What the Hell Is “Indie”?

Let’s talk about “indie”.

The term originated as a shorter way to say “Independent music”, that is, artists who weren’t signed to a major label. And, in the minds of some purists, that’s what it means today. But then “indie rock” started being used in the 80s to describe the┬ájangly, effects driven branch of alternative rock (ex: R.E.M., The Stone Roses, The Smiths). Indie pop was born out of a similar style, and was really indie rock’s calmer, shy little sister.

Looking at the late 80s, it becomes damn hard to tell what was the difference between “indie” and “alternative”. As far as I can tell (because I wasn’t around at the time), the two of them essentially meant the same thing depending on who you were talking to. Independent labels started creeping up around this point, such as Sarah Records (indie pop HQ), SST (who quickly became the default “you’ve made it” indie label, like Matador today), and Sub Pop (first to sign Nirvana and Soundgarden, and still active today).

But looking back at the early 90s, it’s clear to see that a line was drawn somewhere. The artists that blitzed the mainstream between 1990 and 1994 (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Jane’s Addicti–fuck it, anyone played Lollapalooza between those years) were quickly and decisively labeled as “alternative”, and the term took on a new meaning. It still sounded counter-cultural, but as the 90s went on and major labels signed any band with odd dressed members and a fuzzed out sound, well, it became pretty played out. Alternative rock became more about a certain sound and less about an attitude and approach. It became marketable. And around 1998, “alternative rock” entered a dark age.

Meanwhile, “indie” stayed relatively underground as a music and cultural movement. Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Beck, and Modest Mouse (to name a few) were busy pumping out high quality records that never enjoyed mainstream appeal, but have gone down as genre-defining records in the past decade.

But then indie got its turn. It’s a little harder to pin down when indie broke, but 2004 sounds pretty good. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had put out “Fever to Tell” the year before, Franz Ferdinand dropped their self-titled that year, and Modest Mouse got huge with “Good News For People Who Love Bad News” and that album’s big single, “Float On”. And “indie” has been in mainstream vocabulary ever since.

And the biggest question about indie since then has been “is it a genre?”

This is where that whole “genres” thing gets dicey again because everyone’s a little different. According to some people, genre extends purely as far as the musical notes and the way they sound. And then according to others, genre is your sound, your look, your attitude, and your location. The trouble with genres (as I wrote about previously) is that there’s little universality to some of them, like indie, or punk (which is a whole other issue I want to cover). But without at least a decent shot at defining a genre, we’re not able to move forward as to what indie is. So I’m going to define a music genre as being a shorthand term to describe the general sound, principles, and look of an artist. Probably not a perfect definition, but it works.

That said, I would consider “indie” to be a music genre. From Iron & Wine to Modest Mouse to Yeah Yeah Yeahs to your older brother’s basement band, just saying “indie” gives you a rough idea of the music, look, and principles of the artist. Nowadays, I doubt that “indie” could really apply to a scene since there are so many subgenres under the indie tent, but as a genre, it certainly works.

So then looking to the future, the question becomes “What will become of indie?” And that might not be a happy answer for some people. “Indie” is quickly going the route of “alternative” in the 90s. In layman’s terms at least. It started with “Juno”, which had a hilariously high amount of indie music, but was more of a crossover fluke than anything. My “favorite” example would be the soundtracks for the Twilight movies. The most shamelessly cash-grabbing, tabloid featured, mainstream movie series in memory has the most ostensibly “indie” soundtrack. And with the advent of the internet, more people are able to discover indie music faster and easier.

What I think is going to happen is an eventual breaking point and redefinition of terms. “Indie” will become the new alternative (at least in the mainstream), some new labels will be drawn up, some old ones perhaps reassigned, and we’ll keep on listening.

But you’ve probably never heard of it, anyway.

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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