How Do We Solve A Problem Like Indie Rock?
‘Indie rock’ as a label, genre, or aesthetic, doesn’t mean anything. I mean it obviously conveys something, but it is broad and undefined, an amorphous category that at times could just as easily be branded as ‘other’. If you describe a song as ‘metal’ to someone, that person will quite accurately intuit the vibe and sound of that piece of music. Same for jazz. Same for folk. Indie rock doesn’t convey the same certainties. What indie rock does convey is the idea of artists whose music can be thought of as, to varying degrees, a forward thinking strand of rock, one not indebted to the retrograde ideas of classic rock. It is typically thought of as white and male. All of this is true and untrue. What is true about indie rock is that everyone can’t stop talking about its demise. Indie rock is dead so they say. Or long live indie rock.
Back in 2016 Consequence of Sound asked “Where Have All The Indie Rock Bands Gone?” Vice asked “Is Indie Rock Relevant in 2017?” Dave Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors pondered the ‘bad and boujee’ state of indie rock earlier this year on Instagram. Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear recently asked “Is anyone listening? Is anyone gonna read this?” in an interview with Spin. Conversely, Noisey proclaimed that “Indie Rock Isn’t Dead” earlier this year. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes made the case for indie rock not needing to be cutting edge in response to Longstreth on Instagram.
Read any interview with an indie rock outfit putting out music this year and they will inevitably have to pontificate the question – how do we solve a problem like indie rock?
The fear of irrelevance is all over music released recently by some of the bigger names in indie rock. Take Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. Both once represented the commercial possibilities of bands with indie credentials by achieving crossover success that was unexpected for bands of their ilk. The flip-side was that they became easy targets for the supposed ‘failings’ of all guitar driven music in recent years, as if the acclaimed music they were putting out was wrong somehow. Their brand of meditative and lush craftsmanship became derided as stubbornly irrelevant, and after taking long breaks from music, both bands returned this year with albums that are meditative and difficult. These are albums that fight against being loved, that knowingly refuse to create anything commercially viable or that provide an immediate hit as an almost tacit acknowledgement that indie rock just can’t compete in the current climate. It’s not so much a loss as a retreat, a graceful forfeit in the face of defeat.
Another coping method is represented by a band like Bon Iver whose 2016 album 22, A Million represented something of a stylistic leap for the group. Their third album is actually pretty consistent with the spirit of their first two records (mournful, quiet yet explosive) but repackaged that tone using synthesisers to create an album full of disruptive, elliptical music, with each song sounding as if it is disintegrating as it plays. This evolution was an organic one but one that also represents the tendency of indie rock acts to leave behind the sounds with which they became known, and embracing other genres of music to push themselves forward creatively and commercially. Conversely, a group like The National don’t substantially change their style with every release. They refine their sound, settling into it and finding fresher ways to achieve the world weary effect they so often elicit. They don’t worry about the context of how their music will be received. They just make it.
The two chief concerns of indie rock are commercial and artistic, two seemingly contrary qualities that feed and inflame each other. Any serious estimation of the commercial concerns of the artists in indie circles will eventually relate to artistic concerns and vice versa. The point is that indie rock is not nearly as lucrative as it was 10 years ago, nor as culturally potent. The early to mid 00’s were the boom years of indie rock when acts like The Strokes, The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Arctic Monkeys revitalised guitar-driven music when its relevance was under threat of being extinguished. This quality was not lost after those early years but the later part of the decade saw indie rock enter a highly visible crossover into the mainstream, a time when Chairlift were soundtracking iPod commercials, when McDonald’s were ripping off Phoenix to help sell burgers. Indie rock had gone full pop.
Having a song used in a commercial is still the most significant way an indie artist can achieve real financial success, an arguably beneficial relationship that has played a real role in the decline of the genre’s pedigree. Once a product or style is commodified, it loses the momentum it had gained and comes crashing down. Certain styles of indie rock are now so synonymous with car commercials that artists are focusing their energies on creating something that won’t be used to sell anything. It’s highly comparable to how The Shins had their highest success by being included in the soundtrack for Garden State, a film that has come to be the face of twee, quirky Sundance fare. The Shins are still probably cashing Garden State cheques but their association with the film and what it represents has caused the group as much damage as good. The Shins don’t want a new “New Slang”. Any indie artist who craves credibility doesn’t want a “New Slang.”
Indie rock, at least the Sundance version of it, has become synonymous with corporate America. The representation of the genre as authentic and alternative has been so undermined that pop receives more praise for its integrity, a once unthinkable change in the cultural values of the public. There’s a general perception that indie rock can not speak on the current social climate the way that hip hop or pop can, by virtue of not possessing enough of a social presence to really have an impact on the zeitgeist. Mac DeMarco or The War On Drugs are not triggering think-pieces like Kendrick Lamar is. This is partly a product of the more forward thinking nature of rap but the loss in stature of indie rock has as much to do with the media than it does with the music itself.
The supposed demise of the genre has triggered hand wringing from several publications in the past two years but this shock is disingenuous, or is at least suspect. There was a time when a publication like Pitchfork were pushing new rock acts hard, but at some point that coverage was redirected to other genres and artists. We’re now in a place that when bands essential to the indie rock boom return, bands like Modest Mouse, LCD Soundsystem, or Broken Social Scene, they make little to no real noise in the blogosphere. This state of things is in keeping with the changes in cultural tastes, but a primary reason for indie rock’s diminsihing coverage is an inevitable consequence of the nature of the Internet. Indie rock just doesn’t provide enough fodder for hot takes.
These days, indie rock’s best kept secret is that a lot of great music being released. There are some complaints that its not innovative enough, but great music doesn’t need to be innovative. In fact, it rarely is. To say that these artists putting out high quality music are not promoted enough is a bit misleading. It’s more a question of depth. Take rap as an example. There’s the obvious A-list of talent in rap who get endlessly talked about. But so do the B-level guys. And the C-level. Hell, even D-level artists get their 15 minutes (I’m not going to go down to F because I respect craft y’all). In rock circles this doesn’t really happen. There are the giants sure. Then there are the up and comers, the potential future giants. That’s about it. Rap has become the finely tuned system of constant self-promotion and upward momentum where as indie rock remains largely stagnant, ruthlessly giving us the cream while throwing away the crop.
The positive for indie rock is that its narrative as the soapbox of the white male is largely untrue. Kurt Cobain once wrote that “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.” He was right. The best music that has come from indie rock in recent years has consistently come from women and, thankfully, this music does find an audience among media circles as it satisfies a general hunger for new voices in pop culture. Listen to Waxahatchee, Mitski (“Your Best American Girl” is one of the songs of the decade), Japanese Breakfast, Courtney Barnett, Torres, Jay Som, Angel Olsen, and Julien Baker.
The inescapable truth is that indie rock can’t connect with an audience like it once could. Consider how most people listen to music, how albums supersede playlists. Much of what can be classified as indie rock isn’t designed to be separated from the album, nor is it providing enough of an immediate impact to stand out significantly among the myriad of tracks on a playlist. What artists are selling now is not so much music, but themselves. Even the indie rock legends of the early 00’s (The Strokes, The White Stripes, Arcade Fire) found such a high level of success due to branding, genuine or not. They represented something: a lifestyle, an aesthetic, a movement. Indie rock doesn’t do that anymore. These acts just make music, a bizarre detriment to success in 2017.
What is the future for indie rock? Irrelevance? Resurgence? A continual cycling between two states? Anything is possible. It’s hard to imagine that indie rock will really die the death that some have proclaimed for it. It’s easy to take it’s decline in popularity as some sort of final death knell, but that kind of proclamation depends simply on the idea that what is happening now will continue to happen in the future, a perfect illustration of the illogical nature of human beings. Music moves in cycles and at some point from now the climate will change to look upon indie rock more favourably. Maybe people will look for something outside of constant political discussion and social awareness, and opt use music as a solace. Even if that doesn’t happen, those artists will still be there, quietly crushing it. Indie rock might not be vital these days, but it’s far from dead. As long as it continues to champion new voices it should be absolutely fine.