by Manning Roberts
Admittedly, I listen to a lot of bands that release albums on indie record labels. But what the hell does indie mean anyway? There are blogs all over the internet devoted to indie music, on top of music magazines and other cultural outlets that basically make up the tastemakers of the world. Is it descriptive of the sound? Does it just mean an artist not signed to EMI or Sony records or Jive or Geffen? With how labels are just part of an umbrella group owned by a larger company, does the term “Major Label” even mean the same thing anymore? Or is it that “indie” just refers to a subculture, with all the attitudes, styles of dress, an affinity for vinyl records (but not necessarily record players to play them), and just really random kitchy knick knacks that seem to pop up more and more near the checkouts and indie (there’s that word again) record stores. Though, I must admit, some of the kitchy knick-knacks are kind of cool – I may have bought a random rubber ducky wearing a yarmulke or a kippa and a cork screw shaped like a penguin, but to be fair, I just really like penguins and I did manage to not buy the spatula shaped like a guitar or the ice cube tray that makes ice cubes in the shape of the Yellow Submarine.
Indie must mean something – after all, we would never mistake Katy Perry for Katie Stelmanis or Stephen Malkmus for one of those guys in Fall Out Boy (by the way, do they still even exist? Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up, they might read this and remember they were in a band once and release something else). There are plenty of bands and artists that you won’t find at Best Buy or Target who nonetheless have very substantial followings. It seems that “indie” has become what “jamband” meant five years ago or so. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s it seemed that any band that played songs that lasted over six minutes or played instrumentals with a tinge of a funk or world-beat groove was slapped with the label “jamband.” Really though, could you really consider Medeski, Martin and Wood to be playing in the same genre as Phish or Widespread Panic? Moe. wasn’t too dissimilar from String Cheese Incident, and String Cheese Incident wasn’t too dissimilar from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, but there’s a definite stylistic disconnect from point A to point B there. But then, they all tended to play the same festivals, and fans of one tended to be fans of the other. So it is with “indie” now. James Blake is of a completely different spectrum than John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, but fans of one seem to often be fans of the other (feel free to plug in other bands). Maybe it’s because both have albums that Pitchfork called one of the year’s best.
So it seems that maybe it really is just a product of a more general subculture, or of a scene. I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but it can get confusing. How many of you reading this article have stared blankly at your computer screen trying to figure out what to put in the “genre” blank on your iTunes? The problem that I see is that more and more music lovers spend more and more time focusing on what genre a particular artist falls in to. There are some distinct differences sure, we know punk rock when we hear Descendents or Government Issue, we know Talib Kweli is a hip-hop artist and that Strapping Young Lad plays metal (we won’t get into the gazillion subgenres of metal here, that’s a whole ‘nother pot of fun). But is there ever really a need to argue that James Blake isn’t really dubstep, or that you can’t really call the Arcade Fire “indie” anymore because they won a Grammy?
It becomes a problem when we get into the “poseur dilemma.” Did you like the band before their breakthrough? No, well then you suck. What? Look we’re all a little guilty of this from time to time, and no one likes a bandwagon jumper, whether it be in music or in sports, but creating this sort of automatic disqualifier is pointless and not all that fair. Have you ever heard people arguing over what qualifies as “real” hip-hop or “real” punk rock? Don’t lie, of course you have. You probably walked away, unless you had been drinking, and then against your better judgment you jumped in to argue that Evanescence is a metal band (God I hope you didn’t actually do that). But really, we don’t gain anything arguing over who is really “indie” and who isn’t, especially when it doesn’t seems all that clear what “indie” means. Sure, someone signed to Matador or Sub Pop will probably be labeled “indie.” But both of those labels are pretty big now, or at least very well known. There are oodles of little punk labels out there that seem to fit the definition of “indie” more that Matador or Sub Pop. But then, in the punk world we tend to call it DIY.
What it boils down to is this: we love music, and it’s fantastic that there are so many devoted fans out there how take their passion so seriously. But in the end, it’s music, and it’s subjective, and it ruins the fun when everybody gets so damn serious about it. Can we really sum up an album by giving it four stars out of five, or an eight on a scale of one to ten? Not really. I think we’re starting to take things too seriously, and I’d hate to think that anyone might miss out on a band they might otherwise really love if it wasn’t for the fact that some magazine only gave them two stars, one reviewer really didn’t like the record, or because everybody else seems to classify them as a type of music that just doesn’t fit with the rest of their “musical identity.” In the end, having a “musical identity” in the first place is a manifestation of the basic evil of having a closed mind.