Music for the Masses

Fist-raising rockers tune out the majors and band with independent record labels instead

In our high-stakes political situation, how can conscious rock musicians make their voices heard? With slogan-filled lyrics and blood-pumping backbeats? Choruses engineered to induce the maximum amount of fist raising? Sure, all that might grab attention, maybe even move some units. But will it really change anything?

"I don't think pop songs change people's minds," says Kele Okereke, frontman for the up-and-coming British post-punk group Bloc Party, who will be playing the Knitting Factory on September 30. "I think there are better ways to communicate." Indeed, it isn't Okereke's paranoid, Thom Yorke–inspired lyrics that make Bloc Party remarkable. As a mixed-race band playing the kind of fashionably un-funky (yet catchy) fop-pop currently epitomized by Franz Ferdinand, they expose hipster-rock's lily-white definition of cool just by existing. And by signing with the independent label Dim Mak rather than a big company, Bloc Party refuse to play the money-over-integrity game. "It's not healthy to sign with a major; it's like signing your own death warrant," Okereke says.

For musicians seeking to make a tangible difference in the world, rejecting the Big Four's dangling carrots is downright essential. With the major label octopuses tangled up in mega-conglomerates tied to every sort of corporate evil known to man, choosing to opt in or out is much more than just an economic decision. Ian Ilavsky, co-owner of the Canadian indie powerhouse Constellation Records, says, "If what you want to do is just have a good time for a couple years, then go ahead, sign to a major, but at least acknowledge that there is really nothing political about your approach to cultural production and you are signing off on what are increasingly becoming some pretty dire moral and ethical consequences that should interest all of us as citizens of the world." (Constellation flagship band Godspeed You! Black Emperor included a diagram mapping the connections between the majors and weapons-manufacturing companies in the artwork for their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O.) "There are a hundred and one rationalizations that people can offer for fucking shit up from the inside, and of course that's true to a certain extent, but by and large it's complete co-optation." Labels like Constellation, locally oriented businesses with no corporate associations, offer artists a chance to walk the walk, whether or not they talk the talk. Justin Small, of Constellation instrumental sound sculptors Do Make Say Think, who headline the Bowery Ballroom on September 24, says, "Do Makes don't really wear our politics on our sleeves. But the beautiful thing about having a relationship with Constellation is they afford us the opportunity to take it to another level politically."

Welcome to the neighborhood: Bloc Party
photo: Retts Wood
Welcome to the neighborhood: Bloc Party

This might involve stepping out of the musical sphere completely. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic has become increasingly involved in Washington State politics over the last 10 years, and recently published his Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy! (125 pp., $9.95), through Akashic. Luring readers in with an introductory section devoted to memories of his rock and roll years, Novoselic quickly switches into activist mode, explaining his faith in the American governmental system and his ideas for its reinvigoration through electoral reform. Those searching for juicy Kurt Cobain gossip will be disappointed, but Novoselic just might turn some fans into activists. "People look for meaning in popular music," he writes. "Once music becomes predictable, and a formula to sustain the establishment, people become cynical, stop buying the music, and tune out. . . . People also look for meaning in democracy. Once democracy becomes predictable, and a formula to sustain the establishment, people become cynical, stop voting, and tune out. It is now time for a new wave in civic consciousness in our nation." Will rock stars lead the way to change? Probably not. But they can do more than stand back and provide the soundtrack.

OLD 97'S
September 23
Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212.307.7171

The exuberant Texas band returns after three years, with assets intact: sounds built on strong pop hooks that also acknowledge, regularly, their roots in twang; lyrics that marry pop wit and sharp, knowing observation out of country; and a live performance style that both rocks and gets their stories told. They never fell prey to all that attention they got, so they're back kickin', more seasoned, and ready to take on the "new kids." MAZOR

September 24
Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.230.0236

These are the DJ sets to check out if the typical ones leave you cold. Madlib and Wolf both are masters of many styles: jazz that pops along with propulsive swing, vintage funk from bands that never toured outside of their town, smoked-out reggae classics. And hip-hop, loads of hip-hop. Archivist DJs aren't typically any fun, but they break the mold. CARAMANICA

September 24-25
Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 212.219.3132

A tribute to the documentary of the same name—which recorded new wave and punk greats like Pere Ubu, the Police, and the Go-Go's in 1981—these two nights feature 14 not-quite luminaries like spike-sassers the Rogers Sisters, the arena indie Pilot to Gunner, and the electronica-damaging Dalek. CATUCCI

October 2
Northsix, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718.599.5103

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