So that Arcade Fire won a grammy, right? For album of the year, no less. And I suppose that's a worthy benediction for the once-artful romance of music. I mean, what else was there to give an award to? Lady Gaga? Katy Perry? Does anybody really take this stuff seriously anymore?
Since the onslaught of emo music in the early 2000s, while I was in high school, I've been watching the steady devolution of pop from a rigid, monolithic structure to a screaming quorum of hedge-bets and has-beens. With rapidly decreasing traditional record sales, the transition from music as populist rejoinder to a cataclysmic divider has been thorough and remains unfinished. Perhaps, as I am afraid to believe, it will never be finished, like fashion (goddamn social network). This shattering of "music" as we know it in America has come largely thanks to the networking and layering/defining of social life, strictly upon our faith in the omniscient god-machine, life-sustainer and social differential engine.
The parallel is simple to see, but why would anybody want to see it. "Indie music" has come at a time when we are all worried about our social lives more than we're worried about war or recession (do you remember we're still in two wars and a recession?). The varied styles of indie music cater to those who would benefit most from their promise of distance; very different from how emo music assured that all of us have our hearts on our sleeves and we're really all emotionally stunted and clueless, all of us together yearning to be understood. Rather terrifically, and terribly, emo music was firmly supplanted by that it is opposed to; instead of us wanting to be one and together sharing the same depression, now we all want to be islands with our own musical fortresses. I knew Eminem's story arc before his second album came out, and I'm still surprised he hasn't shot himself like Kobain did.
Regardless, I hold indie music at arm's length. There was a time when I unhesitatingly dismissed it as the bastard child of an ignorant college culture, jacked-up on that sweet social cocaine the internet has brought to the party. It brought forth that old proverb: the more we find ourselves closer together, the further apart we feel. Indie music fills that gap created by our sudden connectedness, rewards us for our quirkiness, our apart-ness, our difference. It claims at once that this is both unifying yet preserving of individualism, much like the internet has converted us to be. Everyone to us is a node in a network, unique but connected. Personalized in a standardized fashion. When we all moved from myspace to facebook, we were giving up the confusing and eye-bleeding realm of oversaturated customization hacks while we were walking into seemingly the promised land: a world where we had to compensate for the sameness of our profile pages with the flamboyancy and transparency of our status updates. Indie music and revelatory statuses have become the fetish of under-30 socialites.
People often hate the very term "indie music" because it suggests a unity to its much-fought-for disorder. To the lovers of that stratification, there is no finer debate than how my Arcade Fire is different from your Vampire Weekend. Furthermore, but past us now, is the debate about how your Billboard 40 band is inferior to my unknown no-label Ohio-based band. I went out to see them live, they played at a bar in Delaware, and I was one of five people who watched. What I don't think indie music fans have realized yet is that their music is approaching the very populist "make blander records to sell more of them" attitude their genre has rallied against, and Arcade Fire stealing a Grammy from the clutches of Eminem and Lady Gaga is not vindication, but reverse-psychology from the old guard. By winning a Grammy, Arcade Fire (and consequently indie music as a style) has been signified as "popular enough to win an award", which is very much not the same as "good enough to win an award", even though nobody has ever heard of them. The move shows nothing less than the music industry's first attempts to steal back music itself from the clutches of iTunes and Pitchfork. (Pitchfork said indie music was dead a year ago, btw.)
As I implied earlier, my blantant hatred of indie music is a past-tense statement. I don't really hate it anymore, it's just not my taste and I don't really believe in it as a social construct, and I can't blame it for what it is. Indie music is simply the natural progression, the next step towards the democratization of culture as a whole, moreso than just from "popular" to "niche". Niche culture has always existed, but it is indie music that has seemingly tried to elevate niche culture as the only culture in music. Such an idea is inherently contradictory and cannot be sustained, therefore niche itself must sell out. We have successfully entered and are hopefully now exiting the false theory of "you must be small and unknown to be a good band" in contemporary music.
Think of it this way: when Bruce Springsteen (the Boss) signed to a major record label, it didn't stop him from writing and singing about being a goalless, whiney white teenager in suburban New Jersey, and in doing so win the collective hearts of American listeners. His music was so intensely popular while being blindingly awesome that very few understood the psychological depth wrought within his words. Can Arcade Fire say the same? The priorities are grossly misplaced by the artist and the audience to the detriment of an artform. This isn't an indictment or judgement so much as a cultural observation, and I hope you don't find that idea confusing.
What I'm particularly excited about is the time when this happens to the film industry. Because it's coming soon. Indie music rose to popularity because it reached a critical mass of accessibility and triviality. Thanks to the internet, anybody can make music with GarageBand (or the good pirated shit) and a $100 guitar from ebay, and you don't need to know how to sing or write lyrics as long as it's catchy and somebody can relate to it. Is that such a bad thing? Certainly not, but it can be. As I've often said, while there is democratization, there is also no vanguard and no curation. And I am of the firm belief that there can be no real art without criticism and curation. Anyway, the time is coming quickly as the declining price of 1080p-shooting, gorgeous DSLRs overwhelm the fast-dying metallurgy of film. With it (and again, thanks to the internet) has come a new wave of independently-produced hand-made and backyard-staged cinema that looks just as good as the old stuff. My sincere hope is that unlike what happened in music, this new movie production model focuses on quality over quantity.
Lastly, I chose Arcade Fire as a name-drop because they exemplify a number of indie band tropes, which I will outline in the most harsh, reductionist way possible:
- The "what the fuck are all of them doing, is that even an instrument" band
- The quintessential "white people problems" band
- The "I can't sing, let alone play an instrument, and I guess that's the point (because neither can you)" band
- The "they're all on prozac, what else could explain the one-note melody" band
- The soulless quirk-pop band, betting that you're not fitting in at work or at parties
(Quick Post-Publish Edit: For the record, I'm a fan of the songs I just listed, except the Yeah Yeah Yeahs one. Liking it doesn't mean I can't be critical of it.)