Volcano Rock A Brief Geological Survey of Independent Music

The last ten years have gone too fast. As many of you may be feeling while 2009 winds down, I am struggling to make sense of the past decade, to define the central features that will characterize the era for posterity. In the think pieces I have read regarding The Decade That Was, one of the major talking points is the expanding popularity and proliferation of “underground” sounds among a mainstream audience. The aughts, it is postulated, was the decade that Indie made it big and cashed in with spots on talk shows and songs in car commercials; whether or not this is a good thing is of course debatable. Another subject of chin-stroking contemplation is the way in which the internet has fundamentally altered the channels through which people discover, hear, and purchase music. Certainly this is an important subject, one whose questions will not be fully answerable until many years from now (if then). Of greater concern to me, however, is some sort of summation of what music has actually sounded like over the past 10 years, and what it might have meant. Since we are talking mainly about a nebulous thing called “rock music,” I find a revealing exercise is to examine the decade in geological terms. As many of you may recall, there are three major types of rocks on earth: Igneous, Metamorphic, and Sedimentary. To summarize briefly, igneous rocks are formed when molten lava hardens on the surface of the earth, metamorphic rocks are transformed through tens of thousands of years of heat and pressure under the surface, and sedimentary rocks result from the coalescence of material eroded from other rocks. With these categories in mind, I’ve been thinking about some of the emergent trends of alt/indie music over the last 10 years.

To my ears, the most prominent category of indie darlings can be best described as “pop maximalism.” Whether your favorites run toward literary, precious chamber groups (The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian), bombastic, large-ensemble tour de forces (The Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Sufjan Stevens), or electro-acoustic avant-pop (TV On The Radio, Radiohead, Merriweather Post Pavillion), there has been a wide swath of artists whose means of expression cull from a dizzying array of sounds, instruments, and genres simultaneously. Certainly there have been triumphant moments here, and the emotional pitch achieved by many of these musicians resembles most closely the swell and ambition of musical theater. In geological terms, however, pop maximalism seems to have cemented downstream from decades’ worth of popular music’s highest mountaintops. While it draws from and gives new life to myriad subgenres, it is essentially sedimentary rock, gluing together the eroded detritus of older, sturdier formations. Musically, this may even represent some of the other era-defining extra-musical trends. The thinning line between mainstream and counterculture may in part be related to pop maximalism’s amalgamation of the avant-garde and the eminently popular, and the breadth of musical exposure that has become possible because of the internet has contributed to the rise of eclectic tastes among digital-era listeners (who then seek music that, within itself, can be accurately described as “eclectic”). This is the music that collects and distills the 20th century and glues it together, which is a natural and fitting way to set the stage for a new millennium.

Two other distinct movements of the aughts, garage/psychedelic revivalism and freak-folk, are characteristically concerned with revamping older traditions. The high-water marks here are both enjoyable and potent, not least of all because they encourage us to revisit oft-forgotten fertile crescents of the pop canon. Like the lump of coal squeezed into a diamond by aeons of heat and pressure, these artists produce metamorphic rock. Most of the earth’s most precious gemstones are formed through the compression and crystallization of older formations, and so too can we find many of the artists and recordings we describe(d) as “refreshing” (we may have even used the phrase “diamonds in the rough”) among the metamorphic set — The White Stripes, The Strokes, Dungen, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom Art Brut, The Hold Steady, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc. These gems represent some of the most wonderous and impressive achievements of the decade, and we may look back on these recordings as the bridge between the counterculture of the late 20th century and whatever counterculture emerges in the 21st.

However, the most characteristic and distinctive feature of the 2000’s alt/indie landscape has been the incorporation of dance forms and sounds in underground music. If the convergence of mainstream and counterculture is one of the most salient social and aesthetic features of the decade, this embrace of dance music is absolutely fundamental, for while the 90s bore witness to the mainstream’s co-opting of underground sounds (recall the “alternative” radio format that took such a strong hold on commercial airwaves from 1992-1998), the 00s saw the underground co-opting mainstream techniques, sonic signifiers, and even social practices, often to stunning effect. From the dance-punk movement ushered in by the DFA brand and the lap-pop of a diverse set of artists that includes the likes of The Notwist, The Postal Service, The Books, and YACHT to the straight-up electronic dance pop of Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk (who have given us the finest examples of what post-millennium popular music has to offer, in my opinion), alt/indie’s M.O. has moved completely away from punk rock’s zealotry and stoicism in favor of sensual, hedonistic pleasures. In spite of my own nostalgia and longing for the heyday of post-punk and “college rock,” I don’t think this repositioning is necessarily a bad thing — I unabashedly love many artists and albums in this vein. Geologically, we can think of this wide berth of music as being both sedimentary (conglomerated erosion from old forms) and metamorphic (crystallization/compression of existing traditions). Musically, this represents the state of the art, the most accomplished and fecund strain of underground pop in the past decade.

And yet there is something missing. Perceptive readers have certainly noticed that I have yet to mention one of the big three geological categories. This is because I feel the decade has lacked a truly igneous movement. While we have witnessed a startling amount of improvement, refinement, and innovation, I struggle to identify anything generative, anything that feels like molten lava thrust violently to the earth’s surface. I’m looking for the new pillars, the hardened monuments from which new ecosystems can emerge. As it is said that music moves in cycles, so too does the mineral world; we are ready for dormant volcanoes to awaken. For lava rock may not be the prettiest or most magnificent (gemstones, as discussed earlier, are metamorphic), and it may not be the most accessible material for industrial purposes (that would be sedimentary quarry rock), but it is the foundation of our earth’s surface. The last eruption from Mount Rock ‘n’ Roll may have well been over 20 years ago; nonetheless I wait patiently at the foot of the volcano, shrieking in anticipation when I see puffs of smoke. Already we have seen possibilities for the future in the most unlikely places — as I have written here previously, I think manipulated vocals will characterize the next truly “new” form of popular music (and the folks blazing the trail are certainly not post-baccalaureates from Brooklyn). Here’s hoping we don’t continue to take our cues from the mainstream — it’s time we resume making music worth stealing, for ourselves.

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