Barack Obama: Indie Rocker

Eric Zimmermann
Arcade Fire playing a March 2008 Obama rally.

In how he is represented and in the fan base he's amassed, Obama resembles an indie-rock band in the first flush of fame. Does that mean he's just for elite tastes too?

Indie-rock frontman Jeff Tweedy recently played a benefit concert for Barack Obama with a whopping ticket price of at least $250. (Let’s hope Republicans don’t find out that Tweedy’s band, Wilco, recorded a song called “Ashes of American Flags".) As an indie-rock artist who supports Obama, Tweedy is in good company. Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Superchunk, the Cool Kids, Bright Eyes, Andrew Bird, and others have also rocked for Barack. The fact that Tweedy’s fans are expected to cough up $250 says something about the state of indie rock, but Obama’s status as an indie-rock heartthrob tells us something about his candidacy as well.

In the mid-1970’s, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term cultural capital to refer to the knowledge, values and skills required to, among other things, appreciate “high art.” Culture and power reinforced each other, Bourdieu argued, and consuming high art was a way for possessors of cultural capital to demonstrate their social status. Applying Bourdieu's ideas in a 2005 journal article, “What Is Indie Rock?”, Ryan Hibbet of Northern Illinois University notes that indie rock functions as cultural capital for emergent hipsters, who prove they are cultured enough and cool enough to appreciate “good” music.

To get an idea of how indie-rock serves a social function, imagine you’re a Yale undergrad circa 1990. One of your professors, Allan Bloom, has recently written that mainstream rock music contains “nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful, or even decent” and regards pop music as “junk food for the soul.” He likens the record industry to drug trafficking. You want the respect of your illustrious professor without losing the respect of your own social crowd. Consume indie-rock and all your bases are covered: You differentiate yourself from the ignorant masses who listen to rock “junk food” while still rejecting the stuffiness of Bloom’s own, I don’t know, Mozart concertos.

Due to its origins, indie rock has always been a particularly nebulous genre. Because indie was founded in the '80s as a fundamentally economic category -- music produced without the assistance of a major record label -- everyone from shoe-gazers to twee pop-ists to punk rockers could gather under the indie banner. After all, this genre has encompassed both Belle and Sebastian and Minor Threat. This freedom from mainstream promotion, more than any aesthetic particulars, provided the impetus for the “movement.” Because of this “big tent,” origin, indie constantly expands its aesthetic sphere, whereas other genres tend to eventually collapse onto themselves in horrific caricatures -- folk or metal, for example. Indie’s focus on divergence instead synthesis precludes any narrow categorization.

Over the years, however, the indie scene emerged from the underground to reach the cultural surface. Underground shows led to tape swapping, which led to the '90s boom of alternative radio. In recent years, we’ve seen the growth of professional, full time indie-labels that can provide all the recording equipment of a major label. Moreover, digital music distribution makes the corporate machinery less economically important. Thus, indie rock is no longer an economically distinct genre.

The new, vague definition of indie is aesthetic in nature, and, as Hibbet notes, it’s a negative definition: not mainstream and not full of cheap sentiments and corny lyrics. This music prides itself on aesthetic complexity and lyrical sophistication. (Or, you might say, opaqueness). The image of indie, for better or worse, is one of exclusiveness. “Indie enthusiasts turn to symbolic value,” Hibbet writes. They defend what they like “as ‘too good’ for radio, too innovative and challenging to interest those blasting down the highway. They become scholars and conservators of ‘good’ music.”

And so, musical preferences aren’t always based on strictly musical qualities. As Bourdieu would remind us, art is a means of social differentiation. Music tastes imply what grievances one has with society and, perhaps related, what one finds beautiful. And being able to “get” the music -- either because you have cultural capital or because you have certain “hard-knock” life experiences -- allows one to socially situate oneself. Arguably, the same is true for politics. Displaying a politician’s lawn sign indicates both political support and personal identification with, say, Senator Jim Webb’s populist masculinity. You can go to any college campus and find “Obama for President” signs in fifth-floor dorm windows facing an inner-courtyard, a location where perhaps a total of 12 passersby (probably all Obama supporters already) will view the message. This isn’t for political advertising; it’s for social identification.

So why is the indie crowd flocking to Obama? To a larger extent than past politicians, Obama’s candidacy has been transformed into a cultural commodity, inspiring art and music and providing a means for social differentiation. In January, street artist Shepard Fairey created a now iconic campaign poster for Obama. The illustration depicts the candidate in a soft palate of reds and blues as he stares into the distance, a la JFK. The poster is an abstraction -- Obama as a phenomenon rather than an individual. When Fairey uploaded a digital version of the image onto his website, Obama supporters started to use it as their email signatures and printed it out to put in their windows. In an interview with NPR, Fairey estimated that he’s made 60,000 hard copies. Having sold out its first run, originals now sell on eBay for up to $1,500, and a 45” x 69” stencil of the work was recently auctioned for over $100,000 on CharityBuzz.

Similarly, the National, an indie band, recently designed a T-shirt for Obama: A faded portrait of the candidate sits atop the caption "Mr. November” -- which just happens to be the title of one of the National’s songs. The song captures both a state of general malaise with the status quo and a longing for past greatness, themes which fit well with Obama’s campaign. But one of the song’s ironical refrains also points to the manner in which indie rock is replacing older categories of social distinction. “I’m the new blue blood, I’m the great white hope,” frontman Matt Berninger croons. The sadness in Berninger’s voice makes clear he is neither of those things. Those once-potent social identifiers are dead, as Obama’s “post-racial” campaign (tries to) make clear. The narrator in "Mr. November" is searching for an identity, and placing Obama’s face above this song title is a subtle way of insinuating that Obama’s provides a haven for such searchers.

Thanks to these efforts, cultural representations of Obama now exude the same sophisticated coolness that made indie rock into cultural capital. Take Obama’s Facebook profile. Favorite music: John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis. (Quick indie primer: Mainstream music produced before 1971 is acceptable.) Favorite movies: The Godfather, Casablanca. Favorite books: Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and Lincoln’s collected writings. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, liked Carly Simon, The Wizard of Oz and American Idol. Bleh. Obama's cultural preferences parallel the indie rock image: stylish, tasteful, and intellectual. It’s not surprising that after analyzing Obama and Clinton’s campaign websites, the New York Times dubbed Obama a “Mac” and Clinton a “PC.” Obama, the Times found, uses “branding techniques similar to the ones that have made the iPod so popular.”

Underlying these representations of Obama is a biography that bolsters his indie cred. Like early indie artists, Obama spent his formative years nurturing a “do-it-yourself” ethos. Working as a community organizer in Chicago, he dismissed formal politics for the same reasons indie artists once spurned major labels: it was phony. Embracing the theories of Saul Alinsky, which take for granted that electoral politics don’t work, Obama worked on micro-level activism projects -- promoting recycling, for example. This D.I.Y. mentality was both a matter of pragmatism and principle: He learned from Alinsky that it worked, and, according to Dreams of My Father, Obama's book, he felt that it gave him meaning and identity.

Perhaps most important, Obama, like indie rock, benefits from eluding categories. Pundits fawn over his candidacy as “post-racial” or “post-partisan.” And when Obama settled in Hyde Park after law school, he found the community’s eclectic atmosphere to be one of its most attractive features. As one of his former law school professors recounted to the New York Times, “It’s a place where you don’t have to wear a label on your forehead. You can go to a bookstore and there’s the homeless person and there’s the professor.” No labels, unless of course having “no label” is a kind of label itself. If categories give a candidate -- or consumer -- a fixed, stale image, then avoiding those categories gives one an appearance transcendence and freshness. As Peter Beinart wrote in The New Republic, Obama’s limited ability to attract white support stems from his defiance of black stereotypes. "Elect Obama," Beinart wrote, "and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too." You might say the same of indie: listen to Neko Case, for example, and you’re implicitly rejecting Carrie Underwood. In both instances, the right choice helps symbolize exclusiveness that, paradoxically, attracts a lot of supporters. After all, Nirvana, a bunch of angsty misfits in flannel shirts, got to the top of the charts.

But for every voter who projects his own desire for cultural sophistication-cum-coolness onto Obama, there’s at least one more who resents him for it. Princeton professor Bethany Bryson concludes in her 1996 article "Anything But Heavy Metal" that politically tolerant and educated Americans now use "multicultural capital" -- the knowledge of and respect for disparate artistic genres -- as a new mechanism for claiming social status. The exception, of course, is that the genres they dislike are the ones associated with lower economic classes. (Heavy metal, gospel, or rap for example). This tends to confirm indie rock’s role as a “cool marker” insofar as indie prides itself on diverse influences and a broad spectrum of sub-genres. Troubling for Obama, however, is Bryson’s conclusion that the inverse is also true: Political intolerance is associated with cultural intolerance. It’s easy to conclude from this that multicultural capital is seen as elitist by those without it. These Americans -- and voters -- neither feel “cool” (in the indie-rock sense of the word) nor desire to feel cool.

And so Obama is in danger of falling into a trap. His own hipness has made him into a cultural touchstone for those seeking to claim their rightful social coolness. Musical preferences speak, er, "volumes" about cultural biases, which naturally influence voting behavior. People aren’t going to reject Obama because of his association with indie rock, but this association may suggest why some perceive him as a cultural elitist. The same characteristics that make indie-rock intolerable to mainstream music fans -- exclusivity, social differentiation, hipness, etc -- might make Obama intolerable to “mainstream” voters. Those possessing cultural capital will vote for Obama to claim their status; those without cultural capital vote for a candidate who makes it seem acceptable to listen to, well, Carly Simon.

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