The Wussification of Indie Rock (it’s all Pavement’s fault)
By Scott Creney
It wasn’t always like this. The underground used to be an interesting and occasionally dangerous place. The music birthed by punk rock — commonly known as (in order) college rock, alternative rock and eventually indie rock — used to be populated by weirdos and degenerates, noise merchants and psychopaths. Bands like Minutemen, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Nirvana, etc challenged their audience’s preconceptions, wreaked havoc wherever they went, and made music that was, for its time, truly groundbreaking. So what the hell happened?
It’s a long way from Big Black to The Shins, but we can trace the development of indie rock in the 90s through a band who, naturally, performed a series of reunion shows last year, a band named Pavement.
They began the decade in a shambling noisy haze, self-destructive and beautiful. This is from 1991.
And they ended it surrounded by big league production and looking like a bunch of clean smiling dorks. This is from 1999.
From cussing out the Baptists to dancing in rainslickers and singing about carrots, it’s a strange journey, a slow sad descent into the banal. But it does help explain why we live in a world where Vampire Weekend is considered hip and edgy, a band who recently licensed their song for a Honda commercial.
Bands using songs in commercials deserves a post of its own, but here’s a question. Why the fuck do corporations want these songs in the first place? When Honda thinks your song is suitable for commercials on the Hallmark channel, your music may not be as edgy and interesting as you think it is. In fact, it may mean that your music is safe, predictable and dull. And it may mean that indie rock no longer exists as a viable subculture, but is merely one more market to be exploited.
This extends way beyond music. The writing about indie rock may be even duller than its subject matter. Underground ‘zines from the early 80s/late 90s like Forced Exposure, Conflict, Melody Maker, et al — hell, even Spin — all wrote about the music they covered with scathing wit, biting irreverence, and real passion. Back then Rolling Stone was the enemy. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find any difference between the writing in RS and the writing in Pitchfork.
Here in Athens, Georgia, two writers for the local weekly have told me that they think it’s unproductive to write negative things about bands. Which is their prerogative I suppose, if you consider Lester Bangs, Pauline Kael, Leslie Fiedler, Greil Marcus, Paul Morley — fuck it, if you consider Roger Ebert — to be unproductive. Of course this isn’t about criticism, it’s about hurting people’s feelings. And here in America, the children of the privileged class have grown up in an era of participation ribbons, of youth soccer leagues where no one keeps score so there doesn’t have to be a loser. And as these oblivious children have matured into oblivious adults, they’ve come flocking into the underground in search of an identity — which is something you pay for, naturally — or at least a suitable arena for their cocaine use and luxuriant consumption. After all, that trust fund isn’t going to spend itself.
Look around today’s indie rock world and you see a scene defined by upper-middle-class values — professionalism, good manners, no sense of humor, stultifying boredom, a need to be liked by others, and empty materialism. I tell you nobody can nail a target market like Arcade The Suburbs Fire.
Of course nothing’s more valuable to a suburbanite than money. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a hell of a lot more money to be made out of indie rock today than there was 20 years ago. It’s a scene populated by publicists, booking agents, promoters, sponsors, and the like. An indie rock PR firm here in Athens charges several thousands of dollars to promote an artist’s new album, a job that would have been handled by the label back in the day for nothing more than a few phone calls and a fax machine.
But give the publicists credit. They’re doing a great job of getting the band’s name out there. Thanks to the blogosphere, and the constant need for news on music sites, we’re treated to an endless series of promotion before a new album comes out. It goes something like this. Announce upcoming album. Announce album art the following week, the tracklisting the week after that, then the tour dates, then a video (or two or three) of a song from the album, followed by the album review, followed the next week by an interview with the artist. It’s corporate planning at its finest, an ingenious way to maximize sales. Never mind the eventual boredom it creates for the reader (more Animal Collective news?), or the way it overexposes the artist and alienates their original fanbase. If a buzzband gets burned out, or gets too much attention too soon, or if the audience gets bored, there’s always another band coming along who’s more than willing to jump on the treadmill. Nevermind the Vivian Girls, here’s Best Coast.
Of course with great profits comes great responsibility. And when a band like Of Montreal commands $10,000 a show, that’s a lot of profit. And a lot of responsibility. A responsibility to deliver a professional show night in and night out, to please the audience, to keep everyone happy. And trying to make everyone happy is typically the death of creativity.
So it’s no surprise indie rock finds itself in its current predicament, i.e. just another store at the mall. Let’s face it, a band like Arcade Fire has a hell of a lot more in common with Katy Perry than it does with Daniel Johnston. Indie bands are lining up like American Idol contestants, desperate to be loved, and willing to do anything for money. They whore themselves out for festivals, and magazines, and blogs, and anything else that will make them famous. My publicist wants me to stand in front of this massive Levi’s sign? No problem! My label wants to sell my CDs in Best Buy and Wal-Mart for less than the wholesale price they charge the mom and pop stores that helped make me famous in the first place? Hell yeah! My management wants me to tour six months out of the year, making it difficult for me to write and record new material? Why not?
So I think I’ve proved my point. Indie rock is a bunch of ‘wuss’ music made by ‘wuss’ artists, playing it safe to maximize their earning potential and doomed by their own lack of imagination. Fuck them if they want to treat their art like a business. They’ll probably end up feeling the same way about their music that I feel about my job. May they be forced to listen to their commercials over and over for all eternity.
Before I go, I want you to think about something else. Maybe indie rock was never all that great in the first place. And before we declare some golden age, we’d better look a little closer at this time period (mid 80s – early 90s) that I’m holding up as an ideal. After all, it’s dangerous to romanticize the past, and nostalgia has a way of making the present seem more barren than it actually is.
Fact. If you played in an indie rock band during that time, you were most likely male. If there were females in your band, they probably played the bass and didn’t say a whole lot. If they played guitar or sang, they acted like one of the guys.
Fact. If you played in a band, you wore jeans (because it was masculine), you wore T-shirts (because they were masculine), you only played guitar/bass/drums (because they were masculine), and the singer usually screamed (because it was masculine).
Fact. If you stood near the front of a show, you were likely to be kicked or punched by someone — most likely someone male.
Yes, the underground today is an overhyped stagnant mess, but it’s also a more diverse place than it was 20 years ago. The music is more eclectic, and the scene more open to women, than it was 20 years ago as well. It’s impossible to imagine a place for Joanna Newsom, TV On The Radio, The Books or Electrelane in the indie rock world of 1990. And doesn’t the ecstatic domesticities of Animal Collective, or the hazy synthesizers of chillwave, represent a more enlightened, more feminized viewpoint, than the beer-swigging adolescent hijinks of Mudhoney? Something to think about.
But just remember. Either way, it’s all Pavement’s fault.