Thursday, October 25, 2007

Give Me Your Poor

You know, since I read Carl Wilson's "The Trouble With Indie Rock," I've been thinking a lot about his thesis that the real change in indie rock, perhaps more in this decade than the last, has been in the class background and identity of the artists and audiences, rather than their ethno-musical pedigree. This argument picks up on page 2 of Wilson's essay, where his analysis of Frere-Jones's essay diverges from mine. Here is a good summary section:

Ultimately, though, the "trouble with indie rock" may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It's a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off "hipsters" busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded "creative" college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young "knowledge workers" in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it's seldom their main point.) This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it's also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor. This year even saw several indie bands playing in "Pops" concerts at summer symphony programs; that's no sin (and good for the symphonies), but it's about as class-demarcated as it gets.

Right after I read this, I put my contrarian hat back on and rattled off three counterexamples to Wilson's thesis. But those counterexamples started to bother me. Wilco, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips -- these were all older indie bands, old and successful enough not to even be indie anymore (all three are on major labels). They were all a part of the early-to-mid-nineties wave of wide interest in punky, alternative, blue-collar rock inaugurated by bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, and above all, Aberdeen's own Nirvana. These weren't bands started by record-label scions, art-school composers, or post-graduate hipsters with nothing better to do. These were small-town losers with nothing to do at all but get stoned or drunk and make music. And almost all of your favorite indie and alternative acts were like that: Elliot Smith, Pulp, Guided By Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel, Slint, Built To Spill, The Jesus Lizard, The Breeders. Even the rest of the Pixies (besides Kim Deal, who never went to college) were college dropouts.

The question is, where are those small-town losers now? If you really think about it, the big indie bands that can claim or at least represent some kind of blue-collar background are all older, and they've all been around for about ten years or longer: Besides the bands above, there's Chan Marshall, Bill Callahan, Will Oldham, Jack White, and a few others. Has indie rock been ceded to the college kids in the metropolis? And if so, why is that?


Martin Wisse said...

Class issues in rock? Never!

This is not a new thing, there has always been a dividing line between "genuine working class bands" and "art school poseurs" or whatever, but it has long been hidden behind the American stubborn belief in a classless society.

Tim said...

I don't think it's new. And some/most of my favorite bands have been art-school punks. But, there was a time when it seemed like A LOT of the relatively high-profile weird, indie-rocky music was coming from people without a cosmopolitan background, from smaller towns and cities around the U.S. and even England.

What I'm really worried about is whether there is some genuinely awesome band in Ames, Iowa or Twin Falls, Idaho, or Sandusky, Ohio that we're all missing out on because we're listening to bands from Sweden and Williamsburg or wherever it is that we're focusing on right now.