The Decline and Fall of Independent Music

Has music become homogenous? Knowitall Jeff Merrion explores current indie rock trends, declaring that bands lack the versatility and staying power of their predecessors.

To fly in an airplane thousands of feet above the earth is an emotionally complex experience. On one hand, there is the serene beauty of flinging through the air that renders the troubles of the world insignificant. My boss may be a bitch, but she is just a dot in that silly, arbitrary little grid of streets and houses that comprise daily life. On the other hand, there is also the disheartening realization that I too am but another of those insignificant dots on a grid. Furthermore, I flew Southwest, so I had to jostle with 3 obese, drunk gentlemen just to get a seat on the aisle.

Because of all this, here I am, 30,000 feet above earth, drunk with power, inert with despair, and being encroached upon by the prodigious belly of my neighbor as it strains against the tenuous protective barrier of the seat arm between us.

How do I cope with a situation so fraught with emotional ups and downs as this? It’s not by putting on sad bastard music; it’s not wallowing with Bright Eyes in commodified stylish existential angst; and it’s certainly not by dancing my problems away with Franz Ferdinand (my horrendously curved spine makes this last option especially impossible).

Instead, I put on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. It is at once sensual and violent, loud and beautiful, angry and ecstatic. We fly further. I put on Radiohead’s Kid A. Thom Yorke’s voice warbles and wails beautiful alien sirens as he sings words that are linguistically empty but are lent power by the musical depth of his songs. And once I am on the ground, I’m going to listen to Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation while I speed down the freeway. Listening to that album, I am going to feel alive and in pain, joyful and full of anger, greedy to lap up every second of life yet wanting to halt time to enjoy this reckless, wonderful youth.

There’s a reason I turn to these albums, and it’s not just because I know them well. These watershed albums in the canon of independent rock music have stood the test of time because of their versatility.

By versatility, I mean that they can be listened to in a multitude of situations that carry different emotional contexts. Loveless is, for my money, the best make-out album in the world (although trying to convince a potential partner of this is difficult), but at the same time, it also provides the perfect soundtrack for driving through the mountains on a sunny day. It’s true, Loveless is a mess, but that’s how our minds are––messy, hazy, full of ambiguities, but ultimately beautiful.

The wide emotional and sonic breadth of these classic albums is exactly what makes them so enduring. They are true artistic expressions of the terrible, beautiful, convoluted jumble that is human existence. And distressingly, the classic albums of the bygone glory days of independent rock stand in stark relief against modern indie rock albums.

Scrolling through my iTunes library, I realize now that while almost all of my music is enjoyable (barring my penchant for balls-out noise), little of it is substantial. This rings especially true for most of the recent indie rock that I have on my computer.

Sure, The Shins, Interpol, and The Boy Least Likely To are all listenable. But when they come on shuffle in my car, I don’t roll down the windows and turn up the sound to a point where I can scream along and make an ass out of myself in traffic. That honor usually is reserved for music of an earlier era.

Though there are exceptions, on the whole, modern indie rock is homogenous and unadventurous. Most falls firmly into one of a few camps, which I have labeled “sad-bastard” music (thanks to High Fidelity for that one), “Peter Pan” music, and “self-consciously weird without a purpose” music.

Sad-Bastard Music

The progenitors of sad-bastard music are the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian, and the characteristics this subgenre include self-effacing lyrics, flaccid instrumentation, and intentionally fey vocals. Some key artists operating in this subgenre today include the Kings of Convenience, Shins, El Perro Del Mar, and Emily Haines.

The difference between the progenitors of the subgenre and those who followed is that the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian were masters of subtlety, both lyrical and musical. Yeah, the Smiths were self-effacing. But Morrissey was a lyrical mastermind who could, with a few key turns of phrase, add a dash of dark humor to a tragic situation (see “I Know It’s Over). The same is true with Belle and Sebastian, who often recognized the silliness of their own self-effacement: “I know you like her / well I like her too / I know she likes you / It’s not as if I’m being sent off to war / there are worse things in this world” (“Jonathan David”).

Contrast those lyrics with the lugubrious self-pitying of Bright Eyes: “Now and again it seems worse than it is / but mostly the view is accurate” (“Something Vague”). The lack of emotional depth beyond generic “sadness” robs many of Conor Oberst’s lyrics of staying power. When you’re sad, wouldn’t you rather hang out with a friend like the Smiths, who indulge your sadness but at the same time bring some levity to the situation?

I suppose that is the biggest difference between the fathers of sad-bastard music and the sad bastards who practice it (of which I am one): self-effacement versus self-pity.

Peter Pan Music

Sad-bastard music’s manic cousin, Peter Pan music mistakes the naivety of Belle and Sebastian’s lyrics for immaturity and adopts Stuart Murdoch’s fey delivery as a manner of conveying that immaturity.

The problem is that’s how Stuart Murdoch fucking sings. And his lyrics aren’t intentionally childlike, the way his followers’ (Boy Least Likely To, Architecture in Helsinki, The Charade, etc.) are. Peter Pan music exists because the artists who practice it want to make you feel the way Belle and Sebastian make you feel. They cop aspects of a powerful band’s style to exploit the listener’s contextual presumptions. It isn’t malicious, and it might not even be intentional, but it stagnates the genre and makes further progress tough.

Self-Consciously Weird Without a Purpose Music

This is the bane of my existence. Here is how I figure bands and artists like this came about:

A) Artist puts on favorite album by say, Sonic Youth, and gets a reaction from his “square” friend of “Wow, this is really weird. But I like it.”

B) Artist figures that it is the weirdness of the band that makes them interesting, and makes an unlistenable and bizarre foray into broken home electronics.

Artists of this persuasion fail to realize that bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Radiohead aren’t great because of their weirdness. Those artists are great because of their ability to intelligently incorporate weirdness into their song structures to further the point of their song. The two-minute screeching noise interlude in Sonic Youth’s “Silver Rocket” would be far less powerful if it wasn’t a degeneration and then regeneration of a proper song. Compare “Silver Rocket” with one of Devendra Banhart’s vaguely shrouded, warbly odes to child molestation, and tell me which artist’s weirdness is more powerful.

Music is a Drug

The division of indie rock into these separate camps is just a symptom of the commodification of music that started with the CD and was cemented with iPod. In a musical culture that subscribes firmly to an instant gratification ethos (endemic to our entire society), why bother listening to an emotionally and sonically complex work of art? If you want something angst-ridden, just toss on Okkervill River, scream along, and then hit skip on the iPod.

With the advent of the mp3, music is now viewed as a commodity rather than an art form. Sure, listening to sad songs when you’re upset can be cathartic, but in this way, music becomes much like a drug. Songs are enjoyed for their emotional release rather than their artistic merit and complexity. This cycle of consumption is demeaning to both the artist and listener.

The artist is forced to work in a very limited framework to maintain any sort of marketability, which limits musical progress. Listeners get stuck in a cycle of not being able to digest somewhat difficult albums, tempted by the ever-present “skip” button on the iPod. OK Computer would have been impossible in the mp3 era; after the first twenty, glitchy seconds of “Airbag” people would have already skipped along on their iPod to listen to The Format.

I don’t claim that the answer is to abolish the mp3. The internet is great for spreading the word on new bands that aren’t formulaic, and it has the potential to change the face of music by broadening the tastes of listeners.

The problem is that there are two opposing forces being exerted on music by the internet: first, the commodification of music, and second, the potential for vast networks of the creative exchange of ideas. For now, the predominant force is the commodification of music, which leads to the sorry, stagnant state of independent rock music today.

I’m sorry for picking so heartily on the Shins in this article. They are enjoyable, fun, and they make me feel happy. But I don’t want to just feel one emotion. I want my music to serve a broader purpose: rather than to just commiserate with me about one aspect of human experience, I want a band that embraces it all. I want to feel as though my whole life, good and bad is flashing before my eyes when I hear an album. Thank God for Sigur Rós.

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.