Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What makes it 'indie'? Hell, what makes it 'good'?

Saturday I attended the CD release party for Robert Bassett's "Shades of Love." Now, I must spit out right now that for a first post I feel this may go beyond the pale for douche-y self promotion, as in fact I did play bass on most of this album. Bear with me, though. I had just signed on here at TCIMB, and at the release party, I dismissed the idea of reviewing the event. "It's not indie," I told myself. Then I had to jump back.

Why not?

By most measures, Bob Bassett is indie all the way. Local artist, recording his own original songs on a shoestring budget at a funky cool indie studio with help of friends and family, chasing the dream... sound familiar? Then why my kneejerk reaction? Is it because he's old enough to be my dad, and is in fact my friend's dad? Or is it the style of music, which I have characterized as 'hippie doo-wop,' though an unironic version of same?

I think we've hit the crux of the biscuit here. As much as I'd love to indict the shallow musical tastes of the hipster scene, I think what's up for dissection will be my own irrational prejudice as microcosm, and the unfortunate shortcomings of my own musical eclecticism. If you read yourself into it, well... caveat lector.

The most classical example is the rap/country disclaimer. You know, "I like all kinds of music except for rap and country." I'm pretty sure those exact words came out of my mouth when I was nine years old, but at that point 'all kinds of music' were Weird Al and Metallica. Those genres have come a long way, and luckily the genre lines have even blurred, so that it's easier to like all sorts of different music. Unfortunately, suck is a thread that runs through everything. My country bias remains, towards the new popular variety, which to my ears is indistinguishable from twangy pop or neutered hard rock, the only difference being a regional flavor to the subject matter. Somewhere along the line we realized that the Cash/Jennings/Nelson staying power is due to one thing: good-ass music, and thus alt-country was born. While a number of artists may have made alt-country into a legitimate and fruitful genre, it raises a question. Does an alt-country band hold greater claim to being indie than say, an independent Nashville country band, despite being just as, if not more derivative? And where exactly is the 'alt' divide?

I certainly tend to let qualifiers influence what I think of a band, but often it's a second or even third listen, sometimes years down the road that gives me a truer peek at what's going on. Listening to a world music station on internet radio the other day, I found myself grooving to a song. Once I was able to apply some appropriate mindfulness to it, I realized the song just plain sucked, but because it was under the aegis of being... international, I had given it a higher level of coolness. This is, I suppose, a musical version of the Orientalism of years past, but instead of filling your house with horrid fantods and unsittable lacquered chairs, you find yourself listening uncritically to mediocre afrobeat.

Obviously someone likes it, though, and you can say that about anything. You can say it about Death Cab, bite your tongue. So what makes music good, or appear to be good? Why are some bands good enough, or cool enough to fall into our sphere of indie, yet others that are still technically 'independent music' do not?

To return to my original example, Robert Bassett's stuff is certainly good music, earnest and competent, well-produced. During my stint of recording it was spare and slim, just voices, guitars, bass, some piano and percussion. By the end of it though, enough 'studio artifacts' such as flutes and backup singers had glommed on as to make it... well, not cool. The record was showing its age, and seemed more suited to the coffee shop scene. But why? Why? Is it solely lack of an edge? There are plenty of indie bands that don't go past 'twee' or 'precious' or whatever the trendy adjectives are, so that can't just be it. Is it age? There are plenty of young musicians who evoke ancient soul, and old ones who don't. Is it style? We're in a brave new world of cross-genre experimentation, so that shouldn't matter.

This isn't just shoddy blogging, folks. I had intended to negate all my own points, and dump them in your lap. Comments, please. What makes 'indie'... indie?


Ste. Goldie said...

The good, the bad and the indie...

I joke about how indie = crap. If it's a good band it is called ROCK but if it sucks it's call INDIE ROCK.

Independent is at the root of indie. Indie means no big label. If it's super indie it means it usually doesn't sound that great cuz there isn't even a label who can help pay for a good recording. Good songwriters with shitty vocals. Bad musicians who are passionate as hell. Concept bands, hipsters -- LIFESTYLE MUSIC (<---- favorite phrase from Singles) all fall under indie.

There is a music era/technology/generational divide. I can not apply the word indie to anything prior to, I don't know, whatever that Apple music maker program was called. It's not an age thing it's an era. If this older gentle man made music that didn't sound like it was written years ago it would probably be called indie.

Ben Meyercord said...

Indie is such a dumb classification of music. I mean it used to be a big label vs. small label thing. But now there are bands like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse that were indie that are now on Huge labels. Are they now rock bands or are they indie? It is a dumb argument. I always thought that if you had to ask what indie rock music was, you wouldn't be into indie rock.

Whatevs. Plus this blog covers way more than just crappy indie rock. Or even more than regular rock. It covers music (Usually music that we like).

Ste. Goldie said...

It's not a descriptor of music. It's like ALTERNATIVE. It indicated a break from the popular rock genres... It's an ERA. Alternative was college radio, big labels like Geffen, distortion, British etc... And now it's not ALTERNATIVE it's popular music.

Sub-pop becomes pop. As in popular, mainstream. Isn't that how it works?

Unless of course you are experimental. Experimental will always be undergroundish... Every era has experimental.

Ben -- what do you think of that?

Ste. Goldie said...

Jess -- we are all about self promotion. we don't apologize for talking about our experience in our music community. we also do not apologize for talking about our friends bands. We are allowed to celebrate our different factions of the scene. This is a great blog post! I am so happy you've joined the fold.

Jess Gulbranson said...

Great! I mean, I posed these questions for arguments sake and they're as close to 'right' as opinions get. You guys are awesome.

Ben Meyercord said...

Except all experimental bands always either disband or become pop.