All That Is Solid is an attempt to examine the relationships between popular music and global capitalism. Click here to access the archive.
Every genre of music has a foundation myth (or several) that serves as a basis for interpreting future contributions, and whether or not they happen to be true is irrelevant to the weight they carry in our imagination. In the case of indie rock, the foundation myth most dear to my heart (and probably to many of yours) is the one outlined most comprehensively by the profiles found in Michael Azzerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life. If you aren't familiar with the book, it details the careers of 13 pioneering American indie bands, including Fugazi, The Minutemen, The Replacements, Black Flag, Beat Happening, and Sonic Youth. Although each band's story has unique elements, the common aspects form a template that many (some?) of us uphold as a standard against which other bands can be measured.
The template goes something like this: self-trained musicians, bound by a love of punk and leftist politics, get together to make music their muses compel them to make, without regard to any conventional measures of "success" (gold records, world tours, quitting day jobs). Said musicians love their music and the music of their peers so much that they form their own cottage industry, a budding infrastructure completely outside the normal channels of distribution (commercial radio, MTV, stadium tours, major-label deals): they press and distribute their own records; they tour the country relentlessly playing in fire halls, VFWs and YMCAs; they crash on each others' couches; they create their own music press and trade tapes and zines, etc. You likely know this story by heart, even though it is only tenuously related to the stories of most 21st-century "indie" performers, and it is a story that binds us to some sense of shared values and aesthetics. As much as the music itself, this foundation myth is what brought many of us (including me) into the punk/indie rock fold in the first place. The story's verisimilitude is almost beside the point -- what matters is that it instills the sense that the music we love is more than just music; it's a way of life. The problem is, not only does this story not describe much of what is happening in the alt/indie world today, I wonder if the story is starting to lose some of its magnetism, in which case the music is just music after all.
For a hasty thought experiment, consider two "hypothetical" musicians' back stories.
- Musician A was born to a family of radical Leftists and didn't start making music of any kind until her 20s when a friend gave her a sampler to play with. A few months after beginning to tinker around, she managed to produce and record a successful single that caught the attention of international taste-making DJs, which generated enough hype to make her debut album both highly anticipated and widely discussed via a growing number of online outlets. Her debut album, an amalgamation of a variety of dance musics from around the world, was released within the year to widespread critical acclaim. Both her debut and her sophomore albums -- one which yielded a Billboard Top 10 single -- were recorded with a handful of collaborators and are informed by radical leftist undertones while only occasionally elucidating them.
- Musician B was born to a family of radical Leftists and began playing the guitar at a very young age, landing her first gig at age 9. At 14, she left home and began touring, performing by herself in coffee shops and other small venues while crashing on couches. By the time she was 20, she had written over 100 songs and began her own record label to start distributing the tapes she had been selling to fans at concerts. Through relentless touring (over 200 dates a year) and a steady stream of recordings (to date, 17 studio albums in 20 years), she has amassed a sizable fanbase, enough so that her albums can occasionally be found towards the bottom of the Billboard Top 100 in spite of minimal/nonexistent radio and press exposure. Her radical politics are inseparable from her music, and she has a thick catalog of protest songs alongside an equally weighty collection of insightful ruminations on interpersonal relationships.
These two examples are meant to illustrate two different versions of the Indie Foundation Myth -- the first represents an internet 2.0/postmodern/21st-century version of the story, and the second is a sort of "traditional," 20th-century indie success story. Perceptive readers will no doubt have picked up on the fact that the hypothetical musicians above represent real back stories: Musician A is M.I.A., and Musician B is Ani Difranco. I choose these two because M.I.A. is one of the most talked-about, acclaimed, and admired "political" musicians working in the alt/indie universe these days, while Ani -- perhaps the most earnestly political musician around -- seems to be met with ambivalence and derision by the a lot of that same audience. M.I.A.'s story, which seems to share a lot of commonality with other recent "indie" success stories, more closely resembles the narratives of those artists who have long-graced the cover of Rolling Stone than it does the zealous, squalid road chronicles of the punk and post-punk bands we grew up listening to. Ani is dyed-in-the-wool, by-the-book, D.I.Y.-or-die Indie (with a capital I), which makes me wonder, why no love for a righteous babe?
My worry, which should be obvious by now, is that the foundation myth that brought me and so many of my contemporaries into the world of alt/indie music no longer holds quite the same gravitas it once enjoyed. While there is a part of me that is encouraged to know that the staunchly dogmatic approach of the early post-punk era has softened with time, I still insist that the one coalescent force "indie" stands for is a certain ethical commitment to making music for the right reasons. I don't mean to suggest that indiedom no longer shares those values or that we fail to live up to some holy standard set by our forebears (and a disclaimer: I do really like M.I.A.), but for the kids' sake I wonder exactly how important those values are to this epoch's musicians and audiences. As I've said in this space before, if we stand for nothing...
Back to the music at hand: whether or not you enjoy Ani, she is a musician worthy of your admiration. An outstanding rhythm guitar player, a prolific songwriter, and a gifted (if idiosyncratic) vocalist, Difranco does everything we are supposed to want musicians to do. You may call her politically-charged lyrics pedantic, but I ask, who else is even raising a fist? I end here with an open letter:
Dear Indie Rock Aficianados,
Please don't snort at my iTunes collection because it hosts ten Ani Difranco albums. Thanks a bunch!