[Editor’s note: This essay is the cover story for Paste‘s February issue. This version contains corrections.]
In 1966, John T. Elson posed a dangerous question. The Time magazine editor, in a now-legendary essay, asked: Is God dead? “It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no,” he wrote. Spelled out in red letters on the magazine’s bible-black cover, the question aroused dismay and dissent in newspaper editorials, family rooms and sacristies across the country, despite the fact that Elson skirted a definitive answer to his own loaded query.
Ten years later, another question was posed, though much less formally. In the 1970s and into the ’80s, beneath the surface of a placid mainstream culture, a growing mass in shredded clothes, with flailing bodies and untamed voices welled up, howling in unison: Are we dead? This movement started in scattered urban centers and then spread, flourishing on obscure LPs and in the black-and-white photocopied pages of fan-made ’zines, traded like fine tea from the Orient. It took refuge on low-frequency college radio stations, where DJs blasted the gospel of those wild men and women to listeners who scrawled their own parables with their own furious bands. God may have been usurped in the ’60s, but these kids were baring their teeth, sharpening their knives, preparing to slaughter the idol that rose in God’s place, the slicked-smooth supreme being of Pop. They wouldn’t make money doing it, they wouldn’t be famous, they wouldn’t fit in—and they not only braced themselves against these realities, they adopted them as their core tenets, their creed.
In 2010, we again find ourselves in strange times. More than 20 years have passed since the punk movement and its offspring ground a steel-toed boot into the shin of America’s cultural consciousness, and in that time we’ve seen it rise up, triumph and retreat in an endless cycle, each time leaving shards of itself behind to float or sink in the mainstream. What we’ve called it has never been stable—it’s been known alternately as “punk” for its early attitude, “underground” for where it happened, “alternative” when the mainstream held it up as an antidote to its own poison—each of these picked up then sloughed off when the semantic baggage grew too unwieldy.
Most recently, “indie”—long thrown around as a signifier of how it got done (i.e. independently)—has become the nom du jour. “When I first heard the term ‘indie rock,’ it was about business practices,” says Slim Moon, who came of age as a punk fan in the 1980s, founded the Kill Rock Stars label in the ’90s, and now helms Shotclock Management out of Portland, Ore. “Major labels being publicly held corporations, their primary motive has to be to make money for stockholders. And the distinctions that I think indie labels were trying to make was, ‘We’re independent of that system so we have lots of reasons for doing this: We’re doing this for politics, we’re doing this for cool factor, we’re doing it for aesthetics, we’re doing it for community, but we’re not just doing it for money.’”
Of course, the term “indie” is troubled now, too. Indie is, at once, a genre (of music first, and then of film, books, video games and anything else with a perceived arty sensibility, regardless of its relationship to a corporation), an ethos, a business model, a demographic and a marketing tool. It can signify everything, and it can signify nothing. It stands among the most important, potentially sustainable and meaningful movements in American popular culture—not just music, but for the whole cultural landscape. But because it was originally sculpted more in terms of what it opposed than what it stood for, the only universally held truth about “indie” is that nobody agrees on what it means.
We have several forces to thank for this growing, increasingly toxic confusion: a mainstream culture never above poaching; a precariously teetering music industry; an Internet booming harder than the Old West, with less rules and more cowboy posturing; plus, an aging movement whose original mix of urgent otherness and charming hubris has—for many members of its second generation—simmered down to solipsism and entitlement.
There’s this old parable, the tale of the blind men and the elephant. The men are asked to describe the enormous creature based on how it feels; the one who touches its trunk says an elephant is like a giant snake, the one who touches its tail says it’s like a rope, the one who touches its leg says it’s like a tree trunk, and so on. No one can see the whole beast, no one can feel it all, no one can tell what it is. Indie has become this elephant, and its attendants—its fans, practitioners and detractors—are the blind men, grasping for the truth about a creature that’s growing bigger all the time. It looms so increasingly large as to obscure its own hugeness—a writhing, hydra-headed beast that renders itself nearly invisible by filling up our entire field of vision. It’s a limping, disoriented creature unsure of its own nature.
And so today we ask yet another question: Is indie dead?
When Elson wrote his Time essay in 1966, he was responding to a sense of spiritual ennui gripping not only America but most of the West; a kind of grand-scale parochial identity crisis some 2,000 years in the making. In particular he was responding to Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion, more than 80 years prior, that God is dead—not that there had never been a God, but that there had been, and that we as humans had done away with him. When everything God offered—moral context, stability, certainty—had been questioned, abused or found elsewhere, when the idea of and word “God” no longer necessitated power, Nietzsche proffered that God as a force, as a being, became irrelevant, meaningless, hollow.
Elson wrote of some believers who accepted God’s death as truth but chose to continue as if nothing was different, just to maintain the order of their lives and the world. Indie is an artistic ideal, not a world religion, so while it faces the same dilemma—as a word that once meant so much, and still does to some, but has virtually lost all meaning and may now be doing more harm than good—there’s no need to be so careful. We can tear down this idol with reckless abandon because, to our question, there is a concrete answer: Indie is dead. It has killed itself.