The Guardian on Apolitical “Indie Rock”

February 9, 2010 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

The Guardian recently posted an article titled “Blog rock lacks a political edge” complaining that contemporary indie rock has become apolitical. The piece ranges wildly across several fields without seeming to realize that a new topic has arisen, veering periodically from confused to obnoxious. The confusion is immediately evident from the profusion of titles and subtitles afforded it; “Beaches, forests, waves … just don’t mention politics” is its teaser on The Guardian’s music page, incinuating that politics have become taboo in what it’s title calls “Blog rock” and the subtitle “indie rock.”

Admittedly, the confusion is not entirely the writer’s fault. The real problem is in the collapse that united generically diverse strains of underground music into indie rock (strains that are disparagingly called “blog rock”). When musicians and writers use the term “indie rock” to refer only to bands that would check the box next to punk or grunge, etc, on their genre certificates, as the progenitors of independent music might have done, they’re saying something very different from bands who use “indie rock” or simply preface another genre with “indie” to indicate socioeconomic origins and genre. The distinction is most clear when “indie” is seperated from “rock,” but still “indie rock” is not the inflexible moniker that The Guardian’s article restrains to the stables of earlier independent labels like Merge and Sub Pop.

The article would be less objectionable if this difficulty were at least acknowledged. Instead, it trudges on into an obnoxious complaint that asks “why aren’t things the same?”

“Their fascination with the pastoral and apolitical is augmented by the other major strain in the US underground: nostalgia. With their intoxicatingly naive, redolent and melancholic music, the likes of Ducktails, Julian Lynch and James Ferraro retreat from the realities of modern life to the rose-tinted and half-remembered plains of their childhood, scattered with the imagery of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Global Hypercolour T-shirts, and red Lamborghinis.

So why is this happening? Kevin Drew of Canadian band Broken Social Scene articulated the current difficulty in songwriting in a recent interview with Pitchfork, saying that post-Bush, “now we’re in the ‘yes, we might be able to’ world”. There’s no machine to rage against any more, no one to be calculatedly hedonistic about.

Of course, you could argue that the lo-fi hipster slackers would never have raged anyway. And it’s easy to fire accusations of privilege as these (overwhelmingly white) musicians who comfort to look outside their immediate surroundings at an America of topographical majesty. Their use of lo-fi recording, once such an anti-corporate statement, is now often merely retro, or used to signify reality.”

The most obvious absurdity is placing an almost purely instrumental musician like Julian Lynch in the same line of indie rock bands that the article’s other targets, like Beach House and Surfer Blood, would emerge from. Is Lynch supposed to be more angry when he plays a sitar? Should his drone have a more nuanced political dimension? The whole article amounts to a charge that it is intellectually and musically lazy for musicians to not have a negative criticism offered through their music, and by extension it is wrong to be both engaged with an indie/underground culture and happy with the nature of your creative output. Placing Lynch in this group just emphasizes the confusion over terminology that grips this particular discourse.

Having said that, with a clearer understanding of the term “indie rock” in hand, the article has a legitimate social comment to make. Unfortunately, it’s already been made, the point is self-evident, and the article doesn’t even repeat it. Why in the world should bands like Beach House or Surfer Blood offer political complaints in an America where political injustice is less overbearing to the average American involved in music? Unless unemployed former middle-class Americans who lost their job in the economic downturn or homosexuals in states that ban gay marriage become motivated to write “indie rock,” why should it have a political program?

The article naively asks “why is this happening?” without actually considering anything of relevance to what more properly worded would be a legitimate question. In this treatment, the question becomes muddled by language that changes it into a petulant “why?!” with no reasoned foundation. It’s obvious why it’s happening, and criticizing musicians that have no real generic affinities with what the author understands “indie rock” to be makes his complaints about “nostalgia” feeble.

Phoit!

Dwight

PS, thanks to Louis at Salad Fork for mentioning the article.

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Entry filed under: Music.

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