A couple of days ago, I was chatting with this girl over beers about indie music. She was telling me that indie has gone from a philosophy to just a loosely defined category, and I realised the same thing happened with punk music. When I tried to tell her this, she told me she had no idea what punk music was. Needless to say, the date went poorly after that, but on the train ride home I started thinking: is indie the new punk?
First, we have to start with a definition. Indie literally refers to a band that records, produces, and releases its material outside the major label cabal, so already from that definition you can see how close it is, ideologically, to punk. You probably have a slightly different definition, but I transposed this one from what is traditionally agreed makes a film indie, though in both cases we know there are more elements. Twilight is technically an indie film, but when you think of indie films, you’d have a hard time putting it next to Brick or Clerks or whatever your favourite indie film is, yet they’re all still independently produced.
In 1975, the youth of the two greatest cities of the Western world, London and New York City, were trying to reconnect with rock’s new spirit. Their solution was punk. The music was loud, fast, and aggressive, but also simple. In a 1995 interview, Joey Ramone of the Ramones said “We wanted the kids to feel they could go out and do this too.” The kids felt isolated, but they had a lot to say, and now they had the avenue to say it. This accessibility was lost by the time the ‘80s rolled around. The three chords that were the backbone of punk were replaced with complicated solos and greater emphasis on technical aptitude. The elitism was restored to music. Then came the Millennials. Told they could do anything, that they were all delicate little snowflakes, unique, filled with potential, they ignored the obstacles and the unreality of becoming a famous musician and took up instruments anyway.
London and New York have always had an interesting musical relationship. From Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground to the Libertines and the Strokes, in their own spaces they’ve developed different flavours of the same product. With the Internet and social networking shrinking the world, this link has grown even stronger. People started reaching out and finding that people on the other side of the planet felt similarly to them about the world they lived in. They sent records to each other via the Internet, Napster brought the act of international taste-sharing to the mainstream, and a new generation of disaffected youth found a voice for their frustration, a voice suppressed by the artificial happiness of the Top of the Pops culture.
This is where the music started, and from there a scene evolved. In punk’s case, it grew up in underground bars, and in indie’s case, the bedroom, but before long both spilled out onto the streets. Members of the subculture demonstrated their participation with their style. Young punks decked out their jackets with badges, chains, and pins, and to those on the outside they all looked the same. That uniformity projected the spirit that they were part of something bigger, a legitimate cultural movement, however their outfits were distinct enough to be individual to the discerning eye. The same thing happened with indie. Walk down the main street of any major city and you’ll see a thousand kids with the same thrift store aesthetic without noticing the ways in which they’re unique (so maybe the “snowflake” metaphor isn’t so misguided). The styles of the two subcultures are tied by the prominent DIY ethic that lies at the core of either ideology.
But as with punk, so did the ideological core of indie become diluted to the point where it now exists at best as a facsimile of youthful independence, and at worst a marketing term (I call this “genrefication”). It’s gone from being a way of life to just another brand, a progression allowed by indie becoming the mainstream. The hole is no longer square, it’s circular too, and now everyone fits in. The commercialization of punk happened almost as soon as it started gaining traction. In 1976, Malcolm McLaren pulled John Lydon off the street after seeing him wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt and pushed him into a band he was forming. The Sex Pistols were born, a punk band created and aggressively marketed to help McLaren’s apparel business. Though the image of Sid Vicious is probably the most iconic in punk history, the Sex Pistols were the beginning of the end, as McLaren set the precedent for punk commercialization. In the same way, vintage stores now rake in the indie dollars selling to those looking to be part of the scene, and it won’t be long before even department store designers start poring over yellowed magazines in their mothers’ attics looking to capitalize on the new-old vogue.
What set punk apart, other than its loud, aggressive buzz, was the revolutionary spirit that encouraged activism in order to improve society. Punks were picketing with guitars, so to speak, campaigning for change with music. This spirit was so powerful that it endured through the lull in punk’s popularity, its longevity exemplified by events like Rock Against Bush, organised by punk stalwarts NOFX in 2004. While punk wasn’t always so overtly political as to take sides (as Rock Against Bush did with United States presidential candidate John Kerry), it always opposed the establishment that punks saw was letting them down. Activism is sorely lacking from the indie culture, with youthful outrage instead being funneled through the conduit of the Internet. The people participating in indie grew up channeling their fury into posts on forums and comments on blogs, and that lack of real-world visibility makes their voices much, much smaller.
Punk also had far fewer influences than indie, and consequently remained purer for longer. Indie, conversely, is so splintered now that one subgenre is barely recognisable from another. This considerably lessens any potential movement, because everybody is split into minor factions, sonically at odds with each other. Actually, all these influences mean that indie has parallels with plenty of genres, not just punk. The aesthetic, for example, is more closely tied to ‘60s bohemian style: lots of bright colours and flowers, quite antithetical to punk’s penchant for black. It’s hard for a movement to evolve without concrete fundamentals, and the assimilatory behaviour of indie is what contributed to it losing definition so quickly.
Indie is a vast, ever-expanding subculture that’s bled into every aspect of popular culture. Declaring indie the new punk is ultimately a facile argument because of how encompassing indie has become, and how widely influential punk was. However, punk is certainly present in the indie ethos, and the flag is still flying (even if it’s no longer black). Indie couldn’t exist as it is without punk—it’d be a wholly different creature, like Oasis without the Beatles or Das Racist without Taco Bell—and while it may lack the anarchical, rebellious fervor of punk culture, indie is still the voice of the current generation. Kids picking up a Strat and logging onto Ultimate-Guitar, teaching themselves the chords, and recording an album in their parents’ garage, well, that’s still the most punk thing I can think of.