Ever made a New Year’s resolution vowing to improve your communication skills? To more forcefully assert yourself, perhaps, and stop passively equivocating on important matters? In an offhand way, that’s what Panos Panay, the CEO of Sonicbids (the one-stop shop website for small bands to create electronic press kits) promised to do when he vowed to ban the word “indie” from his company’s website and marketing materials after being cornered by a music fan who’d more than likely enjoyed this recent Paste article about the death of the genre. On one level of course, this sort of Puritanical grammar prescription is a silly thing to do. But it does make one stop and think for a second: what if for a year, music fans stopped using the word “indie” altogether? What might happen?
If there’s a particular anxiety that permeates all levels of music fandom, it’s categorization. What do we call music? How do we translate music into words or accurately describe–in a casual conversation or in-depth music review–how something sounds? How many adjectives is too many? Over the past decade or so, as a glut of small-scale music has made itself digitally available to those who seek it out, this pressure has manifested itself both ultra-specifically (in those pesky multi-hyphenate genre categories, or portmanteaus that use the suffixes “-fi” or “-wave” like lazy newswriters tack “-gate” onto any minor political gaffe) and in the most general way, with the increasing use of “indie” as a generic modifier for an incredible array of stuff. It’s a conversational time-saver, to be sure. But what good does it do us?
Initially, the term “indie” is traceable back to the formative moments of British punk and its American counterpart in the late 1970s and early 80s–when doctrinal anti-corporate ideologies structured the buying, selling, and promotion of an otherwise wide variety of music on labels like Rough Trade and Dischord. The model and its ethos didn’t last too long initially, but would make a strong comeback nearly 30 years later in the conversations surrounding the rise of peer-to-peer networks, cheap recording software, and the simultaneous deflation of the corporate music industry, when an uncountable number of small bands harnessed new forms of accessibility (though not necessarily the same separatist politics).
This is where things get tricky. Indie ideologies gelled in a specific historical moment–Thatcher and Reagan-era conservative politics, for starters–when splitting music off from corporate control felt like subversive performance art in and of itself. But over the past decade or so, the term has been more often than not generically applied to any and all music that simply doesn’t sell a lot, which has a veneer of “difficulty” or “art” to it, or which is released on any of the burgeoning number of reliable small labels. Where for a brief historical moment indie had particular meaning as a descriptive word, at the end of 2010 the term has become shorthand for “small,” “new,” and perhaps most importantly, “freely available.”
For musicians and critics concerned with their own autonomy and the engagement of others, this glut of music–the largest freely available art market in history–leads to very real very real anxieties about the importance of their work on its own terms, not those of marketers. The music critic Matt LeMay addressed these anxieties in his discussion of corporate influence in modern music culture: because music is everywhere now, we risk overlooking its purely musical qualities and instead seeing it purely as “content”–something to be used as a means to other commercial goals (for Mountain Dew or Converse), or as a lifestyle accessory more generally (for fans who let freely accessible mp3s pour onto their hard drives).
But I would also add to LeMay’s argument that the basic state of affairs that spawns his point–musical availability–has changed the way we talk about music, too. Making heads or tails of an unprecedented musical glut is hard cultural work, after all! It’s comforting to have it both ways: calling all this stuff “indie,” while simultaneously declaring that term meaningless. You may have come across an article similar to Rachel Maddux’s fatalist Paste piece recently: in n+1, Mark Greif made the same claim about the word “hipster” last October, going so far as to date the rise and fall of hipster culture from 1999 to 2009.
But this is exactly how culture circulates in 2010: there are always going to be a group of people who are on the cusp. We don’t know who they are until they gel into a recognizable group, but when we see them, lots of us hate them for exactly this reason–they’re too avant, too superficially caught up in fleeting trends. Others of us though (myself included) have a begrudging respect for them as toilers in the ever-shifting salt mines of hipness, sorting stuff out for the rest of us stationed well back of the cultural frontlines.
To say that this sociological fact–that sectors of any modernized society are always going to emerge as stylistic early-adopters (it’s the engine that makes styles happen)–is instead some sort of uniform cultural “movement” is, well, a work of fiction. To then take the step of calling it “dead”? Bravo! You’ve built a strawman and burned it down, and we all read along. To many music fans, “indie” and “hipster” are more or less interchangeable–linguistic shortcuts that save us the trouble of making time-consuming cultural connections and distinctions between art, fashion, commerce, and so forth. “Indie” initially signaled a politicized separation from strictly commercial imperatives for music, but we’ve morphed it, as we will with these things, into a generic word designating more or less the core tenets of capitalism: incessant newness and endless repetition with slight differences, to keep things interesting and the system proliferating.
But that doesn’t mean it’s “dead.” It means we have a vague idea that needs redefinition and specificity–talking about relentless difference by using a single word is sort of the epitome of contradiction, isn’t it? And this is what our musical New Year’s resolution should be as music fans: not to kill off a mere increasingly manufactured genre, as silly as that sounds, but to develop new and interesting ways to talk about music, to sort it, categorize it, debate it, high-five over it at those times when “indie” starts pushing itself into our conversations. We can free ourselves of the word, sure, but we should make sure that in doing so, we make sure to keep–and keep thinking about–all the fascinating differences it disguises.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 28, 2010