Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: "Indie" Has Officially Become a Completely Useless Term


Vampire Weekend's new album, Contra, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts last week. That makes it only the twelfth independent album ever to do so. Incidentally, though, that list also includes albums by Pearl Jam and the Eagles, and two Disney soundtracks. So not exactly "indie bands," if you get my drift.

But I'm not even sure that I get my drift anymore. That statement could be applied to my life in general, but we'll just focus on the indie part for now.

Indie's been a thorn in my side since I threw off the shackles of automatically-assigned iTunes genres sometime back in high school. "Rock/pop? This is not a useful generic convention! I'll assign my own genre names! Then they can be as quirky and unnecessarily specific as I want them to be!"

I'll give you an example: I could split up all the metal bands on my hard drive into their respective subgenres, if I really felt like it: death, black, drone, doom, sludge, stoner, thrash, metalcore, etc. Or, if I wanted to be truly nitpicky, I could include the various hybrid genres: drone doom, stoner sludge, deathened black , blackened death (as different as Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, I might add).

Or I could just make up genres. I could introduce "sasscore" into the mix, if I felt like it. Although the term "sasscore" was invented by a dude I went to high school with and only applies to one band (The Blood Brothers).

But the term "indie" gives rise to the opposite problem: it's too damn general.

Even "indie rock," the most well-known subset of indie music, isn't particularly exclusive. Indie rock, like many genres, has referred to different things at different times. In the '80s, the term "indie rock" referred to punk-influenced distorted pop of Husker Du, the Pixies, and the Dinosaur Jr. The sound of those bands led neatly into the alternative rock of the 1990's, which could be considered the more popular spinoff of alternative rock (at least for a time).

But at some point, indie rock came to refer to lo-fi (Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliot Smith) and jangle pop (the Smiths, early R.E.M.), as well.

Already, then, there's a split in what constitutes the "sound" of indie rock. Is it the abrasive proto-Nirvana of Husker Du and the Pixies? Or the under-produced pop music of Elliot Smith, most clearly influenced by the Byrds, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys? Or maybe just music that doesn't sound like mainstream pop music (whatever that may be)?

At least during that period, though, indie served as a catchall for bands signed to independent labels...until it didn't. There are only so many bands that can whip up enough buzz to warrant a major-label signing without releasing a record or two, so it makes complete sense that many bands have made the journey from independent to major labels.

But, as we've seen, indie rock bands signed to major labels don't cease to be indie once they make the switch. Bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse are still referred to as indie even though they're signed to major labels. And although they represent two wildly divergent styles of indie rock, they still evince the aesthetics of some aspect of the genre. So, from a sound standpoint, it makes sense that they would still be referred to as indie rock bands.

What about bands that leapfrog the independent label entirely, yet are still called indie rock? Synthpop solo act Owl City has never put out a record on an independent label, yet is referred to as an indie artist. His designation as such most likely has more to do with the fact that his project is basically a more irritating version of the Postal Service (who, again, sound very little like any indie rock I can think of). I speak ill of them only because I'm so ashamed of how many times that song's been stuck in my head.

And are you really "indie" if you have a Billboard Hot 100 number one and are loathed by pretty much anyone who considers themselves a fan of indie rock?

So what to do with Vampire Weekend, a band on an independent label (XL) who has a Billboard number one and sounds more like Paul Simon than anything else? Should we refer to them as indie, simply because they're still on an indie label? Again, that would make the Eagles and Pearl Jam indie rock bands (based on the aforementioned list of bands on independent labels with number one albums).

Pearl Jam, incidentally, belongs to another genre with a now-misleading name: alternative. Almost twenty years after Nevermind, it's clear that, for most listeners, alternative refers to the sound of modern mainstream rock music.

More than anything else, this terribly confusing history of "alternative" genres (first alternative, now indie) bespeaks the futility of reactionary generic terms. Both alternative and indie (which, for a time in the '80s, were practically synonymous) are genres that, at least in theory, stand more for what something isn't. Indie music isn't on a major label...unless it is. Alternative music isn't mainstream rock...unless it is.

And those contradictions arise from the fact that trends in art and culture have always been the product of movements and counter-movements. Someone gets fed up with the status quo of some medium, they create something that sounds nothing like it, and then the populace at large realizes they like the reaction more than the original, thereby making the alternative into the mainstream.

It'd be nice if music critics could stop referring to genres of music in terms of what they aren't, but I can't see that happening anytime soon. Everybody loves a good fight, even if they can't quite tell who wins.