Column 88 — You know it when you hear it…

Category: Blog — @ 12:24 pm August 9, 2006

This column was borne out of a question that appeared on my webboard, of which I posted a rather long, wandering response that helped make up the first half of the missive below. And it still didn’t get to the heart of the poster’s original question. This won’t, either.

Column 88: The Porn of Indie
On useless terminology

We’re living in the heart of the indie rock world, right? Right? But exactly what does “indie” mean?

From a music standpoint, the term “indie” has become a catch-all phrase, like “alternative” was in the ’90s after Nirvana changed the pop-music landscape. Suddenly bands that weren’t part of the previous era’s music hierarchy (i.e., arena and hair bands) were quickly classified as “alternative.” Even bands with a distinctly traditional rock style, like Counting Crows and Stone Temple Pilots, were considered “alt” though there was nothing alt about them other than their record labels’ marketing wizards understanding that alt was considered cool by the record-buying public.

“Indie” emerged from that alt era as a term that was short-hand for “independent,” as in independent record labels. You were indie if your band wasn’t signed to a major. Didn’t matter what you sounded like. Simple, right?

But lazy critics (myself included) commonly began to use the term “indie” to describe “college” music — stuff played on college radio stations whose play lists are dominated by bands on the College Music Journal (CMJ) charts. Bands tend to get dumped into the classification based on their music’s reference points. For example, if a band sounds like it was influenced by Pavement or The Replacements or Cursive or any band popular on campus not played on commercial radio, it’s likely to be classified as an indie band. If a band sounds like it was influenced by music heard on your local corporate radio station, it’s probably not going to considered indie. The lines became blurred when traditional indie bands, like Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, got signed to majors and began to be heard on commercial radio yet managed to keep their “indie” status.

It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Like “pornography,” what classifies as “indie” is purely in the ears of the beholder. As our old friend Justice Stewart said about porn: “I know it when I see it.” Same holds true for indie. You know it when you hear it, and everyone’s point of view is different.

But recently indie has started to become a dirty word to bands in the same way “emo” was a few years ago. Other than maybe Jimmy Eat World and The Get Up Kids, no band I’ve ever interviewed embraced the term emo. It meant a lot of things to a lot of people, mostly bad things. Emo quickly became an easy way to throw a back-handed insult. “You like those guys? They’re emo, aren’t they?” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people who don’t like Bright Eyes describe them as “emo” when Oberst’s music in no way resembles emo as I’ve always known it.

Now “indie” is beginning to be treated the same way. Used to be if you were “indie” it meant you were flying outside the common circles. Your music was unique and you weren’t afraid to let your personal voice or point of view be heard. Now the term is just as closely associated with sickly thin guys with bad haircuts wearing youth-medium-sized T-shirts and their girlfriend’s jeans to accentuate their bony frames.

Is indie the new emo? I dropped by O’Leaver’s Sunday night and asked a few bands what they thought. At the bar was Drummer Devon Shirley and vocalist/guitarist Alan Andrews of Denver band The Photo Atlas, a dance punk band in the vein of The Rapture or Radio 4.

Shirley said he’s noticed a tide-shift when it comes to indie among bands he’s encountered on the road. “What’s getting popular now is a revamp of ’70s rock,” he said. “Those bands will tell you they’re not indie, they’re rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I don’t find (the word) insulting at all,” Andrews said. “I like it better than emo. I think it also describes the work ethic needed to make it on your own.”

“Majors are pushing ‘indie’ these days,” Shirley said. “It’s the new pop-punk.”

Steve Micek, frontman of Omaha punk trio The Stay Awake, said that’s the problem. “Indie was stolen by bands on major labels to sell records,” he said. “Now it’s used to describe a brand of shitty pop music. Are The Killers an indie band? No, they’re on a major label, but they’re sold as an indie band.”

“I never liked the term and still don’t know what it means,” added Little Brazil’s Landon Hedges. “The genre was made up by the media. It’s not a genre at all, it’s a lazy term used by people who don’t have a good way to describe a band’s music. I try not to use the term, but I don’t really give a fuck what people call us, even though we’re actually on an indie label (Seattle’s Mt. Fuji Records).”

Ironically, the least “indie” musician I spoke with — Sarah Benck of Sarah Benck and The Robbers — fessed up to the indie moniker. “I guess you could consider my band an indie band since we’re not on a major label,” she said from behind the bar. “We’re an independent band, but you wouldn’t call what I do indie music.” If she had to be categorized as anything, Benck said it would be as a singer/songwriter.

And that’s what it really comes down to with bands — they don’t want to be classified. They want their music to stand on its own, unaffiliated with any style or trend. No band wants to be put in a box, and once you’re in the indie box, it quickly closes in around you and doesn’t let go.

Wednesdays at Lazy-i are usually dedicated to whatever band I’ve interviewed for a preview feature for The Reader, but I haven’t had an assignment come through in a few weeks (much to my and the newspaper’s chagrin). Efforts to contact both Ladyhawk and Gus Black proved unfruitful. Next week’s not looking too promising, either, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that something comes up. We’re entering something of a late-summer lull in shows. That’ll all change as September rolls around…

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