Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: The PixiE's Street Band

Welcome, everyone, to the era of classic indie rock.

Those who were 20 when the Pixies' Doolittle was first released just celebrated their 40th birthday. A couple of friends who are in just such a position would have joined me at the Pixies' show week before last, but they couldn't find a babysitter.

The Pixies, incidentally, just wrapped a month-long U.S. tour in honor of the 20th anniversary of Doolittle, their second record and the one that afforded them a bit of mainstream(ish) acceptance. I hedge because my parents (my in-house reference for all that is mainstream) had never heard anything by the Pixies before I played it for them.

It wasn't an arena tour, granted, but these were some big-ass venues for a band who've never had a platinum album. In sweet home Chicago, they sold out two nights at the Aragon Ballroom, which forced them to announce a third show. Big money for a band with two decent-sized singles.

Big internet money, you could call it.

The all-knowing music snob has been a personality type since Lester Bangs (I know him better as Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous), but it's become increasingly common in the post-paying for music era. People who can't play sports have gotten it in their heads that they can retool their indoor kid-ness into something hip and attractive, and they can do it without much effort on their part. No more expensive vinyl records, hard-to-find local music zines, or dealing with hipsters. Just hit up allmusic guide to find out who influenced the Arcade Fire and fire up that BitTorrent for the (not) latest Echo & the Bunnymen B-sides.

The feeling that "it didn't use to be this way" is palpable among even the snobbiest of today's music snobs. All that effort that went into being a music snob in the punk and post-punk eras made being a music snob truly challenging. A friend of mine in his early thirties eagerly awaited the arrival of his Sub Pop cassette tape sampler each month in the actual mail. That you couldn't simply email your friend an .mp3 of the latest banger seems inconceivable today.

Music fandom in the late '80s/early '90s seems scrappy and sexy. To listen to the music of the dirty unwashed hipster, you had to become the dirty unwashed hipster. Now I can just read one of a bajillion music blogs and feel up-to-date without leaving my keyboard.

It, consequently, feels much less cool to be hip. Yeah, I was at the Pixies show, but so was every other yuppie in the fuckin' city.

And I couldn't shake the feeling that I was one of them. There were a fair amount of people in their 30s or 40s, but most of them were like me: college kids or twenty-somethings who discovered the Pixies because they read Pitchfork.

After all, we're in the era of "mainstream indie rock." Indie is an aesthetic, not a remunerative state.

Today's "indie" artists are comfortable with it. Phoenix is now the sound of Cadillac, and Band of Horses whored themselves out to fuckin' Wal-Mart. That a record label can soundtrack a sports video game and still be considered "indie" is a strange and readily accepted dichotomy.

But the Pixies didn't come of age in this era. They came before Napster and before Nirvana made the alternative (the pre-indie indie rock) mainstream.

So the show was a little uncomfortable. The band hewed closely to the album anniversary format, playing only tracks from Doolittle and B-sides from the era (except for a few non-Surfer Rosa live favorites during the second encore). But seeing these bizarro-world Beach Boys songs about incest and mutilation and torture played in front of an expensive video projection setup (playing, granted, some fucked-up surrealist shit) was just plain weird.

They fucking killed it, incidentally. But the (small) stadium reunion tour format seemed foreign to them. They went along with the 20th anniversary thing, but they kept their distance from the U2s and Bruce Springsteens; their encore was not a greatest-hits set. Fight Club fans be damned.

So I'll go to the Pavement reunion. But it won't be the same.

Not that I ever knew what "it" was.