The Trouble With Indie Music

Oct 19th, 2007 // 5 Comments

If you read just one response to Sasha Frere-Jones’ attempt to ramp up his Google Blog Search hits, make it Carl Wilson’s argument in Slate that the problem facing indie–aside from the fact that it’s a “genre” with boundaries that are seemingly defined by the biases and record collections of whoever’s doing the defining at the time, ahem–isn’t rooted in race as much as it is in class. A sample: “With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded ‘creative’ college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young ‘knowledge workers’ in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire.” [Slate]

  1. Chris Molanphy

    Read that one last night and was gonna point you guys toward it. (I’m never sure about sending Slate links to you guys; there’s a lot of snark ’round these parts viz. their middlebrow approach to culture. I read them religiously.)

    Wilson’s piece gets a little thick in a couple of spots, but mostly I think he’s spot-on — he manages to very deftly pull apart SFJ’s argument while not letting indie-rock off the hook.

  2. Rob Murphy

    @dennisobell: @Maura: I also saw it last nite and “forgot” to send it in until this morning. And I saw that commenter SJC linked to in the comments to Jess’s post earlier:

    [idolator.com]

    Great minds think alike, eh?

    I thought this piece was quite interesting, and I agree more with its reasoning than I do with SFJ’s piece.

  3. Cam/ron

    I agree that class has played a major role in shaping indie rock. Many indie bands take the bohemian middle-class stance of never wanting to “sell out” or be “rock stars” and to regard their music as a humble hobby that they work day jobs to support. Meanwhile, a lot of rock bands and rap groups from poor or working-class backgrounds want to sell platinum so they can get the hell out of poverty and never come back.

  4. Anonymous

    Cam/Ron, that said it better than the article did. Thanks.

    Middlebrow? Really? I won’t deny it, but is that the best word? I can recognize the middlebrowity of Slate’s coverage of things I know a lot about, but boy howdy do I value them as a resource with regard to everything else. Plus it’s well-edited, and has an impressive hit rate re: non-annoying regular contributors (save Yoffe and Hitchens).

    Sorry, thought I’d defend Slate a bit before I clarify: I agree that their music journalism is crap, and tends to have a curious self-loathing slant – no matter who’s writing, there seems to be a belief that music must justify itself politically before we can sit down and hear it as art, and that somehow our taste can never quite agree with that ideal.

  5. Anonymous

    Class and indie is also an interesting question because while the genre is dominated by middle-class dignity-of-labor types, you do have a few people like Modest Mouse who are explicitly working-class (and who abandoned low-fi after signing to a major, and got crap for it, etc etc).

    The indie major-signing ideal seems to be the Decemberists, who made a big thing of how they did this to be *financially comfortable* and practical, and then released an album which was, if anything, quieter and less sonically enthusiastic than their last record on Kill Rock Stars. *Right* ideologically sound, The Decemberists (I love you anyway)!

    But then you have people like MM and the Smiths, and their connecting factor, Johnny Marr. Marr is interesting: he’s a working-class, ambitious indie lad who made it very big, places no moral value on low-fi (he bemoans his inability to have the first Smiths album remixed) and yet also sort of has an eye on his cred all the time – which results in a curious, middle-class-on-average sort of identification where he plays up his immigrant roots, mentions that he can’t really *afford* not to reform the Smiths, and in one favorite bit of mine, once qualified his sports-car ownership by specifying that it was an “old black Mercedes S.L 300.” (I’m taking this from the Q&A’s on his old site; they’re not linked now but you can still root ‘em out.)

    Here I cannot resist (again) mentioning Morrissey, who comes from the same background, doesn’t seem to give a damn about cred of any kind, but instead embraces a camp display of wealth – throwing out Gucci shirts to be ripped apart by the audience, having the stage sprayed with perfume before he comes on, etc (and of course that’s also a boxing and Elvis thing, because Morrissey must always hit at least three of his schticks at once – Gorgeous George, whom Elvis so admired, having the ring disinfected with Chanel No.5).

    Anyway, yes, indie seems to be so dominated by the middle class that its values -thrift, reasonable distribution of modest wealth, a slightly patronizing respect for the working class- have seeped into every corner (save Mozzer’s corner, because Mozzer’s corner has always been on a different planet and as time passes he steers further and further away from Indie anyway). It’s intriguing that class posturing lies behind every musical genre/movement out there; it’s a lot *more* intriguing that no genre can agree on what the “ideal” class is.

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