First of all, I love indie. I love it like a 15-year-old boy loves Megan Fox, sans anything involving posters on ceilings. So before you get up in my face with loud, defensive, aggravated comments about how great it is — I know, I know. Mellow.
But again like our halter-wearing temptress, there are a lot of seemingly reasonable people who HATE indie. And when you start to talk to these people about their hatred (once they get past the asinine jabs about hipster jeans, beards and technical guitar skills, like those even matter), you start to realize they may actually be on to something. Because even though indie is awesome, it’s only really awesome if it’s done right. And sometimes, you just have to take a loved one by the collar and tell them when they’re not doing something right. Right?
Here are some of the things indie musicians do that piss off people who otherwise have good taste in music. (Subtext: if you hate indie because the only style of music you like is speed metal or radio country, then this list, and my entire blog, will probably mean nothing to you.)
1. Whine a lot more than necessary. Most people understand that songwriting is about expressing emotions, so like-minded listeners can identify when their parents get divorced and they’re shuttled back and forth like a fake ID at a sorority house. But those alleged “genuine” emotions shouldn’t cause stool to run soft in the bowel, and those “genuine” lyrics shouldn’t have to become ironic Facebook status updates. Despite the majority of indie songwriters who express their inner ingénue at an appropriate level, a lot of them tend to dwell on the idea of adult male vulnerability, riding it like the bow of the Titanic until people in the crowd are considering dialing a hotline. The result: indie rock that is backed only by overdramatic 14-year-old girls and moms who are just glad their kid isn’t listening to Insane Clown Posse. And the woe in my heart bleeds like yesterday’s undercooked pot roast.
2. Sing like the deaf. Okay, part of being vulnerable and “real” is not having an overtly superior singing style. No one expects to be empathizing with Bono, or relating on a personal level to Axl Rose. (Yikes.) Still, there are a couple of fundamentals that are just part of singing — like pitch control, and not making the audience laugh out loud. So when the biggest Clap Your Hands Say Yeah single sounds like Joe Assface got up on karaoke night and ran a schoolbus over the solfege scale, it’s tough to hold the contempt in check. It’s even worse when it’s a cover of a song people are already familiar with, like Clem Snide’s abhorrent version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” or Ben Gibbard’s cringe-inducing take on Bjork’s “All is Full of Love.” I don’t care how cute his own songs are, taking on Bjork’s most well-heard single with his northern-accented po-boy whimper is like climbing Mount St. Helens in a T-shirt and Converse low-tops. When the tone that comes across is “this didn’t sound like it did in my head, but oh well,” something is probably lost.
3. Shamelessly imitate other musicians. How many more indie lead singers are going to try to sound like Ian Curtis before someone devotes a top-10 list to it? Even though the Interpol/Editors/White Lies/Horrors/She Wants Revenge singing style is still cool almost 30 years after the end of Joy Division, indie bands with that sound are about as rare as lice at a Phish concert. At least there’s the rejuvenating presence of the Libertines/Arctic Monkeys/Bloc Party/Larrikin Love/Paddingtons/We Are Scientists “reckless” sound to remind us that anyone can roll out of bed in the morning and record an album between snorting lines and scraping the paint off vintage Telecasters. (And they’re all better than the Panic at the Disco/Fall Out Boy/Paramore/The Academy Is…/MCR pseudo-indie outfits with pop-punk mafia ties. )
4. Fail to grasp playing instruments. Once again, the everyman’s musician doesn’t need to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. (Or Blake Mills, formerly of Simon Dawes.) It can even be a point of pride to be “self-taught” … but it shouldn’t come into question whether the guitarist is using his hands or his feet. Case in point: Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty and his zombie-esque guitarist Mick Whitnall are a page out of the “Make Sure You’ll Be Able to Remember the Recording Session” manual. As talented as Doherty is, his band has released possibly the two worst-sounding albums in music, and yes, that crashing sound at the end of Down in Albion is him falling on his wasted ass. But even musicians who are too bombed to employ the musical skills they have are still superior to the ones who are not wasted, and just try to play like they are. Even worse, there’s the whole sub-layer of completely un-musical local musicians who try to get away with “unconventional” techniques, like playing the guitar like a stand-up bass, relying on “tones” or feedback to create music, or literally just holding the guitar throughout a show only to play two strings during the loud part. Just learn a song, butterfingers.
5. Create noise experiments. Lou Reed tried it with Metal Machine Music, an album consisting largely of feedback – and even that was regarded as a joke. Imagine, then, the impact your crappy, untrained garage band will have on the musical landscape when you unleash your new brand of electric-drill-inspired, ultra-distorted noise music for all to appreciate. Will it be “refreshing” when the opening notes of your first performance sound like a large train trying to shove through a small tunnel? Will the squeaky chair hooked up to a loose guitar pickup (.1) break anyone out of their sad, close-minded funk? Will they “get it” when you finally chop the head off your guitar with a bolt cutter at the end of your set? Probably not, you ridiculous excuse for a musician – please fuck off, and refer to number 4 above.
6. Selectively hate major labels. Indie musicians take pride in being independent, and in getting their music noticed without the aid of the big, soul-sucking music industry monster. They enjoy picking apart bands they’ve heard of who have “sold out,” changed their sound a little, and started touring with Velvet Revolver and Jane’s Addiction. “Damn, the Frog Bots get one deal and they change completely, and now they’re only playing for meatheads and teeny boppers at $75 a ticket. Way to betray the scene, man.” Unless, of course, it’s a friend of theirs. In that case, “did you hear about the Narwhal Endeavor? They just got the deal of a lifetime, and now they’re touring with Pearl Jam. That’s awesome.” And finally, what happens when a suit comes to knock on their own door? Everyone and their roommate shits a brick, that’s what happens. So much for integrity, I guess.
7. Have obscure-band-offs. Sports guys like to rattle off stats, car guys like to compare engines, and techies like to talk about the latest gear they bought. But somehow, none of it is as infuriating as the veiled contempt in an indie rocker’s voice when he (or she) name-drops an ultra-secret underground band he (or she) is hoping you’ll be stumped by. “Yeah, we (.2) were handing out CDs at the Glimmering Sock Muppets show last night. Killer band.” This is followed by an expectant stare. The only way to respond gracefully is to name-drop the primary influence of the Glimmering Sock Muppets, or at least point out how awesome it is that they poached the lead singer from the Kitten Tossers last week. Though the former is preferable. Of course, if you don’t recognize them, your only hope of staying cool is to actually be in a more noteworthy band — in which case your non-recognition might even cause the questioner to question his own sense of band judgment. Then again, you could always do some research in the used section at Amoeba, you poseur.
8. Go for the “indie look.” Wearing frayed vintage stuff isn’t necessarily the biggest fault of indie musicians — but then there are the ones who try to out-indie everyone by sporting every indie fashion trend at once. They usually end up looking like one of Lou Pearlman’s sadistic boy-band experiments: greasy, deliberately tangled hair; the light stubble that says “I’m not overly focused on my outward appearance;” the prerequisite all-weather scarf; the mod hat no one wears outside of an Urban Outfitters catalog; suspenders; the collage of concert wristbands; the v-neck that almost exposes nipple, for that subtle feminine mystery; the obligatory women’s fur-lined jacket, just to make it clear they don’t care what you think of them. And of course, no indie look would be complete without the nearly constant semblance of posing for something — something such as the inevitable barrage of Myspace photography that comes after the first round of dirty martinis. The only justice here is the notion that, according to historic fashion norms, these guys will be trying to pull off “bohemian vogue” until well after senility has set in. Eff that, ya whipper snapper.
9. Idolize their genre above all others. I’ve met metal guys who are into reggae, and hip-hop guys who are into funk and disco. There’s even an entire segment of punks who get into country. But for indie musicians, the only thing better than indie rock is indie rock and beer. Just take an indie rocker on a long road trip and they’ll have something to say about everything that comes out of your stereo until you start playing Muse, the Smiths, or something that sounds like Muse or the Smiths. I’ll admit that I’m living proof of this, if not to the degree that’s possible when you put someone with musical opinions into one of the most clique-y genres ever created. At least it’s easy to start up a conversation with them at a party: just mention the undeniable production benefits of auto-tune. You’ll start a landslide.
10. Worship Radiohead. Actually, I can’t blame indie guys for this, because Radiohead is awesome. But hey, some people hate them. Makes sense to me.
1. i.e. Chico Legends, circa 2002
2. In indie terms, “we” always means “me and my band,” unless the speaker is physically standing next to his girlfriend, and indicating her clearly. And it’s still possible she’s in his band.
Oh yeah, and you'll want to download my book.