“Indie” Has Its 3,764th Existential Crisis; World Shrugs, Goes Back To Downloading Sean Kingston Songs

Aug 24th, 2007 // 34 Comments

ThiIsIndieRock.jpgToday’s sentence that had me reaching for the Advil comes from Guardian music blogger Owen Adams: “When is indie genuine indie, when is faux-indie indie, and when is genuine indie not indie?” Yes, folks, that’s right: It’s time once again to debate the semantics of the word “indie,” although perhaps after this week’s blow-up over This Is Next (52 comments and counting!) maybe it’s time to completely just do away with the whole concept of indie-as-genre–or even as adjective, period–once and for all.

So what inspired Adams’ crisis of conscience? Why, sorting his CDs:

Maybe I shouldn’t get so hung up about compartmentalisation, but I’m sorting out my CDs. Should Primal Scream and Teenage Fanclub be filed under indie, or will I need to put their later Sony output in the corporate indie section? What should I do with Fugazi, as they’re now considered godfathers of emo, rather than the US indie titans they once were regarded as? And as for the early Sinitta and Kylie albums, officially they are indie, but…

However, it’s the more recent entrants to the collection that are causing the most havoc – being signed to Domino makes Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys indie, but they seem too major league. And now Rough Trade’s cash-from-chaos-cow Babyshambles are tied to EMI, the situation has become nonsensical.

The confusion now is that almost every emerging band since the Strokes has been filed under indie, whether or not they’re on a major label, independently minded, or creatively self-controlling.

Oh boy. If anything, the fretting above–”but Kylie was on an indie label, but she doesn’t sound indie, what to do?”–is to me incontrovertible evidence that the idea of “indie” as a genre marker, or, really, a signifier of any sort is dead*, and has been pretty much since Virgin Records set up its pretindie (God, remember those?) Vernon Yard back in the early ’90s. (As far as burying the word, this picture probably did the trick.) If a word is so confusing, so all-encompassing-yet-not-at-all-meaning-anything, shouldn’t it just be put to rest? There are a ton of words out there–ones that actually mean something, and can actually describe the music that they’re referring to as well–that are ripe for the overuse that “indie” has seen from everyone from lazy publicists to hack music writers in the past few years. (Don’t even get me started on the concept of “indie cred,” which when I first heard it was what I perceived a sorta self-mocking concept, and has since turned into the sort of totem that inspires a thousand Livejournal quizzes a day.)

“Independent”–the word in full–can stay, sure. It has a definition that’s pretty absolute. But if you ask 20 people from our comments section what the word “indie” means, you’ll get 20 different answers, some of which will be too nice, some of which will be disdainful about wispy voices and boring songs. (Cough.) I ask you: In a time where the English language is being mangled by the dialect of Instant Messenger, won’t laying off the word “indie” help all of us at least be a little more clear in our communications?

(Also–seriously, dude, can’t you just alphabetize, and leave the genre-sorting to people who create radio playlists? At the very least, it may help you notice heretofore unseen parallels between, say, L’Trimm and L7 when you’re casting about desperately for a blog topic on a late-summer Friday.)

What makes music indie these days? [Guardian]

* I’d say that “indiepop” is a useful genre-marking term. The increased specificity by the “pop” marker helps. But that’s it.

  1. Lucas Jensen

    Agreed on indiepop. I think the distinction is not too important, as some of the biggest indies can do almost as good a job as the majors of selling records with 1/100 the staff (see Merge, Sub Pop, Matador/Beggars). Also, I’ve seen just as many indie labels screw over artists as majors. But still…I think there is something to be said for exerting one’s independence from corporate influence and demographic charts.

  2. Anonymous

    Thank god for footnotes: I was about to argue for the validity of the term indiepop.

    I agree the word indie needs to be done, which is sad. Look at Fugazi: is there any other term that better suits them than indie? It’s the same thing that happened to emo. I will never stop referring to Mineral and Jawbreaker as emo, but it sucks having to preface it with talking about how they had, you know, balls.

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    If you ever want to see these kinds of discussions taken to the extreme, visit a “serious” dance music board and locate a discussion of what does and doesn’t fit into this week’s micro-genre.

  4. The Notorious T

    @fishnotfried: You wouldn’t consider Fugazi to be more hardcore punk than indie? Based on the music, I mean.

  5. ascot-revival

    @fishnotfried: I’ve started prefacing that era of emo with “second-wave” in conversation. It usually elicits some puzzled looks, but it makes me feel somewhat less dirty or something.

  6. Anonymous

    @TheNotoriousT: No. I mean, we can get into this debate all over again as to what constitutes punk, but to me Fugazi are a different beast entirely.

  7. pantsonfireliarliar

    Why not use Indie- as a modifier. Kinda like -American to specify Americanized versions of various races.

    So I present to you all new genres for your perusal:

    Indie-Alternative
    Indie-Country
    Indie-Rock
    Indie-Metal
    Indie-Folk
    Indie-Muzak

  8. the rich girls are weeping

    And you know, to add fuel to the fire here, since this story was in the Guardian and all, are we discussing UK “Indie” (4-5 guys — usually — from a bleak industrial town with no future except life on the dole) or US “indie rock,” which I think we can all agree is a band on Matador, Merge, SubPop, Barsuk, the Secretly Canadian family of labels, etc. — and any crummy Brooklyn/Bloomington/Portland/Austin guitar band aiming to be on one of these labels?

    I R CONFUSED. But either way, let’s totally just call everything micro tech house and be done with it. YAY!

    Furthermore, I couldn’t even read Owen Adams’ article because he just takes the same old tack everyone else does on this subject every 9 months or so. I mean, wasn’t this same article in the Observer or something in January?

  9. revmatty

    Steven Page (of the apparently reviled in these parts Barenaked Ladies) had a great quote in the late 90′s when talking about classification of bands. He said “Alternative isn’t about having funny looking hair because you think it’s cool. Alternative is about having funny looking hair because you don’t know any better. Alternative is about people who just discovered Acid Washed Jeans and won’t discover Hyper-Color T-Shirts for another week and a half.”

    Which is to say it’s all absurd. For my two cents: I categorize my music in 3 bins: Classical, Jazz, Rock. Done.

  10. Cam/ron

    There is definitely an “indie rock” sound – it basically sits in a vague, grey zone that includes elements from punk, hard rock, metal, pop and folk elements. It reminds me of the old 90′s “indie” movie asethetic where a movie is not quite an art flick and is not quite mainstream (i.e. Pulp Fiction).

  11. Vince Neilstein

    Thank you for writing this, Maura — very well-done.

    You hit the nail on the head when you called out the writer’s pre-occupation with what is indie and what isn’t. This is exactly the problem — people seem overly concerned with the genre name before they even hear the sound. The concepts of “Cred” and “indie” have just become some ridiculous completely arbitrary designation, and anything that’s popular automatically can’t be either of the above.

    Of course this isn’t directed only at indie rock. The same conversation goes on in metal circles… what’s metal and what isn’t. It’s pretty goddamn ridiculous if you ask me.

  12. goldsoundz

    Jawbreaker had balls, Mineral had to get by on Bibles alone.

  13. Deadly Tango

    Here’s another take on the topic from the old “Indie List Digest” — originally written by an old friend in the early 90s before there was HTML. (Excuse the tinyurl, but the full Internet Archive link breaks up in this setting.)

  14. Chris N.

    Organizing a personal CD collection by genre is just … wrong. It seems immoral somehow.

  15. roochball

    this guy sounds like he’s watched high fidelity a few to many times. “let’s organize our cds by the number of employees the label has” or by “number of friends the band has on myspace.” gag.

  16. King of Pants

    Theory: going with the theory that popular-music subcultures adopt certain styles or totems to distinguish themselves from “the others”, can we just assume that an Asperger’s-like grind down to the subquantum level of genre is what sets “indie” apart from everything else? That all this arguing is, essentially, the analogue of greaser hair or bell bottoms?

  17. Breliant

    I fought in the first indie war, I really don’t want to see other kids suffer.

    Its interesting to note that The Stone Roses and Britney Spears were on labels owned by Zomba (Silvertone and Jive). As a result, Britney topped the NME indie chart – and that was from indie store sales.
    Do you think Brit ever knew about this, that she checked at The Wedding Present release dates.

  18. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    20 different people/20 different answers – here’s mine.

    I view indie simply as the name of the genre of music that was called modern rock in the 80s and alternative in the 90s. Its obviously not classical, country, pop (boy bands and the like) or hip-hop (and all its subgenres). But its not really rock, at least not in the classical sense (rolling stones, skynard, meatloaf and metal). With the possible excpetion of hip-hop, its the only genre that really drastically changes over time (depeche mode and erasure don’t sound exactly like the pixies and pearl jam, which don’t exactly sound the shins and modest mouse). I understand that its called indie because the popular bands of the genre started out on smaller labels, but, at this point (as evidenced by the label jumping outlined above), I think its just shorthand for a genre of music people like.

    As much as people had “labels,” you need a quick way to tell people you meet that kind of music you like, and, so, indie it is.

  19. Josh Mock

    One time a guy asked me what kind of music I listen to. When I told him that I listen mostly to indie, he asked, “Indie? What is that? Like… Indian music?”

    I’m not making that up.

  20. the rich girls are weeping

    @Breliant: I fought in the first indie war, I really don’t want to see other kids suffer.

    OMG, someone get this on a threadless shirt ASAP.

  21. The Mozfather

    You can tell that “indie” is imploding in the way that “alternative” did in the 90s, because people no longer have a clue what indie is. When pfork and others started arguing that liking JT and Kylie weren’t cred-destroying, they opened this whole can of worms.

    And that’s the whole issue: cred. If it weren’t for the concept of indie cred, no one would care what “indie” is (except in the indiepop and independent senses Maura suggests). The only reason you’d feel the need to define it is to define who’s on the outside, and therefore beneath your concern.

    It’s also turning into the “hipster” label. People used to claim to be hipsters (shocking!) but now, no one willingly does. “Indie” has become such a status game that soon no one will want to touch it.

  22. drjayphd

    (As far as burying the word, this picture probably did the trick.)

    Oh, yes. Shake it, madam. Capital knockers!

  23. Bazooka Tooth

    This guy has never heard of organizing alphabetically?

    Fugazi the godfathers of emo? This person is paid to write about music?

    I have never heard anyone describe himself as a hipster, except fucking dorks.

    /random thoughts

  24. Anonymous

    @The Mozfather: You know, I think it might have been the other way around. I don’t think Pitchfork opened a can of worms by arguing for JT. I think it was just the next logical step for “indie culture”. With what was once considered “indie” being assimilated into the mainstream, those kids who rely on cred just decided to take back the mainstream. Look at hip hop. With every frat-boy douche listening to Mos Def/Common/The Roots, etc. (who, once, were held in high regard), the kids who grew up on that are now rocking UGK, Clipse, and TI. Think that could have happened five-ten years ago? It’s a cred game, and right now the mainstream is where it lies.

  25. The Mozfather

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: I agree partially, but I think you are forgetting that it isn’t just rock. Erasure and Depeche Mode are definitely more dance-pop than rock. A lot of indie folks looooove hip-hop, and I wouldn’t classify indie gods like Joanna Newsom and Devandra Banhart as rock. The only way you could classify them as rock is if you classify The Supremes and ABBA as rock, which is somewhat okay, but it’s really not the way most people see it.

    I think it’s just pointless. You don’t need to label it unless your concern is more about community and keeping people out than it is about the music. Or, if you are explaining your taste to someone else and they have no idea what “Spoon” is. Indie, in that context, means, simply, “stuff you’ve never heard of.”

    Personally, I just prefer the term “pop” – as distinct from classical or jazz.

  26. The Mozfather

    @fishnotfried: I agree, somewhat, again. But I think the difference is that they didn’t abandon the “indie” stuff when they embraced the mainstream. I think people actually became more honest about their tastes in the 00s, and finally admitted they liked some of this pop stuff all along.

    And I have no idea how liking say Christina or Kelly Clarkson can give you cred, unless you have already established that you have certain credentials. “I like Christina Aguliera” is a pretty blank statement compared to “I like Joanna Newsom” or “I like Joanna Newsom and Christina Aguliera.” It’s pretty much the indie that’s providing the cred.

  27. Bazooka Tooth

    “Or, if you are explaining your taste to someone else and they have no idea what “Spoon” is. Indie, in that context, means, simply, “stuff you’ve never heard of.”

    Well-said.

  28. HomefrontRadio

    You can tell that “indie” is imploding in the way that “alternative” did in the 90s, because people no longer have a clue what indie is.

    The recent ‘Indie-Stars-Playing-Ironic-Cover-Versions’ comp CD ‘Stubbs The Zombie’ illustrated this to me perfectly. It’s to Indie what ‘Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits’ was to Alternative: the moment when you realise how safely homogeneous the sound of a movement is, when the bands involved all cover the differing songs exactly the same way, and that for all the excessive critical appraisal the participants have received they don’t even have the basic talent for even just one band on either CD to improve on an older song.

    Basic rule of thumb: if a college student would leave it in their dorm room in plain sight as a tool to win peer approval by being cool through association, (completely regardless of the actual music itself), then it’s Indie. If they’d look around to make sure no-one is listening first before they play it, then it’s not.

  29. Cam/ron

    Isn’t there a “Mr. Show” bit where David Cross claims that he’s so hip and indie that he only listens to hand-cranked grammophone 78s?

  30. SF_iris

    I’m sorry. Having to justify the music that moves you is so high school. Who gives a shit if it rocks your world? That’s what music’s supposed to do. Hell, that’s what all kinds of art are supposed to do.

    Good music = good music. And sure, opinion will vary. We’re human and different. Let’s get off our freakin’ pedistals already.

  31. byebyepride

    Basic rule of thumb: if a college student would leave it in their dorm room in plain sight as a tool to win peer approval by being cool through association, (completely regardless of the actual music itself), then it’s Indie. If they’d look around to make sure no-one is listening first before they play it, then it’s not.

    This is very perceptive! ‘Indie’ is more about the social context of the music than the music itself. Hence this paranoid concern with definition has always been there and will never go away. In years to come indie kids will be arguing over whether Franz Ferdinand were too successful to be indie, and the corporate indie years in the UK will be repudiated by hipsters embarrassed that their older siblings liked the Arctic Monkeys.

    I agreed with one of my friends last night that ‘indie’ is still a useful terms because it basically means ‘music liked by tw@ts’ (which would certainly include my younger self before anyone gets upset!).

  32. TheMojoPin

    I gave up trying to sort my CD collection based on genre years ago…it’s too damn hard to figure out where the “borders” begin and end. I did, however, kill time doing stupid HF-ish things like grouping everything together by color or which countires the artists came from and so on and so on. I stopped doing that when I ended up crossing the 2,000 line…it just takes too much time for such a pointless project. Now everything is alphabetical by artist name and then smaller sub-sections for general comps, label comps, series (a la DJ Kicks) and soundtracks.

  33. drjimmy11

    You can tell that “indie” is imploding in the way that “alternative” did in the 90s, because people no longer have a clue what indie is.

    except that some of today’s indie music is actually good.

  34. drjimmy11

    and seriously, are there still people over 14 who only like one genre of music? if anything is tired and over with, it’s wrapping up your identity in one genre and refusing to listen to anything else ever, as opposed to, say, just listening to what sounds good.

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