A Brief History of So-Called "Dirty Words" in Indie-Rock
Are these kids at a Phish show or an Animal Collective show? You'll never know. Photo by Max Herman.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post suggested that a shift was underway in the indie-rock community. As the headline went: "For indie rockers, 'jam band' increasingly no longer a shameful term." The idea was that the newly revealed jam band days of currently in vogue indie-rockers like Vampire Weekend's Chris Tomson and Real Estate's Alex Bleeker--not to mention those of some good indie-centric critics, like Pitchfork's Rob Mitchum and our own contributor Jesse Jarnow--are proof that indie-rock is "starting to, well, mellow out" when it comes to the Grateful Dead and their ilk. As Bleeker puts it: "I don't want 'jam band' to be a dirty word in the indie-rock community anymore." In saying this, Bleeker perhaps unknowingly joined a long and illustrious tradition, adding one more so-called "dirty word" to the long list of theoretically prohibited actions and influences in indie-rock, perhaps the most reactionary style of music on the planet, give or take a couple of metal subgenres. Or so people would have you believe, anyway. Join us on a brief tour of all the myriad things that have threatened indie-rock since its inception in the 1980s, when things were purer and less complicated than they are now. Allegedly.
The Headline: The Post's "For indie rockers, 'jam band' increasingly no longer a shameful term." The Orthodoxy: "Whatever the reason, hipsters, and especially indie rockers, have long disavowed jam bands and their followers. Bring up 'Live/Dead' or 'Lawn Boy,' they gag, scowl or tune out altogether." The Heresy: "But those prejudices are starting to, well, mellow out. Tomson's Vampire Weekend bandmates do not share his guitar solo sweet tooth, but many of his music-world peers do. New York psych-rock group MGMT -- whose debut record, 'Oracular Spectacular,' has gone gold -- admits to liking the Dead. Indie faves Animal Collective recently licensed the first-ever official Grateful Dead sample for their song, 'What Would I Want? Sky.' There are others, too. 'I would say that jam bands and jam band culture has been a giant influence on me in my musicmaking,' says Alex Bleeker, 24, bassist of Real Estate. Reality Quotient: Nobody likes jam bands, really. Were indie-rockers particularly ferocious in their hatred? Maybe. You'd kind of have to throw out all the Built to Spill, Guided By Voices, and Yo La Tengo '90s counterexamples to make it work. But sure: certainly in high school, where most of these affiliations are forged, you can imagine the two sets not really getting along... Future Outlook: Stop covering Neutral Milk Hotel and we'll talk.
The Headline: Our own "Is 'Sellout' Even a Dirty Word Anymore?" The Orthodoxy: "Indie, of course, has long prided itself on being ethically above this sort of nakedly cynical marketing ploy..." The Heresy: "...but it's hard to stay huffy about that stuff when this music routinely finds its way onto TV commercials. If anything, it's almost a welcome reminder that the moral high ground no longer exists. The only substantive difference between M. Ward and James Blunt is that one is a lot richer than the other." Reality Quotient: Ask Jawbreaker what kind of reaction they got from their fans when they signed to a major in 1995. This one was all too real for a while. Future Outlook: Not so much anymore though. See: Grizzly Bear/Volkswagen, Arcade Fire/Super Bowl, the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack, et al. This battle was long since fought and lost.
The Headline: NME's "Enough Indie Nudity, Already - It's Time Bands Learned To Put It Away" The Orthodoxy: "I could argue all day about the benefits of promoting normal body shapes, the artistry of PJ Harvey's 'Dry' sleeve and the power of 'keeping it real' in the face of the far more offensive R&B videos full of bikini-clad honeyz being paraded like saleable meat. But the fact is, even I cringe when I see alternative artists getting naked, but not for any crass aesthetic reasons such as cellulite, arse foliage or Dalston Knobrot. While sex may sell pop music, it undersells alternative rock." The Heresy: Courtesy of the Washington Post, again: "Nudity has helped recent videos from Yeasayer, Amazing Baby and Matt & Kim rack up page views, but is a 'not safe for work'" tag anything more than a crass ploy for clicks? Yes, says Ryan Catbird, editor of MBVmusic.com, an indie rock blog that aggregates MP3s and videos. 'I think many people would probably assume that it's the old standard 'sex sells' philosophy, or just some cheap way to appeal to viewers' more prurient interests,' says Catbird via e-mail. 'But I think what we've actually been seeing lately in videos like Girls' 'Lust for Life,' or the recent Flaming Lips video, is simply just an artistic choice. I think they've been high-minded in their concepts.'" Reality Quotient: Meanwhile, Flavorwire watches these same videos and asks, "Tired of Sex: Has Indie Rock Gone Flaccid?" So uh, call this one a draw, as far as whether or not there was ever any expectation in the indie-rock community that musicians would keep their clothes on. Future Outlook: On the internet, everyone will eventually be naked.
Expensive Haircuts, Suits
The Headline: The Tripwire's "A Trip Through Indie Rock Fashion Circa '95" The Orthodoxy: "Sometimes in our RSS-haze we forget that 'indie rock' wasn't always so fashionable. In fact, if you go back to early nineties, the style was a lack of style, and not in some "I'm going to wear this because no one would think that I would actually wear this" sort of way. (Look at you Mom jeans.) Rather, it was earnest, as if all indie rockers of the '90s merely woke up, saw their jeans and put them on. It was honest. It was real. Often, it was pretty ugly." The Heresy: Interpol's entire career, as summarized by eMusic's J. Edward Keyes: "At a time when indie rock still treasured modesty and restraint, they had the audacity to turn up at New York City afterparties, allegedly snorting whatever was available, boasting expensive haircuts and possessing a drive to actually succeed, instead of just stumble ass-backwards into marginal acclaim. It pissed people off that they had the gall to wear suits." See also: Kim Gordon. Reality Quotient: This photo tells you everything you need to know about how indie-rock looked in its earlier days:
That said, like the nudity thing, this may have been an issue of economics/indifference, not any kind of moral objection to looking good. Future Outlook: Vampire Weekend are not going anywhere, guys.
The Headline: The dearly departed Paste's "Is Indie Dead?" The Orthodoxy: "This movement started in scattered urban centers and then spread, flourishing on obscure LPs and in the black-and-white photocopied pages of fan-made 'zines, traded like fine tea from the Orient. It took refuge on low-frequency college radio stations, where DJs blasted the gospel of those wild men and women to listeners who scrawled their own parables with their own furious bands. God may have been usurped in the '60s, but these kids were baring their teeth, sharpening their knives, preparing to slaughter the idol that rose in God's place, the slicked-smooth supreme being of Pop. They wouldn't make money doing it, they wouldn't be famous, they wouldn't fit in--and they not only braced themselves against these realities, they adopted them as their core tenets, their creed." The Heresy: "Of course, the term 'indie' is troubled now, too. Indie is, at once, a genre (of music first, and then of film, books, video games and anything else with a perceived arty sensibility, regardless of its relationship to a corporation), an ethos, a business model, a demographic and a marketing tool. It can signify everything, and it can signify nothing. It stands among the most important, potentially sustainable and meaningful movements in American popular culture--not just music, but for the whole cultural landscape. But because it was originally sculpted more in terms of what it opposed than what it stood for, the only universally held truth about 'indie' is that nobody agrees on what it means." Reality Quotient: Ah, the old death-by-the-thing-you-are theory. Whether anyone ever had any clarity about what indie was ever supposed to mean is an open question. But the fact there are real people out there who think jam bands and Carlos D are a threat to it is as good a proof as any that indie is pretty much what whatever anybody needs it to be when they're writing a trend piece on its potential demise. Future Outlook: Better than Paste's, hopefully.
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