When i was a big time music geek in the mid 80s, we didn’t really have a name for the styles of music we liked. We all liked punk, for example, and most of us liked a few varieties of rock and reggae and R&B. The stuff our friends were making though, and the gestalt of the time, eluded names. “Alternative” wasn’t a genre yet, but an actual alternative. Punk was over. So, people called it dumb things like “Post Punk” or “Post Modern”.
As the college radio/new wave radio scene ossified into a format, some people decided that the way to avoid listening to crappy CMJ Top 100 music was to restrict their playlists to independent labels only; no majors or boutique labels sponsored by majors. People like Gerard Cosloy of Homestead were assumed to be virtuous sponsors of art and not coke-addled charthounds. A lot of college stations became dogmatically “Independent Only”.
Of course that was extremely stupid musically, because the majors had signed some good people. R.E.M. was still making good music at the time, the Talking Heads were on Sire, half of reggae was on Island, and there wasn’t any such thing as Independent R&B. The real independent subcultures were rap and metal, which these people mostly ignored.
And, inevitably, “Independent” became “Indie” which like “Alternative” is now a format. “Alternative” became pop made by and for white college kids, and through a process of aging and being shat through marketers, now has become office rock for 40-year-olds. “Indie” has had a worse fate.
“Indie”, as far as I can tell, means: Intentionally dissonant and self-consciously artistic music made by and for white kids from good families for each other.
My problem is this: I really like that sound, about 80% of the time. The Pavement record I’m listening to right now is sort of an Ur-Indie recording that way. It’s artfully bumpy, out of tune, and scratchy. It’s got that old VU guitar sound and is very spare and underproduced. Every kind of reverse snobbery in pop music is in this thing, and I love it. But at the same time I’m thinking “Jesus CHRIST this is so precious I could just spit!”
I had an interesting conversation with vegemitelover the other night about his own specialty, which is ceramics. There is a kind of ceramic technique (I forget the name) that the Japanese practice, in which a certain about of imperfection is deliberate. Artists who could indeed make a perfect bowl instead introduce randomness, stray specks, dirt, and other “inaccuracies”. It’s a connoisseur’s product, because only the most sophisticated buyer knows that the odd bits on the bowl are beauty marks and not failures.
The problem with this is that every 2nd year ceramics student decides that mistakes are COOL and doesn’t bother to achieve expertise until punched in the head and told YOU ARE NOT SENSEI, YOU ARE STUDENT. The attraction of the intentional mistake is obvious; I can stay naive, and my art is EVEN COOLER than if I had studied!
It’s not like I thought this idea up by myself, but I think “indie” music has a major Modern Art Problem of the same kind. When I hear the Velvets or Pere Ubu or Husker Du doing sort of broken-ass music and making it beautiful, their talent shines through absolutely. It’s the Japanese Pot for me.
But, when I hear a lot of “Indie” music I think: Hey. You guys are just fucking up on guitar and vocals and sounded all cracked and rough because you heard it’s cool and found it’s easy. You have no spark, no skill, no craft. And where’s the songs?
The precious little reverse snob genre called “Indie” is the easy out for sloppy people who want to look cool. I think I’d rather hear a competent bar band covering the Cars than suffer through a whole set of Scrunchy Sadpants and the Horktones doing songs about gum wrappers and missing the downbeat.
That having been said, I’m not giving up my Built to Spill or my Feelies any time soon. Love/hate.