Bye-Bye “Indie,” Hello Again “Alternative”

Michaelangelo Matos | August 27, 2008 1:45 am

Last night I was clicking through the zillionth or so argument on the Internet I’ve come across this decade, and as with approximately 98 million-billion-trillion of them, it hinged, to some degree, on the definition of “indie.” We’ve gone through this a quintillion times on this blog, too, so I’ve decided to ask everyone to make a subtle, yet important semantic shift: The next time you’re tempted to use the word “indie rock” to describe a band, scene, movement, Web site, or general state of mind, I want you to take a deep breath, crack your typing knuckles, press “delete” five times, and instead type this word: alternative.

I realize this is a lot to ask. For a lot of twentysomething writers/bloggers/scene-types, “alternative” is, it would seem, a forbidden word, because it’s so closely tied to a specific era–the post-Nevermind major-label gold rush that for a brief, shining moment saturated the country with Better Than Ezra clones, as radio stations switched over to “modern rock” formats by the gross, and its lumbering-on-and-on-and-on aftermath, so adroitly covered here by Al Shipley. Believe me, I understand the pain that having come of age on this stuff can cause, especially when you look back at the damage it did for an entire generation’s taste in hip-hop. (I’ll never forget the razzing I endured at a restaurant job for once suggesting that the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head was maybe not hip-hop’s all-time gold standard.) In this day and age, “alternative” doesn’t mean Nirvana or Sonic Youth; it means Staind and Creed, and what self-respecting member of the Williamsburg Archipelago would dare identify herself with such a thing? (Especially since the nostalgia re-appropriation wagon hasn’t reached the era of Lollapalooza Mk. I saturation quite yet.)

The thing is, “indie” isn’t working anymore. If anything, it has more specific and limiting baggage than “alternative.” Sure, you can ask how music that’s supposed to be an alternative to the mainstream keeps that status once it goes mainstream, but calling something on a major label “indie” is some fourth-level-of-hell stage of kidding yourself, in a far more concrete way. (We’ll leave England out of the argument for the time being, since anything with guitars, it seems, is considered “indie” over there, meaning Coldplay is or was indie, a delusion no one in America has ever bothered with, thank the fucking lord.) The other week, when I asked for everyone’s least favorite alternative rock hit, almost everyone responded with something from the ’90s. I was kind of hoping someone would rep for Fleet Foxes or Vampire Weekend or something, but it was a kind of unspoken code: “alternative” means ’90s, “indie” means ’00s. And never the twain shall meet, apparently.

For obvious reasons this is delusional, just as it is for today’s youn’uns to sneer derisively at Fatboy Slim but eat up Justice. (Same principle, different costume, and besides, Fatboy’s On the Floor at the Boutique wipes the floor with Justice’s much-downloaded Fabric-reject mix, as it does with all but a handful of commercially-released DJ sets.) But I’ll leave that argument for later. If nothing else, reclaiming language as left for dead as “alternative” not only points up a continuum that’s still going (if not evolving, exactly), it’s exactly what the more po-faced fans of this stuff deserve: taking Conor Oberst’s lyrics seriously is just as much a you-get-what-you-pay-for proposition as buying Sponge albums was back in the proverbial day. So embrace your real heritage, kids. After all, if the most clueless of the current crop of downloaders-without-portfolio are any indication, the next group (which will likely have heard even more and have even less of a context to discuss it in) really won’t know the difference anyway, for all the semantical gatekeeping in the world.