Slaps in the Face


Major-label consolidation would seem to bring closer a system where all well-known recording artists work for four big corporations. There’s an impression that this machine could roll over indie music and finish it off. We like to say: on the contrary.

Indie music may have lost some loose change. But isn’t it indie’s nature to lose along the way—to be subject to shortage en route to artistic satisfaction? At Puncture, the magazine I edit and publish, the feeling is strong that whatever independent music loses, two constants will remain.

Its independence. And its music.

It’s fine when it’s so concealed.

—Robert Pollard, “Do Something Real”

Ordinary pop fans can easily overlook a few hundred bedroom artists, and cloistered creators like Illyah Kuryahkin and his whispered sermonettes to Meg Lee Chin and her sing-outs of electro malaise rarely set off shocks of recognition. Yet even bedroomists tour—venturing briefly from gear-cluttered sanctuaries into the pressboard aisles of crampy record shops or storefront one-rooms a mile from any downtown. They also release records. Musicians want to be heard.

Indieists have often spoken a partly private language—Comet Gain list what’s cool, Deerhoof call up a pantheon of cute yet godlike animals. But a change is gonna come. If you’re looking for tendencies, you can see a striking surge—millennial, or just a natural next step—in the way indie artists address their followings.

It’s not long since masterpieces of interiority like Plush’s More You Becomes You or Neutral Milk’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Plush threaded tempting piano chords spiked with lapidary sobs through his portrait of desperate insecurity. NMH etched youthful nightmares in excruciating personal detail. It’s not as though music this subjective is on the way out. Rather, a fresh faction is stepping up newly prepared to deliver their briefs—and to knock us about in the process.

Punk did this two decades ago, but any punks who’ve stuck at it tend to sound dried out, mechanical. What’s camped on the doorstep today is the new sound of struggle. Sleater-Kinney, having recorded their forthcoming album here in Portland, wasted no time circulating the lyrics. Hear them grab the lectern in a pop activation of critical theory: “You don’t own the stage/and we’re here to raise the stakes/Now do you hear that sound/as the Model breaks/Take the Stage!”

They named that song “Male Model” so we don’t come away with too abstract an idea what kind of obstacle they’re talking about. And late last year, Elisabeth Vincentelli called Le Tigre “a slap in the face to the fratboy sexism that’s shoved its way back into music this year.” This could be the start of a new swell of demanding rock polemics. And polemics are always a good thing.

Now you’re gone/and to me you’re done

—Diane Izzo, “The Real One”

In his novel Boy Island, Camden Joy describes touring the South with a band flagrantly based on the real-life Cracker. The plot revolves around Joy’s failure to cut much of a figure in the band’s intramural contest to screw the most groupies. Believably or not, the only person who perceives that Joy doesn’t much care to go to bed with girls is a gay roadie, who promptly and not unlovingly seduces him.

But the real story is the tour. We who take an unflagging interest in the doings of rock bands want to hear, like it’s news, that the fucking van and the daily weight of the gear are inesca-pable, that the biz types are phonies (there’s a priceless biz brunch, complete with total failure to mention music), and that the Cracker guys are surly.

In one sense this is an exposé of the big time (the plot has them wooing majorish labels). Yet the band wouldn’t have enough money to eat if they didn’t sell T-shirts at every stop. Big or small time (the David Lowery character wistfully posits that people will “look back later and wonder how we slipped through and, like, managed to stay out of sight while being this cool”), their shortage of fun is laid bare so we can have fun reading about it.

Back to the underground!

—Prince Paul, liner note, 1997

It was hip-hop’s pioneering polemics, superadded to the triumphant persistence of riot-grrrl drive, that helped blaze the trail for a new indie didactics. While middle-class bedroomists were amassing gear and tinkering with effects ranging from madrigal to beepery, rappers blasted racism’s crushing delimitations. This often sounded samey to indie buffs—but then, oppression is samey. At the same time, the indie songwriters’ pals were buying rap and layering heavy speakers into their vehicles.

So the next wave of indieists got it—and the art of the tirade began rippling outward again. It was possible after all to say more than they’d been saying, to say it more rudely, and perhaps be more widely heard. Not since the Clash had this been so clear. So now there are multiple private and public indie spheres. Personal stocks of images and compulsions will still be counted over by the more hermetic bands. But a new and forceful strain will compel our attention.

One step behind the drum style

—Le Tigre, “Hot Topic”

At the same time there is a welcome opening out of hip-hop. It’s a mellow thrill to hear Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So . . . How’s Your Girl? The leaflet photos—martinis and cigars, hovering lovelies—slant off what’s inside: a cascade of varied and cunning song material plus impressive guest shots from a kaleidoscope of genres.

We know musical inspiration transcends boundaries; what’s new is that many indie artists look set to tackle gender, social, and racial themes as never before. Far from conceding that music is indie’d out, we can look forward to a very good year—and decade.