Is Indie Dead?

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Picture 16_300x466.shkl.jpg MILK THAT SOUND

At indie-rock scout meetings, few traits earn more merit badges than “authenticity.” Whatever is meant by “independent” or “quirky” and all of these code words, there’s an expectation of some level of organic craft—real art made by real people, not manufactured and mass-produced.

Of course, there’s no quantitative gauge, no canary to lower into the mine to check for noxious fumes of fakery. It seems weird to go around eyeing every new band like they’re the indie *NSYNC, but a little honest self-policing probably wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes it’s an easy call—Brandon Flowers donning bulky shoulder pads made of animal pelts and feathers for The Killers’ most recent album cycle was as clear a grab for weirdo-cred as we’ve seen in a while, especially given the band’s tepid paean “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll,” which takes on the same subculture as Sebadoh’s infamous “Gimme Indie Rock” without any of the sly self-deprecation, undercurrent of subverted loathing or, uh, involvement in the scene in any way. But usually authenticity is an imprecise, continual assessment, prone to personal bias and human error—not exactly something to build a whole musical movement upon.

Indie never seems more insular than when it complains about its own sound. Some unconventional artists have cruised into the indie world not because of their D.I.Y. acumen or ability to channel Stephen Malkmus, but because of the pure power of their realness. But for every LCD Soundsystem or M.I.A. there are 50 other legit artists left prowling at the gates. If authenticity is the key to the indie kingdom, then those gates need to open up and indie needs to recognize the validity—indeed, the kinship—of like-minded artists from other realms. Lyle Lovett lives on an honest-to-God ranch in Texas, and is about as authentic as they come. So maybe now he’s indie. Gucci Mane raps about crime, and at press time is locked up in Fulton County Jail—what could be more authentic? Ghostface is a singular talent, as true to his own crazy muse as any guitar slinger. Michael Azerrad would disagree, but for those who equate “indie” with authentic artistry, perhaps Ghost makes the cut, too. Sure, these artists are all on labels owned by majors—but that’s hardly pushed Death Cab or No Age from the fold.

Current indie orthodoxy rarely embraces artists this far out of bounds, but in some respects it’s more diverse than it’s ever been. “I think the people making music today, in general, are far more open-minded, more adept at synthesizing influences,” says Lou Barlow, who co-wrote Sebadoh’s jabbing ode at the early-’90s indie scene. “At the time we did ‘Gimme Indie Rock,’ it seemed like our peers were still in a post-hardcore macho rut. We were chastised for making acoustic music and singing softly—no one seemed particularly ready for anything ‘sensitive.’ That’s obviously changed. If I was protesting anything back then, it was the narrow-mindedness I heard in most independent music.”

Now, though, things have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. Azerrad sees a recent shift toward “more sophisticated indie rock”—led by artists like Animal Collective, Deerhoof and Joanna Newsom—as a rather punk reaction to mainstream America. “To insist that underground music be snarly and abrasive is to subscribe to a hidebound cliché, which is ironic since the whole idea of the music is to dispense with hidebound clichés,” he says. “Underground music stands against and apart from mainstream culture in order to offer an antidote to it. In eras past, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied. [...] But now, mainstream culture isn’t complacent, it’s stupid and angry; underground culture reacts by becoming smarter, more serene. That’s not wimpy—it’s powerful and productive.”

Still, there are growing complaints that indie has gone “too soft” or “too comfortable,” which of course is nothing new—it sounds a lot like early punk’s complaints about the new rock of the ’70s mainstream (which included not just ABBA but also Fleetwood Mac and Paul Simon, now considered artful, seminal acts). And the complaint does seem salient right now. Indie’s prevailing sound has shifted away from noisy rock and toward lush symphonics, a more studied pace and more emphasis on lyrics and emotional ambience—Sufjan Stevens, Feist, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver. Wrote Carrie Brownstein on her Monitor Mix blog in late 2009: “Though I enjoyed many a song by all of [these] artists, the terms I’d use to describe their music are ones I wouldn’t wish on my enemies: pleasant and nice.”

In a world where a car commercial or Target ad could feasibly “break” a band, it’s fair to be somewhat suspicious of palatability, which can be just as easily feigned as the sound of a calculated chart hit, especially when certain tastemaking pockets begin to establish their preferred sound—like the unknown, just-barely-off-kilter singer/songwriters picked to soundtrack the earliest seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, or the sassy, exuberant kitchen-sink pop recently favored by Apple to sell its iPods and iPhones. This kind of artist-driven calculation might be even more dangerous than the mainstream calculation we’re used to. At least mainstream pop is generally marketed and approached under the default assumption that it’s dross, with any arguments for “authenticity” hashed out only after the fact—and in that way it’s more artistically honest than most modern indie music.

The indie world certainly isn’t above kowtowing to trends, especially when those trends are of its own design. Thanks to the speed at which songs now proliferate, what happened in the ’90s with grunge and alternative is happening again, but on an evermore genre-fragmented scale. This isn’t like the early indie bands of the ’80s all coming up and claiming The Velvet Underground as a major influence. It’s not even like Gavin Rossdale’s terrible band Bush making a sweet buck in post-grunge America by sounding like a poor man’s Nirvana. Instead, it’s Wavves dropping its first single and then, less than six months later, Neon Indian being not only hailed as the next Wavves, but also as the torchbearer of a whole new genre—chillwave. (Of course, this stuff moves so fast that, by the time anyone reads these words, “chillwave” probably will be just about as relevant as polka, having since been replaced by the next brief thing, perhaps “frostycore,” coming soon to a Wendy’s ad near you).

Over the last three decades, indie has built itself a subculture that is just as dependent on trends, superficiality and the whims and caprices of the listening public as the pop mainstream has ever been. It’s generally less egalitarian toward female and minority performers than the mainstream. And even within its most narrowly defined bounds, indie is susceptible to its own ravenous appetite for the next big thing. The goal used to be generating some amount of buzz as a means to an end—a record deal, a decent-sized tour. The lightspeed Internet has made buzz an end unto itself, a seal of approval that one hand slaps on these acts while the other pushes them out the back door. This, of course, only reinforces the most widely held negative stereotype about indie rock—its cooler-than-thou elitism.

“Everyone is out there searching for the next big thing, but it’ll never be the next big thing on the scale Nirvana was,” Stosuy says. “It’s Wavves, which is a little depressing in context.”

In that iconic Time essay, Elson quoted 19th-century theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote, “The day when Christianity and the world become friends, Christianity is done away with.” Indie has always been ragged on for its tendency—both actual and perceived—to cloister itself, to shun the mainstream, not just because of the commercial complications but in the interest of remaining willfully obscure as a point of pride. But given indie’s increasing visibility over the last 10 years, this accusation now rings increasingly false. Maybe if it were more true, we wouldn’t have found ourselves with this dead elephant on our hands.