Oh Boy: In Defense of Indie Rock

01/04/2011 2:00 PM |

(They were indie rock.)
  • (They were indie rock.)

Back on the morning of December 31st, while you were busy shopping for sparkly gold things to wear to whatever party you were going to that night, the New York Times published a piece by John Pareles titled “Want a Hit? Keep it Simple.” In it, Pareles discusses the minimalism that he sees as the order of the day in both pop music and indie rock. He makes some interesting points, especially on the pop music side of things, about how typical modern listening habits, with MP3s and shitty iPod headphones “reward the brittle and tinny, not the lush and subtle,” and about how “songwriting by committee,” as he calls it, where high-power production teams send digital files back and forth to different people all over the world, ultimately leads to boring, dangerous homogenization.

Over on the indie rock side of things, though, it get a little trickier. He uses Best Coast as the primary example, which is perfectly appropriate, of course, and he mentions chillwave acts Neon Indian and Washed Out, which I believe is perhaps a slight oversimplification but still, fine. There’s one part, though, where he goes way too far:

But indie-rock is second-guessing itself yet again, busily justifying dumb fun as if it’s unavailable elsewhere. Bands that used to bristle with cacophony — like Deerhunter and No Age — cut back on it last year, reflecting either a newfound serenity or a longing for accessibility (or both).

It is absolutely true that both of those bands made the most accessible records of their careers last year, but to use them as proof that indie rock is “busily justifying dumb fun as if it’s unavailable elsewhere” is more than a stretch—it’s an insult, especially given that, just a paragraph later, he seems to grade hip-hop on an entirely different scale:

Indie-rock may be lagging, as it typically does, behind the cycles of hip-hop, which reached its anti-intellectual trough in the mid-2000s when crunk was king. There are still club boasts and drug-trade chronicles, but largely thanks to Mr. West’s best-selling example, other subjects are re-emerging from the sidelines: complex thoughts on celebrity, stray political observations, personal confessions and a psychological complexity that hip-hop’s old cartoon personas would rarely allow themselves.

A quick visit to the Hot 97 website tells me that the most played song on the station is currently “You Be Killin Em” by Fabolous. As far as I can tell, it’s about a woman who dresses nicely, I guess because a man bought her expensive things. There are lines like, “A bad bitch cost, she worth every cent/She look like the best money that I ever spent,” and “All she wanna know is there a mall near us/Can’t fault her, the last nigga spoiled her/But he ain’t beat it up, I assault her/Shoulda seen her come to me when I called her.”

The second most-played is “What’s My Name” by Rihanna and Drake, which, like most Rihanna songs, is about Rihanna trying to find a guy who’s as good at having sex as she is. Even Drake, who Pareles presumably had in mind when he mentioned the uptick in “complex thoughts on celebrity,” can only muster some bullshit about the square root of 69 being “8 something” and about all the things he could do to Rihanna in a whopping 20 minutes. He also seems pretty sure that when the woman says she has to leave, she really means she wants to stay, which, ha ha, is terrifying.

Should we go to number three? More Drake, with “Fancy” featuring T.I. and Swizz Beatz. This one’s about a woman whose nails and hair are done, thus making her very “fancy.” T.I. laments the fact that most other women are just “gold digging bitches” who “plan on sucking dicks until some millions appear.” Complicated thoughts on celebrity indeed. In the fourth spot, we’ve got, unbelievably, another Drake song. “Up All Night,” featuring Nicki Minaj, is about… well, nothing at all, actually. Drake loving his quote-unquote team, maybe. Rounding out the top five is Miguel, featuring J Cole, with “All I Want is You,” a song that I suppose contains some of the “personal confessions” Pareles mentioned, as Miguel grimaces his way through the admission that he regrets breaking up with an ex. In the meantime, J Cole hopes that a woman he feels the same way about is so unhappy that she’ll come back to him like a “boomerang” because all of his “new bitches seem to get old real quick.”

Now, I realize that Pareles didn’t paint hip-hop in an altogether positive light, in terms of where it’s headed, but it’s worth noting that the examples he uses across genres are woefully inconsistent. He merely glosses over artists like Arcade Fire and Joanna Newsom—writes them off as “hold-outs and contrarians” and says indie is moving toward prideful inanity because No Age and Deerhunter made records that are slightly more accessible than their previous work, while still being what most listeners would consider fairly difficult and abrasive. But when it comes to hip-hop, the language changes: we learn that its tolerance for stupidity reached its apex years ago, and, with only Kanye cited as a concrete example (even though his album is actually full of just as much dumb, offensive crap as any other), we learn that hip-hop’s in the midst of a serious, much-needed attitude adjustment—no matter what the charts say.

One of the main problems here is that—and I think we’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming year—to talk about “indie rock” as a whole is very obviously a mistake. There’s simply too much happening, in far too many different styles, to make any real statement about what it might sound like at a particular moment. The truth is that the bands he mentions, even the ones that make some degree of sense—Best Coast, Neon Indian, Washed Out—are relatively minor players in the world of indie rock. Last I heard (yesterday), there were still some tickets left to see Best Coast and Wavves at Music Hall next month. On the other hand, The Decemberists just sold out three nights at the Beacon Theater. Bright Eyes just sold out two nights at Radio City, where Vampire Weekend sold out three nights just a few months ago. There are plenty of arguments you can make against those bands, but “I don’t like them because they justify dumb fun” simply isn’t one of them.

6 Comment

  • That Deerhunter toss off seems particularly misguided to me, like he didn’t really listen to it much if all he came away with was them trying to be accessible and universally liked. Take, “He Would Have Would Have Laughed” for example. That one has a structure that’s trickier than anything they’ve really tried, and if anything it’s less accessible in the realm of underground rock, because he shelved that old crowd-pleasing Pixies/Nirvana quiet-loud trick (though they way they’ve done it psych rock/kraut rock might be more apt), and written something that’s quiet/different type of quiet, still keeping the parts distinct.

    But, I love that record, and might be feeling defensive…

  • Suggesting Hot 97 is where one looks to find the direction of hip hop is like saying the innovators in indie rock are Moe and Guster cause they play more colleges than anyone else. The point is the relative popularity of innovative hip hop, Kanye, Big Boi, etc. is on the upswing and this points to more exciting and risky things happening in that space. Whereas in the last few years there had been tremendous innovation in indie rock with new bands exploding in popularity with new and unpredictable sound. Right now the emerging trends are more conservative (rehashed garage rock, reflexive punk, etc). I’d love to hear you addressing the hip hop he’s referring to instead of crap that he’s obviously not.

  • The crap he’s obviously not? Considering he mentions “complex thoughts on celebrity,” I don’t think he’s talking about Big Boi. As I said, that’s got Drake written all over it, on account of him being known to rap almost exclusively about how hard it is to be famous. And considering Drake is on three of the five most played tracks on the most influential hip hop station in the country, I think you’re creating a distinction that really isn’t there.

  • The indie and the hip hop cited, in this lifestyle war disguised as a debate on aesthetics, are dire for the same reason: while certain talents have proven to be “lucrative” in the current market (eg, being a self-absorbed wannabe-upper-middle class white kid or being a wannabe felonious black kid with terrible taste in bitches), the talents which once ruled (originality; compositional skills; a moving singing voice; idiosyncratic narrative wit with a lyric) are almost extinct.

  • Hip-hop is still in its own version of a hair-band phase.

  • It’s my first day on the job, so I am sitting quietly at my desk restraining the urge to stand up and applaud this article. THANK YOU. The reason why I mostly ignore hip hop and stick to my indie-kid guns isn’t because I’m a victim of hipster image-consciousness, but because the hip hop I see today is complete drivel. Don’t get me wrong: Rihanna is one sexy lady, and her accent is bangin’, but if I wanted to hear about a 21 year old woman’s sex life, I could probably just read a friend’s livejournal. And yes, Best Coast, Washed Out, etc–not major staples of a hearty lyric diet. Arcade Fire’s newest album bordered on brilliance in the way it handled themes like suburban sprawl, generational identity and emotional attachment to place. Joanna Newsom is a straight-up J.R.R. Tolkienn in cute, elfin form. School of Seven Bells do ethereal dream-pop right. And don’t forget Tallest Man on Earth’s lyricism either. While it’s right to be on guard against glorifying stupid lyrics, we can’t overlook the poetry deeply embedded in the indie ethos.