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

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.


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