|| Print ||
|Written by Kris Millett|
|Sunday, 02 March 2008 19:00|
“Selling out is doing something you don’t really want to do for money. That’s what selling out is. We asked to be in the ad. We could see where rock music is, fighting for relevance next to Hip-Hop. And I love Hip-Hop. It’s the sound of music getting out of the ghetto, while rock is looking for a ghetto.”
Now who said this? Was it Feist, in defense of her ipod ad? Or was it a statement by the band members of Wilco, for soiling their songs from Sky Blue Sky in Volkswagen commercials? Or was it The Flaming Lips, for the countless ads featuring their songs and/or the band itself?
The comments actually were from Bono, defending the use of his song “Vertigo” in an ipod ad; nonetheless, they would have served as good explanations for all three of the others.
The difference is the fact that Bono is the lead singer of one of the largest rock bands in history. When it comes to commercial success, his only rivals are Mick Jagger, and smut peddler Gene Simmons from KISS. On the other hand, Feist, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips are considered ‘indie’ artists, and are from a camp where ‘selling out’ is the ultimate sin.
Before I have a heart attack over the next ad featuring an artist I love, it might be time to re-examine and awaken to the real meaning of ‘indie’, since the term has so greatly infiltrated popular music, film and fashion, and is used daily by everybody, seemingly without thought.
If you go to Wikipedia, ‘Independent Music’ is defined as “genres, styles characterized by their independence from major commercial record labels, and the autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing”. The post goes on to suggest that indie artists are more concerned with self-expression than commercial considerations. From a sonic perspective, indie artists tend to go against the prevailing trends, aligning themselves with the term ‘Alternative’. We can learn a lot about where indie is today by looking at the trajectory of that particular musical movement.
The term ‘alternative’ was originally used to describe a particular type of underground rock music in the 1980’s that was a direct response to the slick, polished commercial rock and hair metal being churned out by bands like Def Leppard and Journey. Alternative bands went for ‘lo-fi’ production techniques, and rough, visceral recordings that were more representative of what it would actually sound like if you put some guitars, drums and amps in a room. Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü were prime examples of this movement. Alternative also covered jangle-pop inspired by the Beatles and Big Star, which, despite its obvious accessibility, did not enjoy mainstream popularity. This sound was best exemplified by REM and, again, Hüsker Dü (yeah, they pretty much did it all).
By the early 90’s, disaffected teens were realizing that Kurt Cobain, wearing flannel and Chuck Taylors while screaming and abusing his guitar, was way cooler looking and more easy to relate to than, say, Poison, with their spandex and choreographed kick moves. To no one’s surprise, alternative was funneled, against its will, into the mainstream, with Pearl Jam songs replacing Bon Jovi’s as the hockey dressing room pump-up anthems. Major record labels could not believe their good fortune, and began signing as many alternative bands they could find, which wasn’t hard to do since they had no idea what alternative was anyway.
Commercial success and compromises eventually eroded the genre to the point where Hootie and the Blowfish, Matchbox 20, and Creed were considered alternative. (Which is like defining James Blunt’s music as ‘crunk’.)
Looking at a sampling of current indie artists, it becomes apparent that the term ‘indie’, in 2008, is exactly where ‘alternative’ was in 1998: distorted and confused beyond recognition. Here are some of today’s ‘indie’ acts: The Walkmen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Killers, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bright Eyes, Arctic Monkeys, Death Cab for Cutie, Kings of Leon, The White Stripes, Arcade Fire, Wilco, and The Shins.
With the exception of Bright Eyes, how could any one of these groups be considered indie? The Killers, for example, are about as indie as Guns n’ Roses. I cannot imagine how they could sound more shamelessly commercial. They are signed to Island/Universal. They are quite simply NOT indie in any way. Just because you title one of your songs “Glamourous Indie Rock & Roll” does not mean you are any of those things. The Arctic Monkeys were indie when they were burning CDs and giving them away for free; now they are not. Face it guys, you can no longer pass yourselves off as Indie when you’ve signed a publishing deal with EMI. You are now a mainstream rock band, perhaps with more talent and artistic sense than, say, Nickleback, but then again, Nickleback were once indie too. As for the rest of these bands, their inclusion speaks to the fact that in this day and age, despite how you might sound, if you buy your clothes at American Apparel, you too can be considered a groundbreaking indie artist.
So why are bands being categorized as indie when they clearly do not embody the category’s ethos? Well, there is a certain authenticity that comes with ‘indie-ness’, the charm of doing it yourself and sticking it to the man that harkens back to the original appeal of alternative. It appears the record business has misappropriated the term indie in their relentless search for something credible to sell, destroying its notion the same way it did to ‘alternative’ in the 1990’s.
Angry loner and (Cult)ure television critic, Steve Dominey, recently noted that: “Indie movies are also a thing of the past. Major studios are just positioning their movies as indies, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine being the prime examples. Film festivals used to be for indie films, now they’re just a way for the major studios to get award show buzz.”
The sinking elephant that is the record industry appears to have followed suit, vainly positioning the same acts that would have been hair metal in the 80’s and alternative in the 90’s, as indie today. In 1985, a band like The Killers would have had no motivation to disguise themselves as indie because they would have had access to sure-fire outlets, such as rock radio and MTV, for their populist anthems. Today, nobody listens to the radio, and MTV doesn’t show videos anymore. The only point of even making a video would be to get it featured in a commercial. Both Indie artists and performers who only care about selling records find themselves faced with the same choice: Sell-out, or get a day job.
I’m not going to give a sermon on why it is wrong for musicians to license their art to companies. I don’t even know if it is wrong (it just annoys me). It may be a lesser evil (with more upside) than courting radio airplay. As Iggy Pop says, “I hung out with [radio people] for years, doing horrible promo tours where you’d have to sit there and listen to the program director insult you if he wanted. You’d do an acoustic performance for his station, but he’d never play your fucking record. So am I happy to hear my music anywhere? Yeah. I want a wider culture.”
That may be true; nevertheless, the practice of licensing songs to corporations is the opposite of the indie ethos. You cannot enjoy the romance and artistic credibility that comes with indie-dom if you either are signed to a major label, or place your songs in advertisements.
Every successful single of Feist’s has been launched via TV commercials. Her latest album, The Reminder, was tanking until the single “1234” appeared in the ipod ad. Radio re-discovered it, and both the single and album went rushing up the charts.
It is bizarre that an artist like Feist is confused as indie, when you consider what technology has done for actual independent artists. There are people all over the world recording songs in their bedrooms on the cheap, and using the Internet to distribute their music and build a fan base. That is what indie is actually about. And it has never been more alive or underground than it is now. Indie is not a striped top, a blazer and scarf. It is not a plain white T.
Post Script: I’m glad Bono wants rock to be relevant again, but Hip-Hop didn’t become more relevant than rock by selling the most toothpaste or ipods; it became relevant because its songs were an authentic reflection of urban street life in America. Perhaps Bono needs to search somewhere beyond Steve Jobs for inspiration.