My love-hate affair with “indie”

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.

17 thoughts on “My love-hate affair with “indie”

  1. Smoke some of that cracked pot, then make some music, man. Put on some cool clothes and some black-rimmed glasses. Wait, the glasses thing is emo–scratch that. I’m having a hard time keeping all this stuff straight. When do we get to start making some post-alternative music? I’ll load up Garage Band. You can download some drum beat samples.

  2. Well said
    There’s a section in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that sort of relates to this. That book is really good for quite a few things, so that makes it even worse that he didn’t stop immediately afterwards.
    I’m with you on the love/hate. What I don’t get so much is the like-but-am-embarassed-about.

  3. nothing new
    Sonny Bono decided to become a singer after he heard Bob Dylan — he thought “oh cool! I don’t have to learn to sing!”
    I’m with you on the whole ‘indie culture‘ thing except I don’t have much affection for any of the artists involved.

    1. Re: nothing new
      modulo my total ignorance of that scene — I’ve never heard the artists you liked.
      Aside: how many art movements were defined by their economic model? I can’t think of any parallel. But I guess art movements that felt they had something to say, collectively, died with Modernism.

  4. BC’s ceramics story reminds me of photography classes I’ve had. Every photography teacher I ever has was an UTTER RAGING ASSHOLE who could not abide the slightest imperfection of any kind. I understood that this was because they dealt with HS and young college students showing them utter shit and saying “but, it’s ART!” year after year. But they were unquestionably bitter people who no longer derived joy either from teaching or photography.
    I’m on the opposite side from you on ‘indie’ for exactly the same reasons. I hear The White Stripes or (especially) The Vines and their calculated out-of-tune vocal yelling, and I think “nope. won’t get fooled again.” It’s like I can FEEL it being marketed at me. If it were 1986, I would LOVE IT; but it’s not.

    1. I’m not sure about that… if you automatically cringe at ‘imperfect’ music as the indie career move and I assume being ‘perfect’ is the mainstream career move, I don’t know, aren’t you kind of painting yourself into a corner?
      I guess it’s all in how the song holds together. Like the bands substitute likes, there’s no measurable difference in what they do, but their art just somehow has integrity, at least for one listener.

      1. I should add that I have *been* the photography teacher and I think my problem was having contradictory, yet very ‘learned’, criteria. I hated everything.
        Enjoyment of art isn’t solely in the thing itself.

    2. I really like the White Stripes, but I think of them differently, probably. I have a detest/surface to air missile relationship to R&B, but I love REAL blues. I find so much in WS that is really going back to that, and Jack White can really capture a lot of the essences of some of my favourite blues singers, like Howlin’ Wolf. So I dunno. I guess I’m just listening on a different plane.

  5. i don’t know if this is related to the ceramics technique, but there’s a japanese principle called wabi sabi that celebrates the beauty in the imperfect and mundane.
    also, you might like Francine. i bet everyone’s sick of hearing me say that. whatever.

  6. I might have to sample this as yet another example of my developing philosophy. It started with noticing the difference between doing “normal” things (say, dressing conservatively) because one lacks knowledge of other options and doing them because one honestly prefers them. The parallel to making an imperfect product out of intention versus lack of skill is striking.

  7. Navajo
    In Navajo design desthetics, there’s a sort of occasional, but persistent, avoidance of certain kinds of perfect forms.
    So for example, instead of a complete circle, you get things
    <a href="http://www.math.utah.edu/~clemens/images/irenepict.html&quot;
    >like the gap you see in this; or a weaver will make

    something like this
    except with a single quarter-inch of grey thread
    in the corner. So it’s perfection, impeccably executed. I’ve always thought that
    that was a tidier way than a bit of pottery “deliberately” made to look like
    it was done by a second-year student.
    (As to what the pottery equivalent of this aesthetic is — it’s the mouth of the vase/pot/etc itself. Altho I think I may have seen it show up as a smooth tidy little nick in the mouth.)

  8. Our Indie radio station played Rancid the other day. Man that brought me back to my early 90’s…Red Camero, long hair, too many speakers in one car, getting pulled over weekly…that was fun. I found my Rancid CD and played it on the way home. I sped up through 3 yellow lights…ROCK ON!

  9. Yea, as stated by , the Japanese aesthetic is referred to as wabi sabi. I think it’s a pretty good parallel that you draw between the that, and the beauty that you found in the Pavement sond that you mentioned. While a potter make work out of unrefined clays and fire in a semi-predictable anagama, the musician may use the old crappy amp that he bought at a garage sale cause he knows that there can be value in the uncontrollable sounds that might result. Unless recored, the sounds will never be the same… but who cares! We can’t control everything in our world.

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