I Know It's Over

This essay is from the January-February 2014 issue of Rogue Magazine

The statement “indie is dead” is dead.

It’s been said so many times since the turn of the century that the phrase itself is now as meaningless as the word it eulogizes. When people say “indie is dead,” what do they even mean anymore? Do they mean that the distinction no longer exists, that Kanye West and Katy Perry are every bit as “independent” as Mission of Burma? Do they mean that the emergence of the internet, coupled with the decline of radio, has rendered all music accessible, therefore nothing could truly be “underground” anymore? Or is it because everybody — including sitcoms that still have laugh tracks in them — is in on the secret?

All of these are true, but the problem with blanket statements is that they leave no room for subtleties or gray areas, those tiny nooks that foster precious little accidents like indie music, or at least its original iteration. The real meaning of “indie” is inevitably a subjective one – it lives in your room, your old mixtapes, your history. These songs form the soundtrack of who I am, for better or worse. For me, indie’s death happened in a very personal way, which is really the only way it can possibly die.

There are still ghosts hovering about and one of them has been haunting me for months. My favorite song of last year is “Unliving” by Hebronix – a solo project by Daniel Blumberg, who used to sing for 90s-indie revivalists Yuck. While Yuck’s post-Blumberg album saw the band veer away from the Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth comparisons, Hebronix went even deeper into 1991 with the album Unreal. I just knew, from the first time I heard “Unliving,” that it would be indestructible.

There are only a handful of songs – like The Sundays’ “You’re Not The Only One I Know”, Railway Children’s “In The Meantime”, New Order’s “Leave Me Alone” – that never grow old because they happen to be sonic approximations of my soul. Hebronix’s “Unliving” belongs to this rarefied category. It has that familiar lazy guitar jangle, the hollow space in between the instruments, the life-affirming romance of sadness as the most beautiful sound that can ever be produced in the natural world. It sounds like my youth, which is to say that it is – like most current indie music is accused of being – derivative. But derivative is okay. What could possibly be wrong with reliving the glorious past? What is music if not a simulacrum of memory? What else do chord progressions and tonal inflections mimic, if not the sudden pangs of nostalgia?

This obsession with the past can be heard in today’s most relevant indie acts – Haim, Chvrches, Lorde, Autre Ne Veut, Grimes, and the like. But their iTunes shuffle retro-ness leaves me cold. They just don’t sound anything like the indie that I know and grew up loving. What they seem to be nostalgic for is the mainstream pop and r&b that I was specifically conditioned to rebel against. There’s nothing wrong with mainstream pop and r&b; a lot of good music have come from those traditions. But they’ve already claimed much of pop music’s real estate for so long. Why don’t they just leave this tiny private space alone?

That indie is short for “independent” distracts from the actual meaning of the term, which has always simply been “different.” Whether it was the shambling guitar pop of the likes of Television Personalities, Marine Girls, and The Wedding Present of early-80s British post-punk or the abrasiveness of The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and Beat Happening from its American counterpart, “indie” always meant one thing: music that was inevitably pushed to the underground by the radio-record-company homogeny. Since the internet destroyed this monolith, the underground has since been unearthed, slipping into the mainstream via the TV show The O.C. and the movie Garden State in the early aughts, that beget the (500) Days of Summer generation that saw indie as a harmless, folksy Manic Pixie Dream Girl they can flirt with. The floodgates opened, and soon, different genres took turns abusing the label, even rap and r&b, with its fans and artists desperate to associate the music they always loved with the modifier they now claim as their own.

The indie ethos that struggled in anonymity for years has won and has become the aspiration of a new generation of teenagers and 20-somethings. Being different is no longer the refuge of the uncool; it’s now widely acknowledged as the point of being young, and paradoxically, of being popular. Being different is no longer different. Kids who used to listen to Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys have learned all about this new source of cool that was ready for discovery and mass download on the internet, became hipsters overnight, then branded their endless popular kids party as “indie,” featuring Odd Future, Blood Orange, or whatever new “alternative r&b” Pitchfork happens to be championing that week.

Those of us who hung out with indie back when no one else would were the outcasts, the losers, the freaks who never got invited to the popular kids’ parties where they played songs like “Tha Crossroads” and “Right Thurr,” back when they were still plainly called “rap” and “r&b.” The “alternative” label belonged to us, right at the other side of the battle lines that were still clearly drawn, still rife with meaning. The war gave us purpose: it made our isolation a lot more palpable and the music that celebrated it more important. We didn’t even want to win. It wasn’t supposed to be the point. But now I see, with the clarity of hindsight, what it was all about. It’s the reason why I can’t stop listening to Hebronix and why I can’t relate to much of modern day indie: the point is loneliness, it’s always been loneliness.

I’m aware that pop music has historically been about misery, that it is the product of the blues, the bittersweet fruit of oppression. But the mainstream kind is the one that everyone feels – heartbreak, lost love, and everything else that Air Supply sung about. It’s universal and public. It’s everything that the internet is. When Paul Westerberg crooned, “everybody wants to be someone’s here,” he wasn’t speaking for normal folks living normal lives outside his desolate bar. When Morrissey told the world “you know I’m unloveable/you don’t have to tell me”, he wasn’t being hyperbolic in a 3am-on-Twitter kind of way – he was being literal. There is a certain kind of unseen loneliness that only perpetual losers feel, and they don’t come in a groovy beat with heavy bass; they sound like jangling lo-fi defeat. It is and always will be my favorite kind of sound.

It’s not “dead” yet, I suppose. But something definitely is. I feel the need to keep pretending it isn’t just my youth.


anon said...

You can't declare "indie is dead" being said so many times without even one attribution. Everybody knows that Kanye and Katy Perry are not indie artists. Who said they are? Indie has always referred to the means of production, marketing, etc. That Kanye is being celebrated by many indie publications does not make him indie. Being indie is not "inherently subjective". It is foremost an artist-side term, not audience-side. That it is "different" is in fact a mere byproduct of being against the market winds, which tend to favor the prevailing direction.

In what world are Autre Ne Veut and especially Grimes "iTunes-shuffle retro"? I could forgive the retro-bashing but for the reverence for “Unliving” as "indestructible" -- which in your own words "went even deeper into 1991".

As your many posts make clear, indie for you is a refuge for nostalgia and a semblance of cultural possession. You pine for the 90s when only uncool kids enjoyed indie. That it is being enjoyed now by a wider audience should be cause for celebration, not resentment. The reasons for their appreciation are no less valid than yours. And you seem to be mistaking the liberalization of information about indie for the loss of relevance of the term. You lay all these sentiments out by throwing red herrings, hasty generalizations, or herrings about generalizations. Who cares about your misery? Life is miserable, but not without fun and a little pretense.

Btw, Pitchfork never "championed" Odd Future. And the quality of your writing, which smacks of resentfulness and bitterness, doesn't compare to theirs.

Alex Almario said...

Hi anon,

Your opinion is exactly why this essay exists. It isn't a manifesto in any way - it's a personal essay, written in complete awareness of its subjectivity.

The whole point of the essay is that I don't really care about industry definitions - indie is something that is personal to me. My writing is centered around the idea that music - or all art, for that matter - is a personal experience. Those "red herrings" and "hasty generalizations" you mention are my (admittedly) limited and specific point of view. This essay is not saying "hey guys, this is what all of you should think!" This essay is 100% about my experience with music and 0% about groupthink.

I understand your sentiments. Attitudes towards music have changed and there's nothing I can do about it. My elders also complained about my music in the early 90s and the cycle just goes on and on. My objective side knows that this was all inevitable and that no one is really doing anything wrong - it's just evolution.

But this essay was a cathartic, self-indulgent rant by my subjective side. We can't deny that something has been lost, just as we can't deny that these are exciting times for the current generation.

But this essay has to be myopic. The most effective way I can describe that loss is by doing so from an insular place.

grgprincipe said...

Its not that indie music is dead. Its just that its cool cache is no longer the domain of a few. I remember years ago taking pride (and a little bit of hubris) that I listen to unknown (to many) cool bands and artist. Our little cabal would take pride that we are cooler than thou; with your Rick Astley and Spandau Ballet or even your Tears for Fears.
Then came the internet, itunes, piracy, and coming soon to a computer or ipod near you (if it has arrived already) on demand MUSIC STREAMING 24/7. Your cool band and cool cache that you covet so much is just a blog away from being everyones Justin Beiber or Snow Patrol album. Time machine anyone?



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