were picking up different aspects of pop music and painting swoony little dreams out of them. It felt thoughtful, a quality that's hard to define but a very big part of what made it appeal. Thoughtful and, of course, different. Music your parents could like, but probably found strange: This could feel subversive, somehow, in a world where youth culture was presumed to be aggressively loud."
The thing is: it can be loud. But it can also be docile, introspective. Or both at the same time. And both can plausibly be called "indie." Even at the beginning, there was a wide diversity in indie. Over the past decade, however, it's become nothing short of a big-tent. It's not just rock bands that are "indie" anymore. Dance-punk acts like Radio 4 and !!! have found a wide audience. Neo-folk groups like Fleet Foxes and Noah and the Whale have risen under the indie umbrella. Santigold is an indie darling right now despite the fact that her electroclash/R&B pastiche doesn't let rock anywhere near it really. Synth-pop groups like Passion Pit or Black Kids are dominant in large sections of the scene.
It would also be a mistake to think that indie has remained predominantly white too. Hip-hop appears to have gotten a strong dose of indie, with artists like Kid Sister, the Knux, U-N-I and the Cool Kids embracing a stridently fun and bare-bones approach that has gotten them unfortunately labeled "hipster rap." Even Jay-Z has shown up at Grizzly Bear shows and said that it's indie's job to challenge hip-hop. And then there's M.I.A., whose mere existence seems to personify both the legitimacy and broad scope of indie.
In short, there's really no way to figure out what the next turn of indie will be. But whether these groups are rap acts or rock, or something entirely new even, whether they are signed to a major label or not, isn't so much the relevant point as is the attitude. What seems to still be tying indie as a fashion together right now is its suspicion of the corporate mainstream (Urban Outfitters and American Apparel aren't as popular among today's scenesters as one might think). A high premium is placed on artistic integrity and individual expression. While this has been true in past sub-cultures, not all have maintained such a stance.
Indie, however, true to the name, accepts as commonplace that top-down culture is essentially bankrupt. That this outlook has become somewhat hegemonic among young people today speaks to the kind of time we're living in. The rise of the mp3 and an unprecedented access to technology, plus the genre's quickly-evolving, slippery existence means that the industry have had a hard time keeping a lid on it.
What this means for the future is anyone's guess. But it's also incredibly enticing. As Abebe points out:
"I'm not here to make predictions: The last thing I want is for the music I follow to be predictable. But what this adds up to is a feeling that something is coming-- some kind of spasm, some rearrangements of where things stand. Yet another big shuffle of who stands where under indie's umbrella, and where indie's umbrella stands in the first place."
Where the author falls short, though, is putting all this in a context. Is it any coincidence that the greatest wealth gap in American history is accompanied by a very real mistrust of anything that comes from the corporate addled mainstream? Opposition to wars, dissatisfaction with the direction of the country in general coupled with greater embrace of diversity have characterized this decade. That impulse to go outside the acceptable parameters for the specific intention of finding something fresh and new, something with integrity, something that says something, is one that has always characterized the indie ethos. Matched with a growing anger against the powers that be in this country, that kind of musical "spasm" may be something more along the lines of an explosion.
The revolution may not be televised, but from the looks of it, it very may well be in hyper-color.