[19 August 2014]
A more cynical person than I might say we live in an era where appearing to try is worse than accomplishing nothing. The irony, of course, is that appearing not to care takes great effort.
Pop music is—and has always historically been—ridiculed for being frivolous and artistically bankrupt, an unfortunate generalization that categorically ignores the triviality of the equally marketable “traditional” rock music image. Too many music fans suffer from crippling brand loyalty disguised as “defined taste”—truer in the world of independent music than anywhere else. Indie rock, like pop, has been defined in the mainstream by its disinterested critics. Indie music, they say, is pretentious, like pop music is too dumb, hip-hop too crass, and electronic too processed. These are the laws formed by an audience that refuses to listen. Rockists are music fandom’s one-percenters.
Indie rockists are equally subject to the same biases and defensive loyalties as Led Zeppelin fans—if not more so—but their role as a minority in the mainstream music intelligentsia has given them a reputation as contrarians and pseudo-intellectuals. The fact is that music genres may only be a capitalist construction used for efficient, targeted marketing, and yet musical literacy, based entirely in this elaborate construct, is still, for far too many, a contest.
But for a genre that so many detractors find pompous, indie rock is, as a general rule, observably minimalist and unassuming, at least on its face.
Pavement, godfathers of the indie sensibility, defined the simplicity of the style 22 years ago. The band, like Half Japanese and Beat Happening before them, seemed wild and sloppy—like they didn’t know what they were doing, which arecharacteristics that attracted as many people as it repelled. Stephen Malkmus, the band’s frontman, took influence from the ironic intellectualism of post-punk’s greatest icons—Mark E. Smith, David Byrne, The Residents—and turned it into frustrated pop music.
Malkmus’s lyrics are elaborate and playful poems, like a cynical evolution of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Like the best pop music, he invents a time and a place through language, and unlike the genuine pomposity of Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Queen, the images are modest and quaint but no less immersive. In “Gold Soundz” (1994), Malkmus croons:
So drunk in the August sun
And you’re the kind of girl I like
Because you’re empty, and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past
There is a definite image here: the end of summer, orange skies, uncertain love and melancholia, and of course, like traditional rock, indie rock is explicitly concerned with nostalgia. The image is vivid and evocative, not because Malkmus uses flowery language to create a grand mythology, but because he uses simple, descriptive language in service of easily identifiable emotions. It’s the opposite of intellectual posturing—it’s Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen filtered through high school wisdom (in a good way).
Pavement’s songs are typically littered with this kind of poetry, finding profundity through the context of unrequited love, childhood homes, unfriendly urban landscapes, etc.; as such, so is the next two decades of indie music.
From The Shins’ “New Slang” (2001):
Gold teeth and a curse for this town were all in my mouth
Only I don’t know how they got out, dear
Turn me back into the pet I was when we met
I was happier then with no mindset
Seven years later, “Gold Soundz” still resonates. In “New Slang,” James Mercer’s lyrics again focus on the desire for imperfect love, a step into realism from the bombastic romanticism of ‘70’s rock. The poetry doesn’t transport the listener to Mordor, outer space, heaven or hell; we are “home”—a town, a city, the suburbs. The sentiment is the same but it’s relatable and down-to-earth, and maybe even more sincere. Indie rock is so concerned with the concept of “home” (see also: Arcade Fire’s Funeral, The Suburbs, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s debut self-titled record, etc.) because of that very nature as an existential focal point.
The language in “New Slang” is still abstract yet bare. The narrator pleads for the return of youthful ignorance (“I was happier then with no mindset”), mirroring the hollow infatuation in “Gold Soundz” (“You’re empty, and I’m empty / and you can never quarantine the past”). The lyrics value naiveté and frankness, and the music—both Pavement and The Shins’—seems to respond with equal succinctness; both qualities continue to be virtues of indie music at large.
From Best Coast’s “Sun Was High (So Was I)” (2009):
I went for a walk
I watched the cars go by
The sun was high
And so was I
I thought of you
I thought of you
If any single artist is the paragon of blissful simplicity, it is Best Coast. Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics resemble that of ‘60’s pop groups with the same tinge of cynicism and melancholy that informed Pavement, while the music itself is a buzzy mix of lo-fi alt-rock and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound (a method that is itself deceptively simple), written with modest chord progressions that define classic punk and The Beatles alike.
These lines in particular are contemplative, but they again feel emotionally empty somehow. Cosentino’s summery high recalls Malkmus’s, “So drunk in the August sun / and you’re the kind of girl I like,” and the limited language evokes more extreme barrenness than in “Gold Soundz” or “New Slang.” All three songs feature lines that resemble simple, nostalgic, sun-drenched love stories, but they’re told with hints of irony and bitterness, like good lemonade.
And that’s one of the great appeals of indie music: it isn’t obfuscating or necessarily allegorical, but rather transparent, realistic, and therefore simple. It’s satisfying. Rock music created a mythology that was taken as gospel for more than three decades in mainstream culture. If “sex, drugs, rock and roll” was the mantra of the ‘70s, then alternative rock took that and made it unremarkable, even unfashionable. Early punk was about tearing down those traditions while post-punk was about forming new ones; indie music, always indebted to its own nostalgia, embraced all three modes at once.
It is misleadingly straightforward. Today, indie artists are frequently dismissed as either needless retreads of older styles or the pretentious musings of rich white kids with liberal arts degrees. The dichotomy is appealing, like all labels, and perhaps each is true to a point. Paradoxically, Malkmus’s lyrics are both shallow and sophisticated. Young artists frequently seek profundity through their minimal experience, of course, but then a great artist doesn’t need a lot of building blocks to make something great.
By and large, that’s how the indie sensibility operates: by making something out of nothing. To the naked eye, that reads as simplicity, intellectual posturing, or some combination of both, but in truth it is something else. Indie music doesn’t recreate the old rock traditions, it comments on them, the way that post-punk artists commented on mainstream culture by creating mutant disco and New Romantic pop records. Some find that irony shallow and distant, and others find the amateurish methods grating and immature. But at the end of the day, indie rock is about making something real, even at the expense of decades of music tradition.
Colin Fitzgerald contributes to PopMatters, Prefix Magazine, and Spectrum Culture. He comes from the heart of Michigan where it's too cold to do anything but write. He also tweets at https://twitter.com/ColinFitzOK.