Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Indie Rock" and me

Fair enough. I wonder, though, if “Indie Rock” ever existed. In the Reagan and Bush Sr. years, teenagers like me, in my small town had a few musical options: Top 40, Metal (mostly of the Hair variety), “Classic Rock,” which didn't yet really mean anything, and “New” Country (as opposed to Country & Western in the Williams, Cash, Nelson tradition).

This was the standard bill of fare. Hip-hop, had not, in any form really infiltrated middle America, let alone our out-of-the-way outpost in the foothills of a mountain range, squarely in the middle of a National Forest, separated from civilization by 50 miles of windy, narrow, often icy highway. It may as well have been 50 light years.

There were teens and young adults, like me, however, who did seek out alternatives. Pre-internet, I couldn't simply see what Pitchfork or Stereogum was up to, or download entire albums for “free.” I couldn't chat with my friends online and pick their brains and hard drives for the next big sonic thrill. Kids like me, we read magazines, paying special attention to tiny ads in the back, promoting bands with names like Dinosaur, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Skinny Puppy, Minor Threat, Minutemen. We'd send SASEs and a few weeks later, receive a crudely mastered cassette of crude-sounding music that meant the world to a kid stuck between Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks.

So there was punk, post-punk, hardcore, thrash metal, punk-funk, lo-fi garage music, and much, if not all, was released on small independent labels. We didn't call it Indie Rock, though. When I was a sophomore in high school, rocking my Descendents, my fIREHOSE, my Suicidal Tendencies, (along with the more mainstream-but-still “cool” Cure, R.E.M., The Smiths, etc.), we were just a few years from the emergence of something called “Alternative” music. I should be clear here—“Alternative” existed, in my time, not as a category or genre or marketing niche, but rather a plain descriptor. If a kid said she liked “alternative” music, she meant that what she listened to was mostly stuff you couldn't find on the radio, unless you managed to know a really cool college station and listened between the hours of 2 and 4 am. And most of us, we just said what we liked—metal, punk, etc.

By 1993 or so, I was 21 years old, the media was telling us that “punk had broke.” The music of stoners, burn-outs, and the generally anti-social youth was now on every Top 40 playlist, pushed forward largely by the unlikely success of Nirvana and the media-created “Grunge” scene, repackaged once again as “Alternative.” What did an alternative band sound like? Got me. It was no longer tied to independent labels, no longer confined to certain modes of production, certain ethics or a DIY aesthetic. Alternative was some dollar signs, a fake fashion trend, a Seattle-centric fetishization of the “normal kids” behind the corporate glitz, which of course had now been gussied up with a ton of corporate glitz. I began to drift.

By my early 20s I had largely forgotten what was cool or what was new and had turned my gaze backward, discovering the rock and roll of the 60s and 70s, most of which I had managed to neglect during my teen years. And then I grew up a little. Music ceased to be central to my way of being. I had other things to do--go to college, drink too much, unsuccessfully ply co-eds.  These activities required no new soundtrack.  The old stuff worked (or didn't work) just fine.

When I woke up from this hibernation in the early 2000s, things had changed. No longer was it necessary to hang out in dark record stores, subscribe to cheap, badly written magazines, or physically seek out, on foot, as it were, new music. Now, it was available in a few clicks. I began, tentatively at first, to see what I had missed.

A few things I learned: Metallica now sucked and were assholes, to boot; there was this thing people called “alt-country” that I was really digging on; a lot of bands had seemed to emerge that re-embraced the old school punk DIY aesthetic: people were starting bands, starting labels, releasing their own records, gathering fans through Myspace and other social media outlets. Pitchfork and their ilk provided a guide to this new landscape, and as a reborn music fan, I was grateful.

Then I started meeting the fans. The scene kids. The hipsters. You know the drill, the stereotypes, so I won't expound. I started to question the music and what these kids meant when they professed a love for “indie rock.” Sure, a lot of these bands sounded similar, but many more did not. Some of them started on indie labels and had moved on to things like making money. This “new” musical landscape, it seemed, was similar to what had existed 20 years earlier—the internet, among other things, had just made it more visible, more widely accessible. And the hip kids had decided that it was “Indie Rock” that they loved. It was like “Alternative” of the early 90s, but that fad had a very short lifespan. Now, in 2012, I still hear people in their 20s and 30s waxing ecstatic about this or that “Indie” band. I find myself having no idea what that means as a description; it says more about the fan than the music most of the time.

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