Sunday, January 10, 2010

second unfinished half of this

Indie in the shit sense obviously is still something of a force in the world. There's still plenty of people out there who believe in precepts like not singing well or with any kind of in-your-face presence and personality/making obviously defective-sounding music/ playing with exaggerated sloppiness or partially covering your songs in distortion and dirt = opposition to the mainstream's "sterile" perfection. Store is still being set by some in writing your own songs/ having idiosyncratically personal or quirkily clever lyrics as superior to professionally written pop product. And there's plenty of indie-meaning-bad music out there on both sides of the Atlantic: wimpy wistful stuff in the post-Neutral Milk Hotel strain, perpetuations of the traditions of lo-fi, skronk/pigfuck, etc. Indie's been around such a long time it can even have its own internal sectors of retro-indie, groups harking back to C86 twee (the Pains of Being Pure At Heart).

But the fact that "indie" could refer to any of these but also the more experimental stuff in the Animal Collective/Vampire Weekend/Micachu vein suggest that the word had been stretched too far.

What does give the term any kind of residual coherence is its audience. By and large that's collegiate: students, and those who had once been students, and those still at school but on the track towards being students. Not everyone in/heading towards higher education is into indie obviously but I bet you most of the people into indie fit that stereotype. The hostility towards "indie" is at least in part a hostility to the class itself. And some of the fiercest hate comes from a segment within that class who despise their peers for having sheep-like taste or unthought-through assumptions (assumptions they might have had, quite recently, too -- so this is your classic indie guilt syndrome).

This syndrome-- a hipper minority who define themselves the middlebrow herd by embracing either manufactured plastic pop or realer-than-thou ghetto musics--is somewhat disheartening when you consider that it has been recurring for decades, reconstituting itself within each generation just as indie/student taste reconstitutes itself. It points to a profound degree of social stasis. Your anti-indie hipsters are trying to escape from it by embracing music that people like them (i.e. middle class, quasi-discerning) aren't supposed to like. But they too are a structural fixture of a social field organized and divided by taste.

If you have any kind of class-based take on music, the eternal recurrence, the changeless same, is slightly depressing. You can map out so much of the taste map in terms of social divisions (there is a space in UK music culture for instance that still corresponds to "mod", it has shifted in some respects because it's 40 years on, but fundamentally the same space… just as emo occupies the same space as Goth while chav is an evolution of casual which was an evolution of skin). I think that indie-hate as well as being an aversion to the music is at some unconscious level a frustration with this underlying social stasis and deadlock. That explains why people feel motivated to use the word "indie" almost like a racist insult. "Indie" becomes this contaminating taint, spoiling even good genres, so you have the Streets dissed as indie garage, Hot Chip as indie R&B, Justice as indie-house, "Stillness is the Move" as indiefied R&B.

What's curious now is that being into indie-type music is not just something determined by your class background, it is increasingly likely, for today's young, to be the continuation of your parent's taste. In the Nineties, the Dad rock phenomenon saw parents and their kids uniting around Sixties-type musical values. (Fleet Foxes are a variant of this syndrome, forming their sound around records they found in their parents's collection). But now we must be getting bands being formed by the children of people who grew up on the Smiths and the Stone Roses and Sonic Youth and Pixies (or who actually were in indie bands themselves, like Rufus in Gossip Girl, who gets Sonic Youth to play at his wedding).

Perhaps that's why, especially in America, the new breed of indie-ish bands seem so in line with their parents's values. There isn't even that sense you had with Eighties bands like the Replacements or Dinosaur Jnr of the slacker using sloppiness and apathy to define themselves against their aspirational if liberal backgrounds, the paradox of making an artistic career out of unmaking the most of yourself (in terms of qualifications, the career ladder). The way that bands like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors comport themselves seems to be totally in keeping with their background, which is cosmopolitan, tolerant, bookish, well-organised. Indie could well become the trans-generational music of the liberal upper middle class. Music for those who come from affluent but socially conscious backgrounds, who graduate from Ivy League universities and liberal arts colleges to careers in the same kinds of areas their parents worked: zones of the economy that don't involve making stuff (industry) or making money out of money (finance, real estate), but areas like the arts, media, publishing, design, academia, non-profit organizations and public services, and various professions. And of course in between college and such work are the inevitable internships (we recently saw a Vampire Weekend "Cribs" segment on the cable TV indie show New York Noise, Ezra Koenig showing the camera crew around his small, non-blingy Brooklyn pad--at the time of recording it wasn't long after he'd done a year teaching at a state school--and my wife exclaimed "he looks he could be one of my interns!").

If indie is the music of the liberal so-called elite, then it stands to reason that it's the absolute opposite of the music that the heartland is into, whether it's country (for the well-adjusted) or metal (for the maladjusted). Which is why alternative country and Americana (all that bearded stuff) has absolutely nothing in common with new country (which is brash, cleanly produced, really rather rockin', AutoTuned and ProTooled, not the least bit rural sounding really). New country is much closer to urban music, meaning R&B, than it is to American indie's various versions of American roots music.

A short hand term for this "alternative" culture that some people use is NPR and PBS, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service. Nowhere near as funded or historically important as the BBC, PBS produces worthwhile but rather dowdy-looking programmes, which it pads out with British costume dramas, sit coms, and mystery series (stuff that in the UK would be considered middlebrow and staid but in the US seems "quality"). This is the stuff that gets used in the regular fund-raising drives to guilt-trip viewers to pledge money and keep the underfunded PBS alive. How interesting that American indie kids have a similar deference to Englishness as their PBS-watching parents! Vampire Weekend are total Anglophiles, or I should say Scottophiles (Momus and Orange Juice). There is even a cinema for this demographic now, e.g. 500 Days of Summer, about an architecture student who ends up in a dead end job composing uplifting messages at a Hallmark-type greeting cards and--influenced by the "sorrowful British music" he listened to as a teenager--falls head over heels into a doomed amour with a Smiths-loving girl played by Zoey Deschanel).

The classic attitude of indie fans towards pop is a bit like the attitude that some middle class families used to have in Britain towards television--that it was okay to watch BBC but you never watched ITV, the commercial station. But your Vampire Weekends and Dirty Projectors and Micachu types are sharper than that:they actually have more in common with the indiephobes who only listen to music of the streets or to plastic pop, they do pay attention to the pop charts, to rap and reggaeton and all that. The new Vampire album Contra even has AutoTune on several tracks! These indie-vanguard types are actually more open-minded and wide-listening than people in R&B and rap or dance are these days. Their consciousness is in the same magpie place as Timbaland and Neptunes were at the start of the Noughties.

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