The morose, black-clad, cappuccino-sipping legions are about to get happy, or as happy as morose, black-clad legions ever get. Three of the biggest indie bands in the world are set to release new albums in the next few weeks. And soon the fiercely independent masses will genuflect in unison and proclaim their everlasting hipness. It’s a public relations dream and a logician’s nightmare: selling mass-marketed music to people who guard each shrink-wrapped disc and downloaded song as their closely guarded secret treasure, along with several hundred thousand other people who fit their demographic niche.
There was a time when “indie” was synonymous with “under the radar” – virtually unknown and unheralded. But a funny thing happened to “indie” in the early ‘90s. It became big business. Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the bastions of a very visible underground, sold a few million albums, and ever since then “indie” has been as prominent a marketing label as “Nike” or “Apple.” So when The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and The Arcade Fire drop their new albums in late January and early February, expect to witness some puzzling behavior. Hundreds of thousands of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman fans will rush out and buy the albums, secure in their knowledge that they and they alone (okay, along with one or two of their buddies) will have discovered the musical equivalent of the Holy Grail. They may even head to Best Buy or Wal-Mart to search for the treasure.
Don’t get me wrong. I like these bands. All three of them. And I don’t even wear black. But I am increasingly bemused by the lemming-like nature of “indie,” which used to stand for “independent.” So let me suggest that, along with your prized copies of Wincing the Night Away and Neon Bible, you pick up a copy of, oh, Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits. How radically unhip would that be? I say go for it.