Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Excising the ‘indie’ from rock ‘n’ roll

I hereby forswear the use of the word “indie” when describing rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s going to be difficult. For years “indie” has been such a safe haven phrase for music critics, a way to easily tally up a band’s sound. “Oh, Bright Eyes? They’re an indie rock group from Nebraska, fronted by emo heartthrob Conor Oberst.” But no more, my friends, no more. “Indie” no longer has much meaning for us. It’s a signifier without a signified, in deconstructionist terms.

It wasn’t always this way. We all missed out on it, but there was a time when “indie” meant everything. Bands like R.E.M., believe it or not, really started the trend in the ’80s, when “college rock” bands amassed cult followings in the underground. R.E.M., Hsker D, The Fall-these were the independent originators, churning out that elusive beast “post-punk” for record companies like England’s Rough Trade and even more obscure labels. These bands didn’t get sought out for jeans commercials, didn’t earn play time on the ’80s’ equivalents of “Now That’s What I Call Music,” didn’t play festivals covered by Rolling Stone and Spin.

The late ’80s and early ’90s were probably what we consider “indie rock”‘s hey-day, with weirdoes like the Pixies and flannel-bedecked slackers like Pavement gaining airplay on college radio stations. This was the era that produced My Bloody Valentine, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Jr., Mudhoney and a host of other underground rock gods. Indie rock was forming its own pantheon, just as classic rock held up Zeppelin, the Stones and the Fab Four. This was also the age of the Indie Label, with Matador, Sub Pop, Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey and Drag City working their way into hipster parlance. The musical world was a Manichaean place, divided into light and dark-mindless, mass-produced pop music stood at one extreme and quirky, self-referential, irreverent indie rock on the other. The same could probably be said for hip-hop, but it would take a different sort of historian to chronicle that chapter of the story.

The ’90s spent much of its time battling against this rather stark, black-and-white dichotomy. Grunge made Seattle indie rock palatable with groups like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, of course, a little trio from Aberdeen, Wash., called Nirvana. Brit-pop bands like Blur and Pulp wrote crossover hits, and Oasis made it to the stadiums. That’s not to say that quintessentially “indie” groups weren’t still making quintessentially “indie” music-the late ’90s produced Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse and the Dismemberment Plan, after all. But MTV had its “Buzz Bin,” more than could be said for the underground ’80s groups. And the emergence of Radiohead, around the time of “OK Computer,” helped to break down what was left of the wall.

Since then, there’s been a lot of struggling and denial on the part of the old-school indie illuminati, but it’s plain to see that “indie” just doesn’t cut it these days. Either the general public is more welcoming towards these bands, or the acts themselves are retooling the sound for the masses or the record companies realized a potential goldmine-however you want to look at it, the formerly indie now walk among us. Modest Mouse are signed to Sony, and you can find a teenybopper-ized version of “Float On” on the latest “Kidz Bop” album. Franz Ferdinand is everywhere, Bright Eyes made the Billboard charts in a major way, Interpol videos play at Target, the Futureheads grace the sound systems of Old Navy and “The O.C.” brings us the indie flavor-of-the-week regularly.

But this is not a lament. It’s not a nostalgic yearning for the past. It’s about “indie rock” and how meaningless the term is. It might have meant something once, some quick and easy summation that meant any number of things, including “eccentric,” “jangly,” “lo-fi,” “art-damaged” and other such catchwords. Now it’s obsolete, plain and simple. There are still truly “independent” bands out there that the mainstream will never embrace, and punk and it’s various “post-” incarnations continue to thrive. But “indie” is out. From now on, let’s try to expand our creative vocabulary, shall we?

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