Thoughts on Indie

by Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi

AM

When the Arctic Monkey’s fourth LP AM won Best Album at the 2014 Brit Awards, the British band’s lead singer, Alex Turner, gave a cool look to the camera, puckered his lips slightly, and stood up to swagger towards the stage. “That rock’n’roll, eh? That rock & roll. It’s always waiting there…ready to make its way back through the sludge…looking better than ever,” he prophesied. Then, attempting a display of Rock & Roll indocility, Turner put out his hand and dropped the mic with which he had given the speech. “Invoice me for the microphone,” he announced with Mick Jagger-esque insouciance. I had stopped following the band a few months before this speech because I found AM unbearably repetitive and prosaic. But while watching this spectacle at the Brit Awards, I couldn’t help but think, “What the fuck happened?”

Ever since their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, began to make waves on the Internet in 2006, I had been obsessed with the Arctic Monkeys. That record was a revelation to me. I was drawn in by the energy and amusement in each song. Their flippant lyrics revealed a contentment with adolescence and immaturity unlike the weighty lyrics of classic rock to which I had become accustomed. Their sound was simple and fun: they played catchy guitar riffs, that was all they did, and they were absolutely okay with that. Take “A Certain Romance,” a song about the romantic sensibilities of Sheffield teenagers, centered around one bass riff. Despite banal subject matter and uncomplicated music, the sheer catchiness of the riff and cleverness of the lyrics made “A Certain Romance” a great song.

It all worked so well because it reflected who the band members were: a loose crew of teenagers with nearly incomprehensible Sheffield accents, smatterings of acne across their barely post-adolescent faces and knackered Chuck Taylors on their feet. They embodied an appealingly amateurish DIY attitude—a slacker/go-getter ambivalence that drew me and countless other young people into the alluring world of indie music. The music video for “Cornerstone,” which features Alex Turner standing alone singing the song into a tape recorder, could have been made by any kid with a video camera. This playfulness, though, belied the lyrical acumen and songwriting skill it took to write “Cornerstone.”

I loved Turner & Co.’s attitude. Through the Arctic Monkeys, I discovered bands such as Arcade Fire, The Libertines, and, of course, the Strokes, who inaugurated the wave of revivalist garage rock that Turner and his band inherited. And there I was in 2014, watching that group of oblivious teens preaching their sermon on the mount.
After I had loved Arctic Monkeys and bands of their ilk for so long, the Brit Awards speech first instilled in me the vague notion that indie was dead. It wasn’t just that the Arctic Monkeys had reached a level of popularity that made it impossible to call them indie—it was the feeling that the whole thing was manufactured. Turner’s pseudo-contrarian speech at the Brit Awards was the culmination of a period of confusion within the indie world.

Was Indie Ever Relevant?

In a recent dialogue on the state of indie music/culture, Ezra Koenig and Hipster Runoff founder Carles took it for granted that “Indie,” as we know it, is dead. “‘Indie’ was about romanticizing amateurism in music and media,” Carles explains. Indie had a sound, but, more than that, it was a culture that privileged originality over craftsmanship, experimentation over polishing, and honesty (i.e., amateurism) over pretension. The early Arctic Monkeys typified this style. They were honest about what they offered. As the title of their debut LP asserted: whatever people said they were, that’s what they weren’t.

This vibe has become almost unachievable. Koenig explains:

The amateur/professional dichotomy is just about destroyed now. The biggest celebrities now show the openness/vulnerability/‘realness’ that was once associated with ‘confessional’ ‘bedroom’ indie. The smallest artists now rely on big corporate money to get started. All the old dualities are jumbled.

The Information Age ushered in a new type of celebrity, and this celebrity looks very much like the indie stars we idolized a short time ago. A superstar actress like Jennifer Lawrence can now go on talk shows and reveal the realness of her day-to-day life. On an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she related having gone to “a diver bar with senior-citizen strippers.” “I got a lap dance from Little Bo Peep, who was very bossy and kept getting on top of me,” she explained. The mainstream celebrity no longer has to fit the norms of the pre-naughts. Lawrence lives in Beverly Hills but has adopted the authenticity that used to be off-limits for someone of her stature. She has taken on a Turner-esque flippancy towards her fame. The mainstream has subsumed the attitude of indie acts and vice-versa.

This cooptation of authenticity and disavowal of pretension on the part of mainstream artists remove a level of the charm that earlier indie acts had. And the more explicit aim at something beyond “bedroom” music makes it more difficult to view indie acts the way we used to. The presence of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn in commercials for the food delivery service Seamless is less the act of a sell out than it is a microcosm of the broader embrace of commercial success on the part of indie bands.

Condé Nast Buys Pitchfork

Now, we have news that media conglomerate Condé Nast has purchased Pitchfork Media in order to enlist “a very passionate audience of millennial males into [its] roster,” as        Condé Nast’s Chief Digital Officer rather unsubtly stated.

When Ryan Schreiber began Pitchfork Media (then called Turntable) in 1995, he had just graduated high school. With no experience in writing or web development, the only thing going for him was his passion for music. Through a thirst for innovative new acts, Schreiber and his team created a venue for the appreciation and curation of indie music. He is now a gatekeeper in the indie world, an amateur turned professional. As much as I want to be terrified that corporate America is encroaching on my beloved space to appreciate independent music, I don’t think much will change. The rise of Pitchfork’s influence over the past decade mirrors the aforementioned shift in indie culture. A group of young writers interested in music have become the arbiters of indie relevance. Insofar as it aimed at excellence in music journalism and influence in the indie world, Pitchfork Media could not avoid corporatism.

Perhaps people are more honest now than they used to be. Good indie bands now cop to a degree of dedication to craft and attention to detail. While we’ll miss the indie vibe of yore—the flippancy, the intimacy, the immaturity of it all—indie’s current iteration allows a greater degree of honesty. Honesty, after all, was the source of indie’s attraction. As with Arctic  Monkeys’ increased influence and success, Pitchfork will now have more reach than ever before. It seems disingenuous to criticize a music publication on account of an earnest, large-scale effort to increase its scale and reach.

But the Arctic Monkeys  suck now.


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