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Listen Up (Special Tuesday Edition): I'm Not Sad About Death Cab, and Other Notes From Indie's Wake

February 2, 2010  |  3:45pm
Listen Up (Special Tuesday Edition): I'm Not Sad About Death Cab, and Other Notes From Indie's Wake

I was planning on waiting a little while before writing anything big regarding the response to my “Is Indie Dead?” essay (it just posted online last week, and the print issue it's in hasn't even hit newsstands yet) but enough has been said about it already that I might as well have a go now.

I want to clarify some points that I think are being pretty widely misinterpreted, some of which I've already addressed with a few readers directly but that beg for further discussion. Because this is the Internet and things often sound nastier than they're intended, let me say this: Both the original essay and this response were written in the interest of honest discourse. This is not me whining about being misunderstood. It is an attempt at some kind of constructive dialogue. Beyond this indulgence, I am only responding in good faith to criticisms made in good faith. Otherwise, this could devolve into something really endless and mind-meltingly petty, which I'm sure some people would like to see, but which I just don't have the energy for.

To begin with: Yes, the title of the essay is a bit overdramatic. (And yes, that was an understatement.) It's an allusion to the 1966 Time essay that I mention in the very first paragraph of the piece; the cover of our February issue (in which the essay appears) is a play on that same Time cover. This choice has been interpreted by some as self-serious and self-important, which I understand (especially because I go on to quote Nietzsche—although I assure you, I was giggling all the while). My co-editors and I (just for some background, I'm an associate editor at Paste) meant it both as a magaziney in-joke, and also as a jab at what we see as a rampant self-seriousness within the “indie” world—that feeling of sacredness and all-importantness that so many people feel about it (which is certainly not omnipresent in the “indie” world, and certainly not limited to it).

Yes, I was taking a jab at self-seriousness. That might confuse anyone who interpreted the tone of my essay itself as “po-faced,” but it brings me to my next point. More than a few people, including several of the music writers Flavorwire assembled to respond to the essay, seem to think that I am personally offended by the problems with “indie” that I outlined in the piece. But I'm not. I am not sad. I'm not shocked. I'm not the girl in the illustration with the Rick Moranis glasses and the headband and the impending-doom sign. I've never self-identified as “indie” (although my tastes generally do fall into that very-broad realm) and I do not find anything I wrote about particularly tragic. I am not upset, and never was, about Death Cab for Cutie (or any band) signing to a major label. I don't begrudge any band for making the choice to sign with a major, period, and I've never said that I did or do. This seemed too obvious to disclaim in the essay, but perhaps I should have done so.

More than a few people have also accused the essay of being too concerned with semantics, and I am guilty as charged. The death of “indie,” in this case, is absolutely a semantic issue. (Music writer Chris Weingarten seems to think it could have been a discussion of youth culture, like hashing out the death of punk and alternative might've once been, but I would argue it was mostly a matter of semantics then, too.) Independent art is not dead, because independent art has always existed and will always exist, regardless of what it's called. On a personal level, I don't care how you label music. Please, just like what you like or hate what you hate for whatever reasons make sense to you or move you in some way. That's all that matters, on a certain basic level. But the game changes when you start talking to other people, especially on a mass scale, about music (or anything). This is where terms like “indie” become useful.

In the essay, I quote Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist and music blogger Carrie Brownstein, who says, “I think most music fans would acknowledge that’s a vague definition, but it’s a quick way to let someone know—like if someone asks what something sounds like, you can go, ‘Oh, they’re sort of indie-sounding.’ For most people that have been listening to music for a while, that’s going to conjure up something.” And several commenters have said basically the same thing: it's shorthand. It's a shortcut. People generally know what I mean when I say it.

Which I totally get! I used to use the word that same way, because it was an easier way of saying—ah, but that was the thing. I actually had no idea what I was using it as shorthand for. When I thought about it, it was flimsy and silly. Something arty and different and weird and not what most people listen to? (I dunno, I was in college, that seemed vaguely important.) When I started asking other people what they mean by it, what it was their shorthand for, their definitions were flimsy and silly too, but in wildly different ways.

One of the only people I talked to who had a concrete definition (and not some “oh, no big deal, my friends generally know what I'm talking about” idea of it) was Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad, whose criteria are extremely specific and very traditional, but for most people probably a little too stringent. (And his insistence that "indie" can be applied only to music made by artists on truly independent labels is why I busted out the list of who's on what label and distributed by whom, just to show how tricky that can be—not because I'm personally interested in sniffing out impostors, as I think some have taken it to mean).

What all this means is that fundamentally, there is simply no agreed-upon notion of what “indie” is. Many have pointed out that “indie” isn't alone in this, which is obvious—many, many words are used in the same way, as codeless codes, but I'm hardly qualified to parse those out. (I mean, some people don't even think I'm qualified to take on “indie,” so by all means, keep me away from “art” and “love”!)

There's been a general complaint that I approached the essay through an outdated set of assumptions, that I'm forcing “indie” to adhere to some idealistic criteria that are simply no longer relevant (if they ever were). Music writer Tom Ewing says my argument is “basically hidebound by an inability to see the present except through the frames that made sense in the past,” but that's essentially what I'm getting at. Almost everything anyone has ever said about “indie,” every ad-hoc definition we've built into the collective idea of it, have all been attempts to reconcile reality with "frames that made sense in the past"—and what we've wound up with is no longer workable. In the essay, I bang and bash around all of the ideas of indie that we once thought were true, trying to find what still fits, and showing quite clearly that nothing does. I don't care what “indie” means, so long as it means something, but I can't even get to that point. What I see now only makes sense if the word “indie” itself is recognized as meaningless, so that we can move on with giving it some other name, or many other names (which will, of course, all work for a time and then get tossed off sometime in the future).

To make another thing clear: The essay is not me agonizing. Writing 8,000 words on something (and then 2,000 more, the way this response is shaping up) is not necessarily agonizing. I can agonize, alright—I can agonize with the best of 'em. But this isn't that. It's just me writing something really long.

I think the false impression of my “framework” stems from the second section of the essay, the exchange with an imagined, time-traveling punk, which has been widely interpreted as me mourning the success of the artists mentioned there (Death Cab, Spoon, M.I.A.). I can see how it might be read that way, but that was not my intention, and I think the rest of the essay makes it clear that I am not of the opinion that anything those artists have done has hurt “indie”—just stretched the idea of it a little. It's that stretching, plus other factors, that brought us to this point. I intended the exchange to illustrate how baffling the current “indie” world would seem if taken out of context of the last thirty-something years (which is kind of how most new “indie” fans and new culture-observers now experience it).

Would any actually-early punk really be so gobsmacked as I made this imaginary guy out to be? I have no idea. Regardless, even given the few early “indie” bands that had mainstream/major label success that this hypothetical guy might have been familiar with, possibly dulling his confusion over Death Cab being on Atlantic, I don't think anyone at that time could have fully comprehended how pervasive their then-cloistered, dangerous, oppositional sense of independence would eventually become. And that was the point I was trying to make.

I used those three artists as examples because they each represented a different aspect of what “indie” has come to encompass in recent years: Death Cab, an independently-minded (if you will) band making critically and commercially well-received music (in a traditionally “indie” vein) on a major label; Spoon, a band making critically and commercially well-received music (in a traditionally “indie” vein) on an independent label; and M.I.A., an independently-minded artist making critically and commercially received music (in a vein wholly removed from traditional “indie,” but well-received by the “indie” world nonetheless) on a major label.

If it seems like I cherry-picked only the most visible artists for examples in the essay, that's because I did. It would not have been useful for me to make an example of an unheard band mostly because no one would know who they are, regardless of whether or not they effectively proved my point. The point I was making, though, was about a certain kind of artist, the Spoons and the M.I.A.s—the relatively-popular, mainstream-ish artists that are still, for mostly-good reasons, considered “indie.”

Music writer Jessica Hopper and others seem to think that I believe “indie” is dead because artists like these have experienced some level of mainstream success. Responding on Flavorwire, Hopper writes: “Spoon sold albums in the low-mid thousands for the first half of their discography — the fact that they have grown to become popular over what — 18 years — and popular with moms and Urban Outfitters shoppers? That's not the death knell of anything —that's how it works.” Of course that's how it works. But I'm not saying Spoon's success alone has rung the death knell. Their success, and others' successes, plus a variety of other factors—all outlined in the essay—have contributed to the death of "indie" (the semantic death, perhaps I should say again).

Hopper writes that I “seem to be conflating popularity with selling out, which aren't mutually exclusive." But at no point do I equate the two. In an early draft, I actually had a long section calling out the still-relevant albums that were made on major labels during the earliest years of punk, but again, it seemed obvious so I scrapped it. Did I nod at the fact that some people were disconcerted by Death Cab and other bands' major-label moves? Yes, because despite the fact that bands have been decamping from the underground to the majors for as long as we've had either (which I think I document fairly well for an essay not intended as a "history of indie;" see paragraph nine here, the first few paragraphs here and the final section), there's always been a new crop of fans for whom this transition is new and weird and jarring. Someone is always going to be upset or apprehensive or flat-out pissed when an “indie” band signs with a major, because every time that happens, there's some fan out there that has never experienced it before. It's old hat for longtime fans and music writers—myself included—but it's a new reality for a lot of people, young and old, all the time. Stereogum's Brandon Stosuy is quoted about this in the essay. Just because some people—older fans, music writers—know that it's been happening for years and years and years doesn't mean it's a ridiculous concern for others to have. 

(Overall, I think this essay is resonating more with people whose jobs—or joblike hobbies, as so much music writing ends up being these days—don't require or encourage them to think about and engage with music, genre, semantics, etc. It's not that those people aren't plugged in, because they are, very much so. It's just not shop-talk for them. Maybe it's because I've been a music fan far longer than a codified “music writer,” but I think rock critics can take a whole lot for granted in terms of what regular, on-the-ground folks know and care about. Certain things, like which companies distribute which "indie" labels and the history of past counter-culture movements, just aren't obvious or relevant to most music fans. There are exceptions on both sides, of course. That said, when I was doing interviews and researching for the essay, everyone I spoke with—industry or otherwise—expressed at least some degree of frustration with the ever-expanding nature of “indie,” so I hardly think this is just a matter of people just not being finely-tuned-in.)

Another thing: I never said, and I don't believe I ever implied, that no good music is being made by independent artists. That's as patently ridiculous as saying that no good music is being made on major labels. I make it pretty clear that music has been made outside of the major-label structure for years and years and years, since long before “indie” was the name for it (and long before “alternative” and “punk,” too). But again, the fact that good music is still being made by independent artists, despite all the foilbles and flaws of what's broadly known as “indie,” seemed too obvious to dwell on in the essay. Since it's come up, though, here are eight of my favorite new artists from last year and a hundred or so profiles of others that have recently received Paste's “Best of What's Next” seal of approval (all of which I assigned, all of which I was excited about in some way).

Most of those folks are “indie” by some definition of the word—but see? That word! That word and all its definitions! “Indie” is dead because I can't say to you, “There's this great indie artist you should hear!” and trust that you will know what I mean. I could mean Death Cab or I could mean Moonlight Bride or I could mean Taylor Swift, because apparently (and I had no idea about this until a day-after-Grammys press release) but her platinum-selling Fearless was released on an independent label, Big Machine. (It's distributed through Universal, though, so she's not "indie" in any Azerradian sense—but you likely don't share his criteria anyway.) Saying “There's this great indie artist you should hear!” is akin saying something like, “Oh, I'm from America!” and expecting that statement alone to explain your fundamental values, personality and interests. Maybe there are a few basic assumptions that could be fairly made about what “being from America” means, but the same statement could apply to so many different people that, if you're interested in communicating any actual meaning at all, it's an utterly pointless thing to say. (The difference being that, unlike the matter of genre, "being from America" is an objective fact that can be proved definitively in some way.)

Many people have replied to the essay with something to the effect of, “Duh, this happened with alternative and with punk! Why are we still talking about this like it's a new thing?” I'm not saying it's a new thing. I made it pretty clear in the essay, the not-newness of this thing—I even dropped a big old po-faced Nietzsche quote in there to prove the not-newness of this thing! But just because the same thing has happened before doesn't mean it shouldn't be called out when it happens again. And beyond that, I think there are some real, important differences between the ultimate devaluing of the words “punk” and “alternative” and the increasing-uselessness of the term “indie.” I spelled some of these out in the essay (see the third section), but a few more have cropped up since it was written in December. Things like Vampire Weekend's Contra hitting #1 on the Billboard charts the first week of its release and Taylor Swift's apparently indie-backed Grammy sweep, among others, certainly support the idea that “indie” is the way of the future—that the major labels are just going to continue to crumble, and a mass of independents are going to rise up in their wake.

But this doesn't challenge my overall point—it proves it. Yes, the idea of “indie” is getting bigger and bigger all the time, and taking root in some of the most unexpected places; yes, “indie” artists are on all different kinds of labels and approach the business aspect of their art from all different angels; yes, there is really exciting music being made, and really utterly boring music being made, all under the guise of “indie.” But it's for those exact reasons that the word itself is dead. There is no agreed-upon definition of what it means (because, oh, it could mean a label affiliation or a general ethos or just more a certain “ineffable” sound) and there are more and more people claiming to be “indie” than ever before—many rightly so, actually, based on one or more if its various definitions. Which is great, in a lot of ways, if you don't mind the word losing the badge-of-honor cache it held for so long. And I don't. But at the same time, when it loses that specialness—not when it fails to indicate some kind of cultural superiority or notion of purity, but when it fails to represent any basic fact whatsoever—it loses the only real reason anyone would use the word to begin with. 

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at every Monday, except for weeks like this, when it also appears on Tuesday.

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