Music

My Indie Is Not a Centerfold, Nor Is It Indie

Joseph Fisher
Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon posing with her Urban Outfitters look.

What has come to be known as indie music cannot be recorded and released in places where people are absolutely independent. We need to start thinking -- really, seriously thinking -- about how something that is supposed to be inherently independent can be so dependent on so much else.

The P.O.V Lounge sits atop the W Washington, DC. A member of Starwood's W Hotel brand, this location has recently hosted performances by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Dom, the latter of which emerged from a burgeoning partnership between Stereogum and the W chain.

The view from DC's P.O.V Lounge is unparalleled. It offers guests a near-panoramic gaze of the National Mall and Downtown DC. The rough edges of Rosslyn, VA's many high-rise office buildings are readily visible on the western skyline, which makes for a gorgeous photo opportunity during sunset, when the glassy facades of those buildings reflect the pink and orange hues of the horizon. Moreover, the P.O.V Lounge allows patrons rare peeks into the White House grounds -- peeks that are intimate despite the city block that separates the hotel from the home of the President.

To gain access to the Lounge at the most desirable time of day -- dusk -- patrons generally have to place their names on a waiting list prior to their visits. On some occasions, that small annoyance can be bypassed, but there's no guarantee, so it's always better to plan ahead. Upon arrival, guests will usually be asked to wait behind a velvet rope in the W's endlessly swanky lobby, as vaguely techno music is pumped through the hotel's internal speakers. Once the headwaiter grants admittance, refurbished old model elevators, relics from the hotel's days as the Hotel Washington, usher guests up to the Lounge where they will be greeted by numerous gorgeous waitresses in various kinds of low-cut, tight-fitting black dresses. Indeed, every single waitress at the P.O.V Lounge could be a swimsuit model.

For the uninitiated, the views -- of DC, of the wait staff -- will no doubt be breathtaking. And that is to say nothing about the cost of the Terrace's mixed drinks ($15 a piece). P.O.V patrons might also be surprised to catch glimpses of local celebrities, some of whom have proven themselves to be truly horrible people.

Just a decade ago, this setting -- a posh hotel -- would seem a preposterous location to host any kind of independent (or "indie", as we nonspecifically call it) music performance. However, as the networked inertia of the noughties took hold, indie music insinuated itself into, like, everything -- car commercials, movie soundtracks, iPod commercials, The O.C., the Grammys, the soundsystem at Ann Taylor Loft (no exaggeration), etc. In that light, I suppose, it made a certain amount of sense to see a music blog that calls itself the "leading online community for independent and alternative news" pairing with a major hotel chain for a performance series. After all, it's not like people who purchase independent music and own a bunch of Mac products and watch the Grammys and are plugged into the W Happenings feed are short on disposable income. Why not go for broke?

Still, the linkage between indie music, entitled athletes, and gorgeous waitresses who might be swimsuit models seems a bit far-fetched, right?

Wrong.

Williamsburg, you have a problem.

Since the news about Brent DiCrescenzo's latest thoughtform experiment broke, I have been wondering whether or not I should take it on. Like so many in my pasty white middle class male demographic, I've been schooled in the gospel of punk rock with all of its endorsements of jamming econo and all of its chastisements against selling out. And like all interminable sermons, I've always found that particular gospel to be hackneyed, unimaginative, anachronistic, and entirely ill-equipped to address the realities of recording and releasing music anywhere ever in the history of the industrialized world. All of which is to say, I probably should have foregone this post and just gone to the P.O.V Terrace for a drink. Independently, though, I can't afford to do that. I teach American literature and composition for a living. Trust me, you can't jam more econo than that.

What finally pushed me over the edge -- see, it's a good thing I wasn't up on that terrace -- was the recollection that there is this little known indie band out there. The name of the band is Sonic Youth. Perhaps you've heard of this band. Sonic Youth once wrote a song called "Swimsuit Issue". Sonic Youth's feminist guitarist, Kim Gordon, sang the words to that song. In it, she laments the sexism inherent in a culture that continuously empowers men over women. "Don't touch my breast," she growls at one point.


And yet despite the enormous cache that this humble band has in all indie circles, here we are, pondering why indie music has teamed up with a major corporate sports publication that annually displays pictures of swimsuit models who might once have worked as waitresses at fancy hotels where their breasts could have been forcibly fondled by asshole professional athletes.

Nice job, Indie Music. And Indie Media.

Already, I can hear thousands of knuckles cracking as PopMatters's many readers prepare to respond (angrily?) in the comments section. Just hold on for a second, though. Let's stop to think about this for a minute. Really, what's to be done about this endless spiral of corrupted music hypocrisy?

And before you answer that question, realize that a statement along the lines of, "Chill, bro" is an evasive non-argument.

If indie music is "just music," something designed for pure entertainment -- no more, no less -- then we really do not need all of those indie music blogs dissecting every single chord progression that has ever leaked onto the Internet.

On the other hand, if indie music is more than just entertainment -- if it represents something of cultural significance -- then we need to be having better discussions (on all of those music blogs) about what it actually is and about how we can make honest, accurate assessments about what it is accomplishing beyond the realm of entertainment.

We need to know what it means for the publications that cover this genre of music to be partnering with large hotel chains that, to cite one injustice, probably don't pay their custodial staffs enough for them to stay in the rooms that they clean after things like these W Happenings happen.

We need to know what it means for some of those publications' more famous writers to forge partnerships between indie music and an elongated history of corporate sexploitation.

We need to know what it means for indie bands to participate so willingly in that sexploitation.


Finally, we need to start thinking -- really, seriously thinking -- about how something that is supposed to be inherently independent can be so dependent on so much else.

As I was preparing to write this piece, I happened to be reading Christopher McDougall's paean to ultrarunning: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Believe me, if there is any activity out there that is truly independent, it is ultrarunning. Not many people have it in them to run hundreds of miles through the wilderness. Likewise, not many spectators have it in them to wait for hours in the wilderness to watch their friends and family for a mere second or two. Ultrarunners work and perform alone -- independently.

In Born to Run, McDougall discusses the reclusive Tarahumara people who live in Mexico's Copper Canyon. These people live a lifestyle that most would classify as primitive, often inhabiting highly concealed caves and huts in the most distant parts of the Canyon. Yet, for hundreds of years, the Tarahumara have been able to maintain a culture of nonviolence and relative equality. They are a cultured people -- McDougall comments repeatedly on the beauty of their clothing and music -- and, to date, they have maintained their status as the best ultrarunners in the entire world.

What is most significant is that the Tarahumara have done all of that entirely outside of capitalism. Their local economy is largely based on trust, and, as McDougall reiterates throughout the book, they run without the benefit of corporate sponsorship and, most strikingly, running shoes. The Tarahumara run solely for themselves. They do everything by themselves and for themselves. They are, in every sense of the term, punk rock runners who have "spent their time perfecting the art of invisibility."

Now, contrast the location of that culture with the one described uncritically by legions of Western "independent" musicians who believe themselves heirs to the throne of punk. For example, take LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy talking to Pitchfork in July 2010 about his band's imminent breakup: "It's all just gotten bigger than I planned or wanted. Not that I'm against it but I don't want to get bigger. What's the goal now -- get fucking huge? I don't want to be a famous person. It's fucking great where we are. I get on an airplane and nobody has any idea who I am. I just want to do other stuff."

Let's try to overlook the trappings of American entitlement -- the wealth to fly (to places like Japan), the cache to book Madison Square Garden -- to consider the context of this statement. This disingenuous public shunning of fame was made on the grounds of a popular music festival to a reporter for a fairly large publication that dedicated an egregious amount of energy to reviewing every single song this guy's band ever wrote. Yeah, James, you're really roughing it out there. To be fair, though, the countless victory laps that LCD Soundsystem ran in 2011 do make you kind of an ultrarunner. Pitchfork even described your farewell show as a "marathon".

Given that indie is now aligned with Sports Illustrated, this digression into the realm of running really isn't a digression at all. Nevertheless, let me reiterate: the Tarahumara strike me as a people who are truly independent. Their culture is steeped in the kind of rugged individualist ideology that indie music ceaselessly champions, even though I doubt that the next generation of DiY chillwave musicians will retreat to Copper Canyon to record their music. Doing such a thing would, of course, be impossible. What has come to be known as indie music cannot be recorded and released in places where people are absolutely independent. The town of Urique, Mexico, for example, only received phone service in 2002. Imagine that. Just a decade ago, and that tiny town didn't have access to the Internet. RLY. The inhabitants of Urique missed out on the wonder of You Forgot It in People when the rest of us would be celebrating the "subversiveness" of Broken Social Scene.

Once more, "Chill, bro" is an evasive non-argument.

Let me be clear: I like indie music -- a lot. I probably listen to more indie music than I do any other genre of music. Grimes is, IMHO, the most exciting musician out there right now.

However, I can't in good conscious call that stuff "indie" anymore. I actually don't know if I ever really could call it "indie". I did so, ironically enough, because that's what everyone else called it. I won't do that any longer, though. My point of view has changed, and if I have to stand alone on this one, that's fine. After all, that's what independence is all about.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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