Conversations About Contemporary Music and Culture with Myself

Part One:  Indie?

I’m tired of hearing “indie” used to describe everything.  Ben Gibbard is not “indie.”  Neither is Vampire Weekend.  Whatever fashion statement someone is trying to make is not indie.

To give a literal definition of “indie” (in regards to entertainment):  in-de-pend-ent – music (or any media) that is created apart from the major labels (studios, networks, publishers, etc) Universal, Warner, Sony and EMI.  Purists would extend the definition to include any off-shoot labels (or movie studios) operating under the umbrella of the above majors as well.

In the past I have defined this term, “indie,” as art or media that is conscientiously in dissent to whatever the mainstream happens to be.  This includes promotional techniques as well.  For instance, if the work really is different (from the mainstream), it won’t be promoted in the same manner as a Jerry Bruckheimer project or an album by 50 cent or some other blatant pop star.

Here are some obvious examples of what indie-music is specifically.  When the hair-bands (van halen, GnR) and U2 were dominating the airwaves on the commercial front, the Pixies were doing something totally different and independent from major-label influence.  When “alternative” or grunge was the mainstream, Pavement was on a completely different track.  When rap-rock (limp bizkit, korn) and wuss-rock (third eye blind) or that SoCal wave of pop-rock (lit, everclear) were going ape-shit at middle-school and high-school dances, Modest Mouse was making great albums that weren’t financially successful.

Then two events occurred that turned the industry.  Elliott Smith dies on October 21, 2003, and Good News for People Who Love Bad News is released six months later.  With Smith’s death, a genuine stir is created.  College radio stations mourned Smith similarly to how CNN is currently mourning Michael Jackson.  And when Isaac Brock decides to use major label production and promotional techniques for Good News the industry absorbed the shockwave of change.  These events, the industry’s capitalization on the death of the single most anti-corporate and unabashedly unique singer-songwriter and the era’s most important “indie” band conforming their production, and more importantly, reversing their stance on corporate promotional techniques are largely to blame for this proliferation of all things “indie.”

How did Modest Mouse do anything different as far as promotion for Good News is concerned?  It’s simple to point out that the three full-length Modest Mouse records along with everything else they made before Good News (which are damned amazing) didn’t get so much as a single play on Clear Channel radio, but “Float On” was featured on commercials for K-Mart as well as featured on the MTV video music awards.

Those two events, combined with the previous years’ success of soft-shelled boys holding guitars (Jason Mraz, John Mayer, Jack Johnson, etc), lead to the majors paying attention to bands like the decemberists, the killers, iron and wine, the shins, arcade fire, bloc party, death cab, the postal service, kings of leon, etc and giving them the “pop-rock” treatment.

These new pop bands made music free of a blatantly obvious and easily identifiable genre.  Meaning, you just can’t lump them all into “neo-folk” or “lit-rock” or what have you.  But they all do share a few similar characteristics, and so, people that had no idea how to articulate what they heard or how to accurately describe what they were listening to, stapled the default genre tag for anything not blatantly obvious.  This default genre, being “indie.”  So, without an easily identifiable genre tag, everything just sort of became indie, regardless of label, sound, attitude or promotion.

So what to do now?  Who is indie and who isn’t?  Who is underground and who is “selling out?”  Essentially, none of this matters.  That debate is garbage anyways.  What is important, is people thinking about what they like and why they like it.  As well as folks possessing the ability to discuss their tastes and interests without lumping everything into a vague genre.  When people ask me what I like, I approach the conversation with great delicacy.  But still, after naming a few of my favorite albums, be it Madlib’s Shades of Blue or Wilco’s Being There, I’ll here some bystander cut me off with a comment like “oh, so you’re into, like, indie stuff huh?  Yeah, me too.  Totally.  Indie for sure.”

These conversations can be irritating and it’d be productive if people thought about what they like and search for a way to describe what it is they like.  For god’s sake, don’t call Feist “indie” just because she’s a female singer that occasionally plays guitar and does not do anything similarly to former pop-queen Brittney Spears, or current pop starlet, Lady Gaga.  Feist is pop.  This is not to say her music is good or bad, but call it what it is.  I’m familiar with her outstanding work with Broken Social Scene (which is another textbook example of “indie”) but the work that bears Leslie Feist’s name, is certainly, without a doubt, “pop.”

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