Front Page Reviews & AIR

The King is Dead - What About the Kingdom? (Pt. 2)

Illustration by Kathleen Fulton
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(Miss Part 1?  Read it here.)

 

Something filled up my heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry
Now that I'm older, my heart's colder
And I can see that it's a lie

- Arcade Fire, “Wake Up,” Funeral

 

William: “What do you love about music?”

Russell: “To begin with..., everything.”

- Almost Famous

 

Let’s Talk About Funeral

To begin with, I’d like to give an example of what I love about music, because that’s really what this is about for me – loving rock music.  It has spoken to me so many times in my life in a way that nothing else really can.  It has been the soundtrack to moments of communal free-riding joy, as well as long contemplative solo car trips.  It has been a nostalgic friend in confusing times, as well as a challenging voice pushing me forward.  It has found me in times of sorrow and need, and lifted me up toward a greater understanding of that suffering.  It has been the cheesy soundtrack to a 5th grade roller-skating party and the irresistible force that led me to confront the biggest questions in life.  Yes.  Rock music has done all these things for me.  This is why I care.  This is why I argue.  This is why I keep listening.  I want to be moved.  I want to be inspired.

When I was young, I felt things very strongly.  I dealt with the pain of rejection, the joy of first love, the fear of inadequacy, the frustration of powerlessness.  All of these feelings seemed important, meaningful.  But as I grew up, I began to feel a tension between what I felt and what I was told to believe about those feelings: my feelings are nothing more than chemical reactions, that “who I am” is something predetermined by DNA.  If that were actually the case, it seemed my choices – if they could even be called choices – didn’t ultimately matter.  I began to question whether the meaning my feelings seemed to carry was real or imagined.  Were those feelings even real?  And I’ve spent the greater part of my adulthood carrying that tension, struggling not to succumb – like so many of us ultimately do – to some form of numbness.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this stark contradiction between what I feel and what I’m told to believe about those feelings.  And somewhere deep in the subconscious of young America, I’d like to think there is a rebellion going on.  There is a question that has become obvious, but which gets asked only very rarely.  To ask it at all has become a rebellious act.  The question: If none of these feelings are real, if none of this matters, why does it FEEL like it DOES?  I feel kinda naïve even putting it in writing.  Can you ask this question without getting laughed at?  The fear of ridicule is so strong, especially when you’re young.  And so, even though the unspoken answers to this unspoken question are rarely satisfying, we go along with them anyway.  Then, when someone actually asks the question, it stands out.  And hearing someone actually attempt an explicit answer becomes downright shocking.  But there I was, as a 26-year-old in 2004, listening to the defiant opening lines of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” (from their debut LP, Funeral).  They burst out with a fundamental message that refused to be ignored:  I’m human!  I’m alive!  I FEEL things!  And that MEANS SOMETHING!

Funeral (2004) was a turning point for me.  It was an arrival – the opening statement from a new generation of rock artists who weren’t afraid to confront the question.  The album repeatedly returns to the theme of “us kids,” full of big feelings with no place to put them.  Parents, adults, and the culture at large seem to be out to quell these feelings, to put them in their place, and yet the feelings persist, growing ever stronger:

It’s not a lover I want no more

And it’s not heaven I’m pining for

But there’s some spirit I used to know

That’s been drowned out by the radio

- “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”

The overall effect of “Kettles”, “Power Out”, “Crown of Love”, “Rebellion”, and “Tunnels” was to build that tunnel from their window to mine.  To circumvent all of the naysaying others out there and speak directly to “us kids,” to tell me that my feelings do mean something.  In “Wake Up”, I heard a call to action (Children, wake up! Before they turn the summer into dust!) as well as an urgent reminder of the danger I’d be in if I forgot the way I was feeling (Children, don’t grow up! Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up!).  It was one of those rare moments when rock music reminded me that I wasn’t alone.  Someone else was feeling these things too.  It was OK to feel the contradictions.  I could forget about those people who “told me not to cry.”  The important thing was to hold on to the question – and to hold on to the feelings.  For me, this was rock music at its best.  Finding Funeral made five years of groping in the dark for new music seem worthwhile.

 

Remember these kids?

 

The album struck a chord with a lot of people.  It never went #1, but it was amazingly beloved.  I believe this was because it opened up that well in people like it did in me, a well that had been covered over for too long.  All of a sudden, it became OK, even cool, to express sincere emotion, to ask big questions, and to search for some sort of meaning.  Other indie-darling albums of the time began to reflect this as well (Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, The National’s Alligator), and so did a whole crop of new indie artists who were proudly wearing their collective hearts on their sleeves.  For a brief few years (roughly from Funeral up through 2008’s breakthroughs for Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver), Funeral’s brand of un-ironic, thought-provoking, emotional rock intersected with what happened to be cool.  But over the last few years, a new generation of indie taste-makers have performed a reactionary backpedal and moved on.  Still, people like me who were deeply affected by Arcade Fire have continued to seek out music that taps into that well, music that goes digging for some answers, music that, at the very least, continues to ask the question.

 

How “Indie Rock” Ruined Indie Rock

 

I never try that much

‘Cause I’m scared of feeling

- Dinosaur Jr., “Severed Lips”, Dinosaur Jr.

 

I’m using the word “indie” here a lot, but what does indie even mean?  The term as it is used today has its roots in the 1980s, when countless independent rock labels were started by people for whom there was no place in the mainstream rock world of Motley Crue and Bon Jovi.  Indie labels were a place where the evil majors couldn’t tell you what to do or force you to “sell out.”  The indie ethos in the 80s was consciously separatist and anti-mainstream.  Mainstream rock was filled with meticulous over-production, and so indie music went intentionally sloppy and lo-fi.  Mainstream rock was filled with pompous virtuosity, so indie music countered with bare simplicity.  Mainstream rock lyrics were filled with mind-numbing clichés sung with hopelessly fake sincerity, so indie music moved towards nonsensical lyrics delivered with ironic, mumbled nonchalance.  While all this made for very clear lines between indie and mainstream, the obvious conundrum for indie music was that it began to mirror the mainstream, with its own set of rigid guidelines and restrictions.  Bands like Sonic Youth and (later) Pavement struggled with the tension of being really talented musicians who had to appear as though they weren’t in order to maintain their indie credibility.

The lines between indie and mainstream became increasingly blurred in the 90s.  For one thing, a middle ground between them, a little something called “alternative” music (populated largely by bands on major label vanity subsidiaries), began to increase in popularity.  And then, after hair metal played itself out and Nirvana hit big, all kinds of alternative and indie bands (and moguls) got a shot at the mainstream.  But it wasn’t long before the mainstream corporate powers co-opted the “alternative revolution” of the 90s and ran it into the ground.  After that, in the late 90s and into the early 2000s, a new generation of indie bands and labels emerged, but this time there was virtually no mainstream rock to rebel against or define itself against.  The radio waves were ruled by pop and hip hop with only the odd mainstream rock act even in the Top 40 mix; hardly enough to warrant a rebellion.  Without much mainstream rock around to define what indie couldn’t be, a much more diverse indie scene emerged than had existed in the 80s.

By the turn of the millennium, there were a number of artists being considered “indie” that were just about as far as you could get from the sloppy nonchalance of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., or Pavement.  There was the earnest songcraft and production of Low (a Mormon married couple!), the thoughtful and polite (but blatantly poppy) Death Cab for Cutie, the storytelling nerdiness of the Decemberists, as well as the numerous new twists on the Dylanesque tradition (Elliot Smith, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bright Eyes, Iron and Wine) which became known collectively as “indie folk”.  Even pop/rock bands like The Strokes and The Killers were sometimes called “indie”, simply because they had some semblance of artistic integrity.

 

Low

 

All of these artists were initially embraced by the indie scene; the fact that most had no connection to the major labels was enough to get them in the door.  But they never really fit the old 80s definition of the indie ethos, and eventually the indie purists who defined “indie” by those terms were going to have a hard time with them.  Then, quite unexpectedly, these artists began to bring a huge influx of new fans into the indie scene, fans who had no preconceived idea of what “indie” was supposed to be, fans who just loved all of this new music that was being called by that name.  It was only a matter of time before these new fans exponentially outnumbered the purists and artists like Arcade Fire, The National, Sufjan Stevens, and the Decemberists began to actually sell records and make careers for themselves.  And that pretty much brings us up to now, as these artists have become the face of “indie” to the oblivious mainstream – to the horror of indie purists.  Arcade Fire’s Grammy victory was, in many ways, a culmination of what they started with Funeral.  And the growing popularity of these “indie” bands that don’t fit the old indie ethos has caused a rift in the indie scene that is reaching a breaking point.

 

Fashion, Trends, and Buzz Bands

A 2009 Pitchfork articleby Nitsuh Abebe gives a fascinating account of indie’s journey into the mainstream.  He speaks of “indie” moving in cycles and reactions, describing how late-90s indie reacted against “brash, masculine grunge” and “blocky, bright, ironic pop” by being “quiet, wry, quaint, imaginative, thoughtful, nice.”  He talks about how these attitudes felt fresh at the time, and how over the decade they began to feel stale, especially as the mainstream began to use them as a signifier for the “indie sensibility” – you know, like all the hip, sensitive, quirky Mark Ruffalo-type characters that started to appear in every movie last decade (as well as all the TV commercials featuring vaguely “indie” types to show how hip the products are).  Abebe makes some really good points here.  By the late 2000s, you kind of just wanted to take every cutesy, precious, Feist/Joanna Newsom wanna-be and smash their ukulele into a million pieces.  That being said, I don’t want to smash Joanna’s harp.  It’s like when I used to go to open mics circa 1999.  I heard so many really (and really) bad Ani DiFranco wanna-bes that I had a hard time figuring out what was good about Ani DiFranco herself.  However, I soon figured out that these girls were imitating the superficial things – the Ani voice, the percussive guitar style – when that’s not what made Ani DiFranco good.  She not only had a unique voice, she had unique voice.  There is a difference between trendy fashion and the true art that it imitates.  The problem with so much of the last decade’s “wry”, “quirky”, “sensitive”, and “nice” indie music was that it didn’t seem real.  It seemed like an act.  This is a direct result of the fact that certain styles had become popular, and many artists were seeking to emulate the original artists that had made it popular. 

 

Do you really want to buy a computer from someone

who doesn’t even know who the New Pornographers are?

 

We’ve seen this type of imitation over and over throughout rock history.  What’s unsettling about the current indie scene is that people are trying to discredit the originators for the sins of their imitators.  As far as I can tell, Arcade Fire have not changed their approach since Funeral.  I thought Neon Bible and The Suburbs were natural progressions for them.  However, because they spawned so many un-original, not-so-good “collective” bands to jump around on stage like they’re so meaningful, Arcade Fire themselves have now fallen out of favor with the indie elites.  Here’s the thing, though: this type of imitation is exactly what happens when a culture becomes overly obsessed with trends and what the latest, hippest thing is.  The “latest, hippest thing” always turns into the “trendy, fashionable thing” eventually, and then it turns into yesterday’s news.  Simply following the trends – or even self-consciously trying to innovate and stay ahead of the trends – only leads to dissatisfaction.  If you like things based on their hipness, there will always be something newer, fresher, cooler to come along and make you disown all the stuff you liked five years ago.  And yet there are people who treat their music this way.  What this sort of thinking fails to account for is the possibility that there is music (or art in general) that is actually timeless, music that succeeds on its own merits, aside from what genre or trend it may fall into.  When music succeeds on this level, it is because of its originality.  The problem with this word is that it is often interpreted to mean “it doesn’t sound like anything else.”  But in my mind, truly original music doesn’t just succeed because of an originality of sound; it is because of the originality of voice.  This tends to manifest itself not only in a unique artistic vision, but also in a confident sincerity, a belief that what you have to express is something of inherent value – if only because you are a unique human being.

Abebe’s article tends to emphasize the trends in indie rock: the reactions, the innovation, the genre-bending, the genre-creating, etc.  I find all of this interesting, as I think a lot of people do, but I think there can be too much focus on this stuff.  New genres and sub-genres don’t necessarily lead to new voices, the type of originality that I heard on Funeral.  But Abebe doesn’t seem as interested in new voices as he is in new sounds, new genres.  His piece ends with excitement at the prospect of someone blending screamo and Animal Collective.  All this is kind of lost on me, as are the references to “new electro”, “dance punk”, “French house”, etc.  They’re just names.  Unless they also lead to original artistic voices, I have trouble paying attention to them, especially when so many of the indie taste-makers are becoming increasingly focused on these (and countless other) sub-genres while “mainstream indie,” as Abebe says, is “left to run its course.”

In the end, Abebe notices the same tensions I have talked about here, between what he calls “mainstream indie” and the “weirder, rowdier sounds.”  He sees the tension as something natural and good, something that has happened before and will happen again.  He thinks that the tension will give rise to more genre-bending and experimentation, which will be fun for all of us.  He sees this as the point of indie music, an end in itself.  I don’t see it that way.  I enjoy music on a few different levels:  There is stuff that’s pure fun – catchy, infectious, etc.  There’s also the stuff Abebe is talking about, the more experimental stuff, which I love listening to for new sounds, new approaches, a fresh way of looking at the creative process.  But for me, there’s a third level, the truly timeless stuff that hits me on a visceral level, the way Funeral did.  It taps into that well bubbling beneath the surface, the one we’re often afraid to touch, where feelings mean something real and what we do actually matters.  In Abebe’s world, however, there are no such distinctions.  It’s all equal.  The problem with people like Abebe equating all these levels of listening is that we end up with things like Pitchfork giving a “Best New Music” review (and A-list celebrity coverage) to a band called Wavves, who are known for inventing the new “chillwave” genre.  Wavves appeal is clearly on the “pure fun” level, yet they are taken seriously like a band that has something profound to say.  Which, um, they don’t.

 

No confirmation on whether Wavves have left this

couch since this picture was taken last year

 

So, we’re here at the dawn of this new decade, and it appears that “indie” has gone in two opposite directions.  People really are choosing sides and getting passionate about what “indie” should be.  On the one hand, a lot of late-2000s “indie-pop” was as ironic as its name.  All of the cutesy voices, twinkling instruments, and nice little melodies had become almost a self-aware parody of those things, and proof that the artists weren’t taking themselves so seriously.  A lot of the earnestness seemed to be fake earnestness, the lyrics ironic and misleading, the instruments not so well played.  The old 80s indie virtues were returning: the irony, the apathy.  Wavves are also the perfect example of the reaction against “mainstream indie.”  Where mainstream indie is known for being “thoughtful,” “polite,” and “imaginative,” Wavves are the opposite: dumb and rude, with an imagination that typically fails to extend beyond wondering where the next joint is going to come from.

On the other hand, a lot of indie bands chose to follow their own muse, turning their back on the genre-labeling and the buzz-band mentality in favor of cultivating a more real and lasting career for themselves.  Menomena’s Mines (2010) was the most original rock album of the year, a great achievement for a band once known for their gimmicks.  And, even though it didn’t bring them chart success, it greatly broadened their audience and set them up to be in it for the long haul (as soon as they find a new keyboardist).  Vampire Weekend went from debuting with 2008’s most over-hyped indie album to having a #1 album in 2010 with Contra, an album that channeled their quirkiness, catchiness, and sincerity into a pop masterpiece.  And here in 2011, The Decemberists got into the act as well, dropping the now-perceived-as-gimmicky stylings of their previous work to pursue something un-ironic and maybe even timeless on The King is Dead.  While the record doesn’t always succeed, it stands out for this ambition, and The Decemberists were rewarded with a debut atop the charts.

Personally, I don’t really care how “indie” is defined or what that term ends up meaning.  I think the battle is over anyway.  To me, bands like Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, The National, The Decemberists, etc. don’t even fall in the “indie” category anymore.  I think this is a good thing.  I think a third category is emerging between mainstream “radio rock” and “indie”.  It will probably get a name, and I don’t really care what it’s called (as long as it’s not “Hot AC”).  Indie can go along promoting sub-genres and buzz bands in isolation from the mainstream, and that’s fine.  My concern in this whole thing is the music, the music that I talked about at the beginning.  Remember all that business about how we’re told that nothing means anything?  And how Arcade Fire reminded us that we have feelings and that they do mean something?  And how they dared to ask the question?  And I told you about how much music has meant to me over the years (roller skating and road trips ringing a bell?), and how I want to be moved and inspired?  Now that’s the stuff I care about.

 

Choosing Sides: It’s Not About “Indie” Anymore

 

“The music divides us into tribes

Choose your side, I’ll choose my side”

- Arcade Fire, “Suburban War”, The Suburbs

 

In January, right around the time my wife and I went to see the Decemberists, my hometown Boston arts mag, The Phoenix,published a cover article called “How the Decemberists Ruined Indie Rock” by Luke O’Neil.  At first glance, the importance of this piece is easy to miss – it’s poorly written, self-contradictory, lazy, and only a short two pages – yet it gets at the heart of everything I’ve been talking about.  O’Neil bemoans the fact that indie rock has become “less about rocking out, fucking around, and having fun and more and more about caring about shit.”  In the last line of the article, he takes refuge in the fact that “this shit will cycle around and we’ll get back to music that means something: music that doesn’t mean anything.”  This wouldn’t be as worrisome to me if I didn’t feel like this attitude explained so much of what I’ve been seeing (and hearing) in the indie scene over the last few years.  I think this feeling is more pervasive than just one snarky Phoenix writer, and I think that’s a bad thing for the future of rock music.  Over the last decade, indie rock seemed to be the only place where rock music could actually “mean something.”  And O’Neil’s rant is more than just the old “sellout” name-calling (which wouldn’t even make any sense with the bands in question, seeing as there doesn’t seem to be any loss of creative control or lucrative multi-million-dollar deals).  It’s about something different.  It’s a charge that brings into question the very validity of art in general, and rock music in particular.

What does it mean for music to “mean something” anyway?   That’s a complex and loaded question.  And I think the best way for me to approach it is to briefly talk about my own listening experience.  What I’ve always recoiled from in pop music and pop/rock is the inherent cynicism involved; crafting something with the sole purpose of selling it.  Trying to say only what you think people want to hear.  To me, the problem with a really cheesy pop love song is not the clichéd sentiments that it expresses, it’s the fact that the creators of the song only used those clichéd sentiments because they felt that they could manipulate people’s heartstrings into buying some records.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of artists that write their own songs and fall into the same trap, sometimes without even realizing it.  But I’ve always sought out another kind of music, the kind where the magic is.  And that magic comes from the feeling that you’re hearing an original voice, a real fellow human soul, with something to say.  And I don’t mean a “message”.  That something could be a cry of pain, a shout of joy, a solemn whisper, a mournful guitar note, a visceral backbeat – anything, as long as it rings true.  True in a way that goes beyond the purely fun or cerebral enjoyment of music to that deeper place that moves and inspires me.  That is the place I hold most dear, and only a rare musical companion forces their way in.

 

Us kids know…

 

From an early age, this was how I saw the dichotomy of rock music: there was the fake stuff, and there was the real stuff.  Obviously what music falls into what category is going to be a subjective business, but on some level, most of the music fans I knew were – consciously or subconsciously – making these kinds of judgments.  And, for me, the best indie music of the last decade was the real stuff.  In a time where the mainstream was more vapid than ever, there were some amazing original voices out there, and they were actually starting to get heard.  In the last couple of years, however, the indie scene has begun rejecting these artists.  The new breed of indie rock is more about “personal branding” than it is about an original voice.  It has become, at least in this way, just as calculated as pop music.  The posturing of Wavves seems just as contrived to me as the posturing of 80s hair bands – it is the marketing of an attitude, a “lifestyle brand” that appeals to a certain low common denominator of a certain demographic.  The only thing that makes Wavves “indie” and Motley Crue “pop” is that the indie demographic is much, much smaller. 

Most importantly, though, O’Neil’s “meaning-something-by-not-meaning-anything” line raises another possibility altogether: maybe there isn’t any such thing as “meaning something.”  Maybe nothing really “means anything.”  Maybe none of it is true.  Maybe this is the point of his article and the point of the similar sentiments I see in the indie rock scene.  I hear O’Neil telling us to embrace the numbness.  And the worst part is that he doesn’t even own up to it, he doesn’t own his own comments, because then he’d lose his ironic safety net.  But I’m calling him on that shit right now.  I’m going to make him own it, because what he’s really saying goes against everything I’ve always treasured about music.  He talks about wanting to go out “with your bros and get wasted,” and how annoying it is when the bar is “rocking the Bon Iver station on Pandora.”  Is this because Bon Iver might make him think too much about his “Emma”, forever ago, when he might have so naively thought that he was really in love, and that that meant something?  So when he talks about his “electro, laptop lo-fi, chillwave, superstar DJs, and whatever other bullshit genre we’re about to hype next week,” I can’t help but see the appeal of these things as being diversionary – the conduits of a zoned-out, all-encompassing numbness designed to keep those real feelings at bay just a little while longer.  Maybe by touting artists like Wavves as something to be taken seriously, he can persuade people that what really “means something” in life is being bored, jacking off, playing video games and smoking as much weed as you can get your hands on without having to get a real job.  And the more people he might convince, the less he’ll have to worry about bands like Arcade Fire getting in his face and opening up that well again.  Maybe then he can close that well for good, and he won’t ever have to worry again about things “meaning something.”

 

 

But the thing is, the well can’t be closed for good.  No matter how hard we might try.  Despite the backlash, this music is finding its audience, and it will continue to do so.  It has nothing to do with genres.  It has nothing to do with “indie”.  As long as we are human and we have feelings, ideas, and emotions that need to get out, we will continue to respond to music that touches those things inside us.  Maybe Win Butler doesn’t have all the answers – I know I certainly don’t – but all the best art has always been the stuff that at least asks the questions, the stuff that opens up the well.  And as popular culture (including “indie” culture) keeps pushing us toward a state of total numbness, the need is greater than ever for music that is up to the challenge of waking us up, as Arcade Fire told us, “before they turn the summer into dust.”  So you can snicker, call me naïve, and take away my “cool kid” credentials (if I ever had them), but I’ll continue to love rock music that can move and inspire me.  Maybe my feelings are just chemical reactions, or something to do with the “collective unconscious.”  But maybe, as “that awful Mumford and Sons turd” (as O’Neil calls him) sings through the Starbucks speakers:

There is a design, an alignment, a cry

Of my heart to see

The beauty of love as it was made to be

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