Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as being written by Ken Lowery. It was, in fact, written by Eugene Ahn, who writes Self-Titled Eponymous every two weeks.
Paste Magazine’s February 2010’s cover story asks the question, “Is Indie Dead?,” a take on John T. Elson’s 1966 Time Magazine cover “Is God Dead?,” an article that raised eyebrows and, in some cases, furor on both sides of the believer/non-believer debate.
The tongue-in-cheek irony of Rachael Maddux’s well-written article is that for many musical fanatics, the indie genre and mentality might as well be God, and with the general acceptance of indie as not only a genre of music, but also an aesthetic and identifier of things that actually aren’t independently produced, the argument is a fair one to make. As Maddux delves into the history and modern definition of indie, as well as the future of what will inevitably replace indie mentality and music, the subversive message that exists between the lines is, without a true indie movement, all we are left with is somehow deficient, or in more cynical, sinister terms, inherently faulty or pejorative. And my question would be, why?
As the article points out, there was a time when the term “indie” did mean something. The very idea of pop music, or the need to demarcate it as such, is a relatively new phenomenon, as music labels and studios were once the gatekeepers of well-produced, high-fidelity quality music that we came to regard as an invisible minimum bar for judging the sound of any band or musical act. Coming towards the latter half of the twentieth century, the presence of an entire segment of overproduced, glossy, high-profile music required some way to indicate the obvious separatist movement of DIY punk bands, garagecore acts, and bedroom producers and emcees. Technology destroyed the need for that distinction, as nowadays, smaller acts and independent musicians can afford to make good-sounding music at a fraction of the cost, to the point now where popular mainstream music could start out as a purely indie endeavor (see Souljah Boy).
So if the sound doesn’t separate the camps, then what does?
Out of sheer necessity, the “indie” mentality began to translate directly to the message inherent in a segment of the alternative movement, and the corporate and/or financial background of certain acts. The representation of a band backed by a gigantic, corporate conglomerate seemed antithetical to the notion of music’s inherent purity, and, in some respects, its democratic value. Everyone plays with the same musical scales, and works with generally the same musical language to produce the countless combinations of melodies, rhythms and messages that all genres and segments that music can offer. The equalizing power of music as an artform, as a creative exercise, and as an industry carries with it the soul of the conventional American Dream myth: that anyone with a guitar and three chords can write a song that could, in fact, change the world.
Exploitation of that lofty message for pure profit seemed wrong, even if it’s less than realistic to believe it could be otherwise. And while bands have always attempted to speak out against “the man,” or any number of political causes, it was the message that the music held, separate from partisan politics or individual beliefs, that was important. There was still something pure about the way music was created, and by proxy, the way good music was distributed (word of mouth, grassroots movements, needle-in-a-haystack success stories).
However, beyond mere musical contexts, the concept of independence is a myth. No longer can people retreat to Walden pond, or simply unplug from the world. There is something inherently faulty in peoples’ attempts to maintain this belief that music is somehow able to remain independent in an era where, due to informational access, technology, and simply the way we do business, it’s easier for acts to get exposure through more conventional means, while missing the fact that the conventional means are simply less conventional than they used to be. And while it may not be truly “indie” in the way we understand that term, pop music and the industry that surrounds it are inherently “more indie” than they ever used to be. And isn’t that a good thing?
Which leaves my original question: why is mainstream or pop music still viewed with such aspersion by a crowd that should be happy to let go of indie’s little brother status in the mainstream media? Think of how you regularly consume music. There used to be a distinction in terms of how we found music; a secret society that kept its doors bolted, paging through local zines, or word of mouth; small labels that printed limited runs of LPs and dusty record shops that allowed us to have the kind of discerning tastes that people in small towns, less metropolitan areas, and people simply not in-the-know didn’t have a chance at having. Those days are gone, and in its place, a scene where the dissemination of information has allowed smaller bands and limited run LPs to reach a wider audience. The Internet has allowed people who don’t have direct access to these kinds of informational sources to know which bands are good, and which bands are not.
So, what value do we derive from having a distinction between a group like, say, The Knife and Miley Cyrus? Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. But in reality, what is the difference between say, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSexLoveSounds and Hot Chip’s Made in the Dark, if both albums make you want to get out on the dance floor? Does the fact that one was made with a higher budget and bigger PR machine somehow distinguish its quality to a greater degree, and in some way should make us deem that one or the other is better?
The answer to that goes back to the earlier discussion of music as a democratic concept. And maybe that’s incorrect. Let’s call music a “personal meritocracy.” Which isn’t to say that the “best” music will always succeed the most (what is “the best” anyway?), but rather, the music you like the best will always be the music you go to first, that you purchase, that you play more. That’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? One of those wonderful things about culture and personal taste is that no one else can tell you that something you love isn’t better than the thing they love; because, personally, it’s not true. You will laud the best music, and you will pan the worst music. The problem with the indie/mainstream distinction is that it informs our opinion of personal meritocratic beliefs about music by adding in external factors, and ruining the ability to judge music in a true, personal sense.
You may disagree, and simply cite the number of horrid, awful musical acts that top the Billboard charts. That’s a fair argument, but again, it’s one informed by your personal belief of what’s good and what’s not, while simply ignoring the fact that (a) there may in fact be many, many people who personally DO love those songs; and conversely, (b) that the Billboard Hot 100 is not the only way for new music to be disseminated, and is not the only avenue for artists to get attention and financially succeed. In other words, that music is the loudest because, traditionally, those outlets have simply been there the longest; and in many ways will always be the same, whether it jives with your taste or not.
Beyond that surface-level glance at what constitutes modern pop music, consider for a moment the mash-up genre. The appeal of the genre is familiarity with something new; and most of the time, the familiarity originates from some earlier iteration of pop music mixed with some form of modern, possibly less well-known musical act. The combinations of the familiar and unfamiliar creates the kind of enjoyable music that many people (myself included) cannot deny. The lack of a need for a distinction between mainstream and indie music is a surprisingly cogent view of the very discussion that Paste is engaging in, and may in fact prove Paste’s thesis that indie, at least in the way we know the term, is in fact, dead as a doorknob.
My question still remains., Why is this a BAD thing? The question of the death of indie is posed in such a way that it’s something to be bemoaned, because without a thing apart from the mainstream, we are all lost as music fans, as geeks, as scholars. That somehow, we are missing something, as if the prior definition of “indie” has disappeared simply because the scene is no longer prevalent, or even necessary.
There were punk and hardcore bands that were simply “too loud, too fast, or too rough” for pop music in the 80’s. There was gangsta rap music that was “too explicit, too damaging, too horrid” for the 90’s. And there was electronica music that was “too soulless, too machine-like, too repetitive” in the 2000’s. And yet, in some form or fashion, these are all still present, both in the popular eye in some form, and beneath the radar in a million other ways. The end result is that everything has been accepted, and isn’t that a good thing?
The death of the scene that surrounds indie acts simply means that indie has in some ways become the mainstream. And that, for the first time in maybe ever, the music YOU love has a chance at being commercially successful. And in the end, music can be more representative of what everyone is in fact listening to. I still say this is a good thing.
Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question in the context of Paste’s article. As Paste asks, “Is Indie Dead?” and subsequently answers “yes.” Maybe a better reaction would be, “Who cares?”