The Problem With Indie
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: The Problem With Indie.
Last month, Stylus investigated rockism, broadly defined as the critical evaluation or historical hierarchization of pop music based on such rigid criteria as authenticity, auteurism, social consciousness and lyrical substance, and the subsequent veneration of rock music in particular as the primary storehouse of these preponderant traits.
Our essayists argued against the narrative of 20th century sound as a single-line continuum linking The Beatles to Nirvana, and against the still-pernicious tendencies of certain music magazines and tastemakers to champion “difficult” and “significant” rock (or pop or hip-hop) while dismissing less outwardly weighty material.
In the blogosphere, however (where most of the credible tastemaking is being done anyway), rockism has long since been slain. The anti-rockists have won, and they’ve already written a canon to boot, one that’s admittedly more democratic and multifarious than the rockist tome, but that’s arguably no less narrowly drawn.
In short, the anti-rockists co-opted fun, and the problem with indie is that there’s no home for it in the post-rockist world.
One of the key tenets of the anti-rockist rulebook has been the primacy of the pleasure principle, rescuing pure enjoyment as a legitimate indicator of musical merit after rockism consigned it to being a frivolous afterthought. If you subscribe to this doctrine (and by and large I do), then clearly mainstream pop, rap, R&B; and country are your surest shortcuts to gratification, and it’s true each of these genres does a superb job of communicating immediately engaging and emotionally compelling sound.
In this equation, indie-rock tends to get hoisted on its own petard of imagined relevance and acute self-consciousness. There’s the prevailing sense that chart-topping pop acts are somehow intrinsically fun, while corny indie fuxxors have to deliberately manufacture enjoyment, usually on their own willfully perverse terms.
It’s true the thrills you get from certain indie-rockers can feel contrived, especially when the band in question mines such a thin slice of pop’s vast possible resources (think the Raveonettes for example).
But what about bands who are less schticky and work with a broader palette? Take popist-derided indies like Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Postal Service, Hidden Cameras and The Decemberists. None exactly rivals Missy Elliot for diversity and dexterity of sound, but each has shown a sustained commitment to putting fun and/or excitement near the top of their list of priorities, making engaging music that offers instantly visceral aesthetic joys.
So is this all an issue of identity politics, or better yet, a question of who’s being engaged? For the bands listed above, as well as other acts like Ted Leo and MF Doom who are less scorned by most popists but nonetheless get marginalized in comparison to mainstream equivalents, it almost feels as though their pop is considered less valid or legitimate than the pop made by Billboard denizens or certain dancier electro artists. One possible explanation for the distinction could be that chart acts simply engage with more of the culture than the indies, but that’s assuming the latter always purposefully obfuscates, when really it’s often just the case of a different reading and retelling of pop that just happens to be less commercially viable, but that’s no less personally and honestly forged than Big and Rich’s or Lil Jon’s. Rock lore is littered with bands like Love, Big Star, the Modern Lovers and Olivia Tremor Control who made wonderfully indelible pop that never connected with a mass-scale audience—should they be excluded from the discussion of pop’s top craftsmen for that simple economic fact?
Again, maybe it’s just cultural and political positioning. A band like Sleater-Kinney can make enemies with popists for writing a song that scoffs at the viability of simple entertainment (“Entertain”), or that seems to mock TV as the byproduct of an empty, wasted life (“Modern Girl”), but why should that cancel out a brilliant punk-pop sugar rush like “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” or “Light-Rail Coyote” or “Rollercoaster.” Where’s artistic license when you need it?
Ultimately, it’s possible many members of the popist brigade just think indie-rock’s fun isn’t much fun at all, and I agree there’s nothing worse than an insufferable bunch of hipsters poisoning pop culture with elitist contempt and ironic disdain (Travis Morrison interprets Ludacris, anyone?). I just worry that too many indies never even get the chance to prove their pop smarts. Just because Colin Meloy uncorks polysyllables with put-on affectation and happily retreats from the real world into elaborate literary fantasy, should he be automatically disqualified from making enjoyable pop music? Indie-rock does such a good job in general of projecting an attitude of insularity that it’s easy to forget: not everyone’s a killjoy, not everybody’s weird because they hate fun, and yes, some indie-rockers are here because they want to entertain.