Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Indie Superstars, and Other Conundrums

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.


axegrinder said...


Indie is such a mixed bag for me. I was in high school in the late 80s/early 90s when "alternative" was still an alternative. Album 88 (Ga State) in Atlanta did a pretty good job keeping the airwaves interesting.

My faves were the Hoodoo Gurus (Aussies), the Connells (NC), Ocean Blue (PA) and Trip Shakespeare (MN). Throw in a healthy dose of Brits like the Stone Roses, Mighty Lemondrops, Charlatans UK and Wonder Stuff and I was relatively happy.

I cannot stand so much of the effete Indie stuff, but somehow find myself loving the Shins. Who am I?

Jason Kranzusch

Andy Whitman said...

Just a followup note here:

One of the things I greatly appreciate about All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine is that he regularly praises albums that are as far removed from "hip" as they can be. I don't always agree with his takes, but anybody who can find something praiseworthy and worthwhile in albums from Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera is surely bucking the coolness/hipness factor, and earns my respect even as I am scratching my head.

Music, like fashion, can be a badge used to proclaim one's inclusion within a particular group, and one's exclusion from others. It can become an image accessory. And so, as much as possible, I want to figure out what I like and what I don't like based on my own idiosyncratic tastes, and not because I want to accessorize my persona to the outside world. It really comes down to a matter of integrity. I haven't always done well in that regard, either, but it seems to me that it's a fairly high Christian calling to be authentic, to be the unique person God has made each of us to be. I think it's worth pursuing.

And that's my only objection to the marketing blitz that will undoubtedly accompany new releases from The Shins or The Arcade Fire. I have no quarrel with people who love the music on its own terms. I just dread the inevitable hipness spin that will accompany these releases.

e said...

As long as you still love all those "alternative" and "punk" bands from the late 80s/early 90s (Oingo Boingo, the LAs, Jeff Buckley, Depeche Mode, Mudhoney, Beta Band, Nine Inch Nails, Blind Melon, Toad the Wet Sprocket—does this count for nothing!?!) and have three times as many flannels in your wardrobe as anything else—then you can like Arcade Fire & the Shins and remain untainted by nefarious hype machine tarnish...yeah?

I still have my Pretty Hate Machine t-shirt and some Lollapalooza (Ministry/Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins/Beastie Boys) stuff if I need still more badges....

I need social approval here. Help.

Anonymous said...

you are so right. I like lots of "those bands" too, but what annoys me to is when people stop liking bands because they get big. that is strange to me. I just like what i like. sometimes that is cheezy main stream and sometimes it is off the beaten path. don't mind "indie" crowds, just don't like the snobbery that sometimes goes with it.