Monday, April 18, 2011

Whatever This Moment Is

NPR Music is, increasingly, one of the best music sites around. Not only are they helping to bring lesser-known artists to the attention of their large (and growing) audience, but they are more and more a home for smart music commentary.

Today Ann Powers dropped an essay suffused with optimism about the future of music, referencing the success of Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Adele and other indie acts:

Call what's coming the summer of audacious and purposeful selling out. Its major players are artists who project ferocious self-determination – the aura of independence – while hungrily laying claim to the status quo.... 
 Whether they're progressive, apolitical or genuinely freaky isn't the point – no matter how much success they gain, these artists continually cultivate the spirit of party crashing, which lends energy to their music and defines their unyielding commitment to outrageousness. 

Powers credits artists like these, as well as fiercely independent veterans like Prince and the Beastie Boys, and audacious newcomers like Lady Gaga, with redefining "indie" rock as something "that complements and often smoothly intersects with not just the corporate music industry but with the formerly foreign realms of Hollywood and Madison Avenue."

Well, maybe. I certainly share her optimism and celebration for the maturation of indie. But it begs the question of whether any of this is truly "independent" any more –maybe "interdependent" describes it better. I kind of thought of indie rock as a term more or less interchangeable with "college rock" (in the 80s) and "alternative rock" (in the 90s) – a fairly wide net cast over disparate acts that are somehow not "classic rock."

Alt-rock, in general, reflected more the sensibilities of what emerged from the punk moment, in a variety of directions, but generally encompassing a DIY ethos, a de-emphasis on displays of virtuosity, and an outsider stance – consistent with the redefinition of rock more as a music of bohemian subcultures than of teenage rebellion. And whatever else indie rock is today, it isn't those things, exactly.

That is, there's noting particularly bohemian about showing up on the Twilight soundtrack or a "Grey's Anatomy" episode. De-emphasizing virtuosity is also being de-emphasized these days. And the DIY ethos has morphed from hand-printed sleeves for 45s into GarageBand and AutoTune. So what we have now is a different animal.

These are some of the questions that were chewed over at length in Rachel Maddux's Paste magazine cover story (from back when Paste magazine still had a physical cover), "Is Indie Dead?"
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.
I think this discussion reaches back to the 60s, when the redefinition of rock as bohemian subculture began  – on opposite coasts, with the work of the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. It soon became apparent that both rebellion and bohemia could be co-opted and marketed by the music industry. But it also became clear that bands were capable of forging their own way, more or less independent of the strictures of the industry – though there was plenty of trial and error involved. And it seems like that sisyphian process has continued up until the present day.

Whatever this moment is, or this era is, will eventually have to be pigeonholed with some new genre tag.  But it is exciting, seeing the underground and the marginalized clawing into the mainstream. One of the things I left out of my "General Theory of the Crap Cycle" is the notion that there are other, overlapping cycles, including cycles of gender attitudes and race relations as reflected in the music of the day. And one of the things that's great about right now is that the sharp edges between what's "black music" and "white music" have been blurring up again. And there hasn't been a time with so many strong female artists dominating the charts since the mid 90s. The trend lines are looking good.

So what's next?

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