Reviews

Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music by Wendy Fonarow

Jodie Janella Horn

When dissected, an indie rock gig isn't all that different from the stereotype of nearly naked dancers circling the fire as they fall into a trance.


Empire of Dirt

Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Length: 315
Subtitle: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music
Price: $24.95
Author: Wendy Fonarow
US publication date: 2006-07
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

When I think of the indie scene I picture a pale sliver of a human endlessly prattling about obscure bands with silly names. I like indie music, but I've never been a fully immersed participant in the arcane particulars of the subculture surrounding it. I've been a spectator to several indie mating displays in their natural habitat -- vaguely ironic parties that reek of detached cool -- that consisted of a heated debate regarding the relative authenticity of bands with goofy names that I had never heard of. The display generally culminated in either a pasty entanglement of gender-undifferentiated limbs or disgusted mutual recognition of their incompatibility based on preference of the demo to the album. If I were a casual beer-guzzling baseball fan, the indie initiated would be reciting the standard deviations of batting averages for all the major league teams in alphabetical order. Honestly ... I never got it.

A scene so specific and strange needs a field guide and thankfully anthropologist Wendy Fonarow has given us Empire of Dirt: the Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. Emphasizing the crowd over the artists, she delves into the rituals of gigs with the precision of an academic and the affection of a fan. Despite her somewhat grating moniker, "Professor of Indie Rock," Fonarow really does have impeccable academic and industry creds including stints at labels Domino, MCA and Reprise. She began her research in the early 1990s for her doctorate at UCLA, where she is currently a lecturer in the anthropology department. Through her research and personal experience as a participant in the indie scene she has unveiled the cultural causation behind audience comportment, groupies, indie affection for "authenticity," and fixation on the insider/outsider dichotomy between industry folk and fans.

The focus of her ethnographic research is gig culture with an emphasis on the division of the crowd into what she defines as three distinct zones. The mosh pit at the front consists of the youngest and most zealous fans squished into a tight sweaty ball. Slightly further back are the older fans with the reduced enthusiasm associated with age, but still attentive to the performers. Industry professionals more concerned with being on the guest list than with the actual show bounce about the back with increased concentration on the bar. Anyone who has been to a show -- indie, British, or otherwise -- has probably at least subconsciously registered the divides, but after digesting the dissection the divisions clarify as neatly as Neapolitan ice cream.

Fonarow links the experience of the mosh pit to communitas, defined as "the emotional sense of community and unity that is produced from shared experience, especially shared suffering during ritual events." The phrasing of mosh pits as a boot camp of sorts for music fans rationalizes the choice to implant oneself in a perilous sea of flesh. Up front at a crowded show people can be seriously injured by trampling and poorly attended to appendages. Additionally, the pit is described as a place in which physical proximity is allowed without sexualization of females or homoeroticism among males, giving fans a somatic freedom not offered in any other context.

To say that music is important to indie fans would be an egregious understatement. The individuals who form their identities around music are a self-selected group with distinct qualities. Unfortunately Fonarow doesn't spend much time cataloging the variety of fans and their motivations for choosing this subculture over, say, dance or metal, or how music comes to be the focal point in people's lives. She does discuss the mostly white middle-class demography of indie, but the fact that individuals have converged upon a set of performers is taken for granted in the text.

One could argue that an ethnographic dissection is antithetic to indie culture. The concept of authenticity, inherent fallacies and all, has its own chapter. Despite a largely middle class audience, indie musicians are expected to espouse working class ideals and an aesthetic morality that allows indie to "assert its music as more valuable than other genres." She describes the need for performers to make every performance seem like a genuine outpouring of emotion regardless of the fact that the same songs are performed possibly hundreds of times during a tour. Reading Empire of Dirt is a potent experience in that it transforms the reader from participant to observer, thereby disturbing the authenticity of one's experience at shows. To borrow a metaphor from Fonarow, if I showed up at an indie gig and announced elements of Empire of Dirt's dissection to surrounding fans it would be similar to shining a spotlight on the slighting hand of a magician.

Though analysis causes a fan to become less authentic, I still believe it makes a better person. Historically, anthropologists have had a tendency to vivisect only the cultures most radically different from their own because the familiar feels weird when reduced to factoids that an alien could digest. As Fonarow says in her afterward, "culture is an art that denies its status as art." When dissected, an indie rock gig isn't all that different from the stereotype of nearly naked dancers circling the fire as they fall into a trance. The revelation that Westerners are also noble savages powerfully negates the concept of "otherness." Never mind the artifice of collared shirts and skyscrapers; we're just not that different from anything else that ever was regardless of how refined we consider our musical tastes.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image