Monday, October 05, 2009

Project Mersh 21st Century

This is surely old news by now, but even upon initial announcement the impending reunion of Pavement didn't exactly make me convulse in anticipation. This is for a couple of reasons. Despite more or less growing up on indie rock in the 90s, I never felt as deep a connection with Pavement as I did with other bands from that era. They were a band I respected but never really cherished.

Sure, Slanted and Enchanted was, and remains, a brilliant record. However, by the time of the release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, I began to find the band's deep sense of sarcasm and undercurrent of privilege and entitlement to be somewhat off putting. I've never been a fan of over earnestness but when a band trades in ironic (and, frankly, elitist) detachment, it's difficult to form an emotional bond with them. A little sincerity and conviction go a long way. Malkmus had announced he was "crowned the king of it" back on "In the Mouth of a Desert" but actually appearing with a crown (and scepter and cape) in the "Cut Your Hair" video was really pushing things. One might be tempted to call me a snob for my less than total devotion to a band this well regarded but that's a bit hypocritical. Has there ever been a rock song more steeped in snobbery than "Range Life?"

Furthermore, the band's reunion seemed depressingly inevitable anyway. They can just be added to the ever growing list of bands who've recently reunited to capitalize on the new indie audience: My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus Lizard, the Pixies, Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr., Polvo. I could go on. And "capitalize" is absolutely the correct term. There's no reason to think these bands would be making music together again if it wasn't for monetary gain. The indie audience of the 21st century is simply much larger than when they originally played. I don't blame these bands for attempting to profit from a greater demand for the type of music they purvey. I wish them good fortune. Nor do I begrudge anyone for wanting to see a much-loved band they were too young experience the first time around. I was certainly front and center when Mission of Burma first reunited. However, there's something disheartening about bands who were once champions of music that was made without regard for commercial considerations suddenly getting on stage for little reason other than money.

This is representative of a philosophical shift in indie culture that's marked the last decade. Once a movement centered around independence from mainstream pablum and music industry (and, by proxy, capitalist) values, indie music (I hesitate to classify much of the recent vintage as any kind of "rock") has become merely a niche taste for a particular demographic, interchangeable with any other from a marketing standpoint. The AV Club's Erik Adams pretty much hit the nail on the head when he called today's indie "songs that are used to sell today’s iPods and Zooey Deschanel movies" in his recent review of Cymbals Eat Guitars.

In the pre-internet age, indie culture was driven by fans. That "fan" is short for "fanatic" is absolutely apropos in this case. It took a level of commitment and literacy. Knowledge was achieved by sorting though countless fanzines and record guides, word of mouth from discerning record store employees and college radio DJs, and trust in labels that reliably put out good music. Now, information on nearly any band is just a Google search away. Being a fan of a band like the Clean was once a sort of secret handshake. Coverage of the Clean's recent album, Mister Pop, was wide and unprecedented for a band that toiled away on and off for nearly 30 years in semi-obscurity. That the album (which is fine, by the way) is their first full-length since the release of Merge's easily available and modestly hyped, career-spanning 2CD anthology of the band's material is no coincidence.

The accessibility granted through 21st century technology, be it general information or the music itself via file sharing, eschews the cultural fluency of old school fanaticism. Whether or not this new approach is inherently inferior is debatable but it seems to me that there's a difference between reading about archeology in a textbook and actually going out on a dig. The dilettante can claim expertise with minimal amount of effort.

I am not such a Luddite that I believe that these modern methods don't have an upside. That a band as good as the Clean has gained greater recognition is undoubtedly a good thing. However, as the audience for indie music increases and it becomes more financially viable, its already loose defining qualities become even more amorphous. "Indie" has always been an umbrella term, used to cover an array styles and existing on a slippery-slope to meaninglessness. Not for nothing did Sebadoh's 1991 name-dropping, open fan letter "Gimme Indie Rock" have a large amount of eye-rolling mockery mixed in with its affection. Still, there was a sensibility and kinship there beyond being an alternative to pop. By contrast, that anyone has ever considered major label, chart-aspiring bands like the Killers or Kings of Leon to be "indie" is a joke, a fundamental misunderstanding that somehow got warped into a truism. In 2009, indie seems to exist only to cater to consumers of a specialized taste. It's not even an opposition to the Kaynes and Lady Gagas of the world, but additional product for those who crave something a little different.

One could make the case that the accessibility granted by the hyper-communicative nature of the internet has opened up possibilities for independent bands. The popularity of a band like the Shins earlier in the decade is probably at least partially attributable to this. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that these new avenues have been readily co-opted and exploited by savvy music marketers and have all but obliterated any grassroots connection to the music. Pop music mechanisms of "breaking" new artists remain firmly in place, even if they travel through different paths. The mass marketing infrastructure of the source broadcasting to the target has been adapted to appear hipper and less obvious, gradually usurping legitimate word-of-mouth. It is perhaps naive to think that the taint of commerce had never previously been a part of indie culture but it's inarguable that that taint has ever been more prominent than it is now.

Tom Lax of Siltbreeze Records, on sending the first Times New Viking album to Pitchfork:
I did send one to Pitchfork for review and after a while I e-mailed to ask if they got it. In response I got an e-mail asking me if I'd like to advertise. I didn't and it never got reviewed. So the more things change, the more they stay the same, don't you think?
Then again, when I saw Times New Viking around the time of Present the Paisley Reich, they played a cover Pavement's "Box Elder." Perhaps, the flood of 80s and 90s band reunions shows that today's indie audience craves something more authentic and is resisting the hype machine. That may just be wishful thinking.

Speaking of which, I hope they play "Debris Slide."


Anonymous said...

To be fair, Superchunk never formally broke up.
-matt siblo

Anonymous said...

Well said. A good point made regarding the authenticity of "indie" music with a comparison of current music and why it lacks integrity.

Anonymous said...

wow, my husband & i were recently discussing this very topic and making many of the same points. i'm 29, he's 36, & we both remember getting into bands the same ways you described, through zines (free 7"!), record stores, college radio, word of mouth.. the world felt smaller then, i guess. looking for new music on the internet is kind of overwhelming & even sad to me, actually, especially when so much of it that i hear, frankly, sucks. but that style of music still feels like "home" to me, & recently i went searching on craigslist for potential bandmates (i play bass), but was disheartened by the number of "bands" who consider "indie" a style of dress, something strictly for those under 25, a vehicle to get rich.. few people seem aware of/remember the things you describe. to me there's still something sad about hearing an artist i like in a commercial!

i could go on & on, but anyway, i agree with everything you said, except your posts about radiohead :) only because, strictly looking at their music, they're one of the few contemporary bands/artists i feel write good, non-generic lyrics & music, & i don't feel all of the above is THEIR fault :)

i also wouldn't just assume that every reuniting indie band is only out to get paid -- i prefer to think they're out to show the younger generation how it's done!

oh, & did the pixies ever really break up? i saw them live like 3-4 years ago. unless that was their 1st reunion?