The Quiet Death of Indie Rock

Of the surest barometers that an event has made it — including high-gloss posters, traffic re-routing, prices that look like my golf scores — none in Boston is greater than an unbathed, string-haired man wearing a beaten Sox hat and two pieces of posterboard linked by cord, handing out pamphlets predicting the Last Judgement.

We know him as Jesus Man. If he has a name, he has probably resigned it. But his purpose — to hand out pamphlets predicting the Last Judgement and urging you to seek Christ, lest your loins be barbecued — is enough. Say what you want about his mission. But his business sense is peculiarly shrewd.

He’s at nearly every Sox home game, planted on Brookline Ave. with pamphlet-hand outstretched as a sea of red-clad fans rolls past him. Occasionally, because of the thrust of the pack, an errant game-goer must take the Brochures of the Savior. It’s not clear where Jesus Man goes after the first pitch. But it doesn’t matter. His job is done, personal salvation or not.

But his presence signifies more than a simple, trifling annoyance (or chance to be saved, if you look at it that way). His being somewhere means that the event will draw the most people in Boston that evening, and thus the most targets for brochure-handing. As such, he’s indirectly A-list, in a backdoor sort of way. Not invited to the biggest events, but somehow (actually, probably via T) there. And on a frozen night in the winter, amidst a flood of humanity that had yet to assume its full thrust, he stood under a marquee at the Opera House, on which flashing lights advertised a twin bill of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and Death Cab for Cutie. 

On a night when the Celtics were also playing, Jesus Man chose a bill that, 40 months ago, would have drawn almost exclusively fanatics, and would have been staged as much cozier venue.

But when we can still categorize Death Cab as indie rock or indie pop, the definition of the musical genre dissolves. At its most elemental state, ‘indie’ refers, of course, to ‘independent,’ as in music produced outside the purported dictatorial grasp of major labels (or any label, with luck) or films produced outside of studios. But its semantics morphed, coming to represent a certain ethos of freedom and experimentation in the genre, a rawness that was always imminently susceptible to a sponsor’s intervention.

And indie rock as we knew it, as we felt it, has died. The internet has provided a medium for virtually unlimited, unchecked expression between directly connected fans. Music is alive. Much of it, most of it, is still independent. But as indie rock veers into the mainstream and labels look to the area that was once the fringe, the genre has become fractured.

 

Any art form (or any practice, for that matter) that exists on the edge — more, because of the edge — such as shock art, extreme sports or indie/alt rock must always lean ever edge-ward. If the ultimate goal is to find an audience that exists on the fringe and really speak to it (whatever that means), it’s always an inevitable and endless chase. The Mass of the Acceptable, or The Swell of the Mainstream, pushes inevitably outward, bleeding over those edges and making them firm ground upon which the common man (again, whatever that means) stands. When the going gets weird, Hunter Thompson said, the weird turn pro. And the more pro that weird becomes, the more weird has to get weirder. Extreme sports like skateboarding on half-pipes turns into double back-flips with motorcycles off ramps to heaven. Shock art, like blood smeared or moustaches drawn on a facsimile of a classic painting, becomes statues composed of pubic hair. And indie rock, as slippery as any other genre, has become just as fragmented, powered by an system, in the internet, that allows individual tastes to prevail over those of groups.

All variables (talent, demographic, etc.) equal, edge in art is a bell-curve, casting the edginess on the x-axis and the audience on the Y. Big-band music, circa the 30’s, registers the same edginess as a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder bread. But as we get a little edgier, say Buddy Holly or Elvis, listenership grows across all fronts. We peak around the Beatles to the Stones to, say, the Chili Peppers. We slide down the slope a bit to the tune of the Velvet Underground and, now, something like the Strokes. When you reach the spot occupied by Modest Mouse (at least the recent Mouse, post-Float On), there’s still enough of a listenership. But the further you go toward the edge, the more the audience shrinks. Still, there’s a compulsion among people toward those extremes, whether to satisfy a compulsion/addiction, fill a niche or add a mark of distinction to their personalities. It’s like drug usage, where people get the logic to call pot a Gateway Drug (it probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter — just follow the logic). As the regular stuff gets boring, people will seek the harder stuff. Granted, it takes a certain type person to do that, but more than enough seem to be more than willing to explore those boundaries.

Consider porn. The demand for regular, man-woman porn is so large that we have to use scientific notation. But there’s also a market for cheerleaders. Or baby-sitters. Or 300-pounders. And group sex, using all permutations of men and women. Here, we’re sliding down the curve again, though it’s more sticky this time. But as viewers become less satisfied with lame-old man-woman missionary, a position as staid and revered as Jane Austen, they’ll shy from the masses. They’ll move past baby-sitters neglecting their duties to the children and step, sometimes not so warily, into the domain of geriatrics. Or Midgets. They may continue on the thinning course toward snuff. Or animals. Or produce. Each step more toward the edge cuts at the viewership, to the point where some niches (maybe someone dressed as Stalin raping a watermelon dressed as Mussolini, which, in turn is stuck inside a sheep) serve a dozen or fewer twisted spectators.

Recent cultural phenomena, from Myspace to Garden State (did “New Slang” really change your life?) to The O.C. (bless its soul), effectively bloated music’s bell curve, keeping the left arc in the same place but moving the right portion further to the right. Suddenly, bands like Death Cab, Bloc Party, Louis XIV and Modest Mouse began to accrue followings. Seth’s poster on the wall of DCfC’s ‘Transatlanticism’ must’ve gotten Gibbard and the boys a few thousand more fans at concerts. And it still should blow everyone’s skulls that Modest Mouse, that most impossibly strange of bands and certainly one of the coolest, has gone platinum. A few years ago, they were releasing “Doin’ the Cockroach,” which has a bridge that sounds like the band’s jamming on blenders and playing bass guitars with other bass guitars, and claims that “Dogs eat their own shit, we’re doin’ the cockroach, yeah.” But when Modest Mouse sells a million records, the bell curve is bloated like Brando.

We can argue all you want (ooh, use the comments section!) about the merits of music like that becoming popular, throwing out words like ‘selling-out,’ or ‘co-opting,’ or ‘douchebags’ (the last one just for fun). I personally think it’s a good thing; better to have the Shins on the radio than boy bands, I say. But that’s not the point of this tangent. The point is to show that, in a polemic move, fringe bands have gone more or less mainstream. Some have compromised. Some haven’t. Inevitably, the pretentious hipster band-leeches Who Were There From the Start You Poseurs lament the fact that their band isn’t theirs anymore, that it belongs to the world and they can’t use it as a cachet to increase their hipster cred.

But they do have a point. Hype has made good bands, once safe in the forgiving threshold of indie rock, susceptible to hype. A truly great — really spectacular — album has not arrived since The Arcade Fire’s “Funeral.” Follow-up albums for The Arcade Fire, The Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bloc Party, the Decemberists and, to some extent, Modest Mouse all fell short of the hype. They were all pretty good or better. But not epic. In place of the bumper crop of albums we had in 2004-05, we have imitations, re-iterations of what made these bands popular. Death Cab’s “Plans” lacked the rock backbone that the Seattle quartet always conveys in concert, going with songs that sounded like the softer, more accessible ones from Transatlanticism — like “Lack of Color,” “Title and Registration” — appealed to the fans that whisked them away to popularity.

Now, I liked “Plans,” giving up my old-fan bias after bunch of listens. But the Shins did the same thing with “Wincing the Night Away,” to less success. Each track seems to play into that sort of airy, floating feel they achieved so splendidly with “New Slang,” by far the group’s most popular song. Some songs work well. Others are unimpressive, as the band abandoned its reckless, kooky style that was so rampant on the prior two albums. Maybe it’s a good, young band growing up. Maybe not.

It’s unfair to comment based on taste, which I’ve done a bit. But of the people I’ve talked to about the follow-up albums, almost everyone seems unilaterally disappointed. It’s not because the bands started to suck — each album would have been pretty great, had it been the one that came in 04-05. But hype, that dreaded machine, has crept in, pressuring indie rock bands to achieve this constant, yet unpredictable brilliance, an impossible expectation. As it does so, it removes that first word. It is not independent of anything, as we start to own the band, yet paradoxically expect them to be above our influence.

Now, in this time of near-meritocracy, as the best indie rock bands ascend to popularity and the others languish in niches, we lack a middle, that precious middle fringe that once united us.

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