Music  |  Features

Is Indie Dead?

January 26, 2010  |  7:30am

Picture 15_300x340.shkl.jpgIT'S GONE BIG

Why do we care what indie is? We care because some version of it is being thrown in our faces more and more every day, and in the strangest ways. And just like there’s a spectrum of what we consider “indie” (in terms of artists’ actual releases), there’s a wide range of degrees to which indie is commodified and sold back to us. In some regards, this is nothing new. In 1993, writer Thomas Frank—during his tenure as editor of counterculture ’zine The Baffler—mourned the replacement of ’80s glam-danger marketing with co-opted punk tropes to hawk cars and sodas. “With the ‘alternative’ face-lift, ‘rebellion’ continues to perform its traditional function of justifying the economy’s ever-accelerating cycles of obsolescence with admirable efficiency,” he seethed in his essay “Alternative to What?,” penned at the height of punk’s commercialization. “Since our willingness to load up our closets with purchases depends upon an eternal shifting of the products paraded before us, upon our being endlessly convinced that the new stuff is better than the old, we must be persuaded over and over again that the ‘alternatives’ are more valuable than the existing or the previous.”

The way indie appears in mainstream advertising today is quite different, in that there’s more emphasis on the art itself than there has been with any previously co-opted subculture. In the ’90s, ads mimed attitude and attire to sell products that would’ve hardly passed muster with members of the movement whose style was being ripped off, but the real punks could hardly control it—no one owns the copyright on a look. Today, ads are more likely to employ songs—or at least 15-second clips of them—that work as ever-so-brief soundtracks to a larger message, which is generally more subtle, less associated with a specific ideology and, thanks to the checks and balances of licensing, almost always approved by the artists themselves, whether they’re on an indie, a major or something in between.

“All my life, I’ve heard people talk about issues of co-optation and underground and mainstream, and I even use that language myself sometimes,” Slim Moon says. “But I can’t quite think of it in those terms. I think it just isn’t that simple or that nefarious.”

Dawn Sutter Madell is the co-owner and music supervisor of Agoraphone Music Direction, a Brooklyn-based company that works with advertising agencies to place music in TV commercials. She was a music writer before she got into advertising; her husband, Josh, is also a musician and co-owner of New York’s Other Music, arguably America’s premier indie-record retailer. “I once licensed a super-obscure ’60s band called The Monks and put them in a Powerade ad, and someone said to me—not knowing that I had done it—like, ‘I can’t believe they found that band!’ And I was like, ‘They didn’t find it,’” she says. “The closest you would come would be that the advertising company found it. It’s not like the people at Coke are gonna come to you and say, ‘We really wanna use The Monks in this Powerade ad.’”

Volkswagen’s 2000 Cabrio commercial, featuring Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” is often cited as a watershed moment for underground music in advertising. Lance Jensen was part of the team of writers that plucked the song out of their personal libraries and placed it in the ad; he’s since co-founded Boston ad agency Modernista. “Advertising is firmly in the crossroads of the unholy alliance of art and commerce,” says Jensen (who describes his staff as “just a bunch of misfits, really”). “It just is.”

“Personally, I don’t mind it so much because it’s been happening so long and I know the reality of it,” says Brandon Stosuy, senior writer for music blog Stereogum, who pens the site’s Quit Your Day Job column about musicians pulling paychecks from diners and record stores while not on tour. But he realizes it can be tough for fans to deal with the possibility of their favorite band’s appearance in the mainstream, however limited. “Some people feel like it’s their private thing,” he says. “They see these blogs as secrets that no one knows about, so if something shows up on TV or the six o’clock news, they freak out.” Stosuy knows because he’s been there; back when Matador struck its deal with Atlantic, he and his friends were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who agonized over whether Pavement was or was not indie anymore. (These days, he generally falls into the indie-as-sensibility camp.)

For those unsure even now of the practical worth of musicians licensing their songs for commercial use, the finest bit of apologetics on the subject is probably John Leland’s 2001 New York Times Magazine piece about The Apples in Stereo licensing their song “Strawberryfire” for a Sony television commercial, which made it possible for the band’s husband-and-wife frontman and drummer to buy furniture for their new baby. ‘‘You imagine that it’s a crass process,’’ Apples lead singer Robert Schneider told Leland at the time. ‘‘But it’s not like Sony used our song in the commercial, which is how it looks to the indie kid. It’s just one guy who liked our music.’’

Maybe that was true for “Strawberryfire”—it was a musician friend of Schneider’s working in advertising who suggested the song for the spot—and it may often be true for the work Modernista and Agoraphone do, though Madell admits she can’t speak for any other ad agency: “Not every company works like we do.” But despite all intentions, what that indie kid—or what any one of us—sees in a TV commercial for a mega-corporation soundtracked by a popular song, indie or otherwise, isn’t a mirage. Maybe we’re too charmed by the serendipitous pleasure of hearing a song we love out in the wild, or we’re too busy trying to push any and all unwanted associations from our minds—or maybe we just don’t care. Still, the fact remains: It’s a band making money from a company trying to make money off of us by using the band to imply that they—the company, the brand—share some values with the song, and if you like the song, or at least the way the song pairs with the images in the ad, then you’ll like the company and what they make, which includes this big TV, which you will probably love as much as this song, if you love the song, so won’t you please buy it?

This is the approach of all modern advertising, no matter what label a band is on or whose baby needs a crib or who’s working double-shifts at the coffee shop just to make ends meet when he’s not on the road. Ad agencies aren’t in the business of entertaining; these commercials aren’t made just for funsies. You don’t need to be Don Draper or even Thomas Frank to recognize this. Bob Seger sells strength, dependability and rugged nostalgia (perfect for Chevy); The Shins sell whimsy, sensitivity and an off-kilter hipness—perfect for… McDonald’s?

What makes indie such an odd example of a subculture being sold back to the masses is that, in practice, its main selling point is its uncoolness. Its presence in an ad doesn’t imply rebelliousness like alternative-culture tropes were once meant to; its songs and stars don’t lend an air of dangerous sex appeal as did rock’s earliest spokespeople. Instead, it’s offered up as a different kind of different, something simple and honest and true, a little weird, a little funny—rebellious, if anything, in its delightful ordinariness. In late 2007, The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn identified this “aesthetic principle” as “quirk,” defining it as “an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream.”

“It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions ... and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits,” he wrote. “Quirk takes not mattering very seriously.” He then doled out a cross-platform cut down of pop culture’s then-current pantheon of quirk: This American Life, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Flight of the Conchords. He missed Juno by just a few months, but the movie likely would have altered his take dramatically; as it was, his thesis was supported by taking shot after gleeful shot at This American Life’s “self-styledly quirky” host Ira Glass, lamenting the radio show’s climate as “a kind of permanent 70 degrees, moderate humidity.”

Imagine if he’d had as fodder Diablo Cody’s stripper-to-screenwriter story, Ellen Page’s eerily natural portrayal of Juno’s hyper-offbeat title character, the movie’s stringently precocious and best-selling soundtrack (featuring Belle and Sebastian, Kimya Dawson and proto-indie rockers The Velvet Underground), and the film’s predictably unexpected Oscar nods. And that’s to say nothing of the deluge of quirk that’s flowed forth since: all of Michael Cera’s other movies, Where the Wild Things Are, Zooey Deschanel. It would’ve been an embarrassment of twitches.

Picture 12_300x373.shkl.jpgFew doubted the honesty of Juno’s weirdness, and Hirschorn himself didn’t necessarily take issue with the authenticity of quirk, just its ubiquity—but it would have been easy. In early 2009, Comcast rolled out a clearly Juno-inspired marketing campaign called “Dream Big,” the commercials for which were part Sims and part Sesame Street, featuring hiply (or square-hiply) dressed actors all singing about the joys of hi-speed Internet in a hushed monotone jingle that sounded like The Moldy Peaches on quaaludes. There was also a hat-wearing, guitar-playing squirrel, and a social networking site, “Comcast Town.” It was, as Hirschorn once deadpanned, “Random.” Then came Miracle Whip’s “We Will Not Tone It Down” ads, in which a scruffy guitar-based song played over footage of a hyper-diverse array of attractive co-eds laughing, running around, playing with kids and eating sandwiches oozing with gooey-white goodness. “We’re not like the others,” the voiceover intones. “We won’t ever try to be.” Well, thank God! Except, didn’t they see the Hellmann’s “It’s Time For Real” commercial that ran in the summer of 2007? You know, the one where the jaunty piano-based song plays over footage of a hyper-diverse array of attractive co-eds laughing, running around, playing with kids and eating sandwiches oozing with gooey-white goodness?

This aesthetic might shock our time-traveling punk forefathers most of all. How did indie go from the scalding, thrashing fury of bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag to toy pianos, ukuleles and polite handclaps—to selling mayonnaise, apparently the patron condiment of youthful rebellion?

Frank and his Baffler screed have already done well to answer the mayo conundrum. Perhaps, like the “greenwashing” that’s spread in the wake of the eco-chic movement, we’ll dub this “indiewashing.” Still, we’re left wondering how this particular sensibility (the fey instrumentation, the aw-shucks cutesiness and all that goddamn hand-lettering) has become broadly synonymous with “indie.” Apparently, this is just what happens when you tell anyone they can make music—screw the mainstream, screw the man, screw labels, screw lessons, screw context—and then give them the thrift-store instruments, a bootleg copy of Pro Tools and the MySpace page with which to do it. The democratization of technology and ever-increasing Internet access have done a thousand wonderful things for the music industry, making it easier than ever for more people to find more music, and easier for artists (new and old) to be heard. The Web has usurped power from major labels (maybe more so than it would have if it struck a decade earlier, when majors weren’t in such violent flux), but in many cases, it has also removed a crucial filtering element—all those local fans or fellow artists or booking agents or studio folks an artist would have had to impress before getting any kind of break. The last decade has seen a huge boom in already-excellent local scenes—Austin, Portland, Brooklyn, Chapel Hill, Omaha—but for every act like TV on the Radio that was ready for its national debut thanks to the galvanizing challenges of making it in its hometown, there’s a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that’s quite clearly, and rather painfully, hashing out its musical identity in public.

The increasing premium on ordinariness and amateurism that makes this all OK isn’t just limited to indie. Across the board, we’re seeing more credit given to citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing and ever-more-inscrutable “grassroots” efforts. Since its founding in 2005, the website Etsy.com has become a hub of commerce for independent artists and crafters, and while there are millions of beautifully wrought items for sale, there’s an equal number of creations that should’ve never left the craft room. (In a pretty meta-D.I.Y. move, Regretsy—a blog founded to chronicle the most baffling Etsy listings—has become one of an increasing number of blogs to score a book deal based on its online popularity.) And, as many have theorized, there’s a very special sense of entitlement among this generation known as “millennials”—kids that grew up in the flush 1990s, when business was good and everyone’s parents told them they could be whatever they dreamed of, but, like, whatever, you don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. In all cases, just because you can do something—or want to do something, or were once told you could do something—doesn’t mean you should. But as a musical movement founded on sheer hopelessness and utter lack of popular appeal, one that relished the freedom to be unruly, untrained and unconcerned, that’s a tough stance for indie to take.

“It’s all so independent,” filmmaker Jim Jarmusch lamented to The Guardian’s Lynn Hirschberg in 2005. “I’m so sick of that word. I reach for my revolver when I hear the word quirky. Or edgy. Those words are now becoming labels that are slapped on products to sell them. Anyone who makes a film that is the film they want to make, and it is not defined by marketing analysis or a commercial enterprise, is independent. My movies are kind of made by hand. They’re not polished—they’re sort of built in the garage. It’s more like being an artisan in some way.”

Remember, this is the guy behind Night on Earth, Ghost Dog and Coffee and Cigarettes. The guy credited with sparking the independent-film movement in America. The guy who seems quirky enough that if he did shoot anyone for calling him that, it would only reaffirm that person’s word choice. In this day and age, Jarmusch’s movies getting slapped with the “independent” label (which they truly deserve—he makes them all without a studio, then shops them around later) could only help him, could only drive people to his work. But if even he’s no longer buying it, why should we?

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