“Indie” is a cultural punching bag. Everyone loves to hate indie people and almost nobody would self-identify as one, though they might admit to being a fan of the genre. The steady drumbeat of magazine articles and blog posts dismissing the indie outlook as content-lessand paradoxically conformist is proof enough of this, although relatively few such critiques are actually free from these problems themselves. I want to argue the opposite: that indie has been, if not the defining influence, at least one of the most significant drivers of the last ten years of twenty -first century Western cultural output . Mostly because I’ve always wanted to say this, and partly because it’s true: there’s an indie wind blowing.
Indie in the beginning
First, a brief introduction. The word “indie” was originally associated with independent rock music, appearing first in the US and UK in the 1980s. Indie music initially relied on small independent labels, underground venues, touring, word-of-mouth and college radio, to make alternative music without creative controls and avoid the corporate side of the industry. There is some disagreement as to whether indie should be defined by its independent production and the total creative control of the artists, or by the specific aesthetic of ‘indie rock’. For our purposes the first definition – the anti-commercial ideal of artistic autonomy‒ is more important. Kaya Oakes’ excellent history of the evolution of indie culture (2008) identifies as key elements independent D.I.Y. production, creative control, community and collaboration. It was this anti-mainstream manifesto of indie which spread to other creative fields and influenced the beliefs, identities and behaviour of a generation.
Indie as genre versus indie as philosophy
A quick caveat: I’m not an expert on indie as a film or music genre, and I’m not aiming to pronounce on their merits. As an artistic genre, indie has a big following, though like any it is not without its detractors. The complaint emerges at the level of the individual, where the indie approach to life – the pathological avoidance of the popular – is generally ridiculed. Using the website Urban Dictionary as a definitive guide to sub-cultures can be dangerous…but one entry sums up indie’s its most irritating extreme quite well.
“… the state of being “indie”:
- Being unable to talk to anyone about your music.
- But knowing that, in the process, you’re way cooler than the kids you try to talk to about it.”
There is a clear difference in society’s level of tolerance for the indie-genre of cultural products and “indie” as a personal attitude. Both are elements of the wider cultural impulse I’m speaking about; each feeds into society’s positive and negative associations about the concept and the knock-on effect this has on our culture. They are closely related: indie people have a preference for indie products, though enjoying the first does not have to mean embracing the second. You can think Built to Spill are great without making a point of avoiding the mainstream in everything you do.
The co-opting of indie
The interesting thing is our complex relationship to the indie attitude of superiority. It’s not a case of straightforward condemnation. We are annoyed by the improbably obscure musical preferences, the charity shop beanies that should have been put down long ago, and the arms race to project the greatest nonchalance. But the co-optation of the indie aesthetic by high street fashion and popular music in the last ten years shows that we are simultaneously buying into it in record numbers. We (or at least large enough numbers of us) think the indie attitude, however annoying, is a signal of good taste.
For proof of this, look no further than the boy band One Direction. Created in a brilliant and entirely cynical manner by Simon Cowell, their only purpose is to sell records and merchandise: they had zero substance, nothing to say before he brought them together. They have become an incredible barometer of certain sort of mainstream ‘cool’. They exist to reflect the most middle-of-the-road taste, with every release calibrated to include just the right amount of PG-edginess to keep the fifteen-year-old girls screaming. Their recent single Story of My Life is telling: its ‘edge’ comes from copying the look and sound of bands like Mumford and Sons, who shot to fame in the late 2000s with palatable indie-folk songs like “Little Lion Man”and “Awake My Soul”. Interestingly, Mumford and Sons have lost indie cultural cache with remarkable speed, moving from “decent” to cliché in less than two years.
Another powerful example of the successful co-opting of indie credibility is the reinvention of a bland and unrecognised American pop singer: Lizzy Grant’s first album sunk without a trace. Then she vanished for a while, signed with major industry label Interscope and worked with respected producer David Kahne to create a beguiling, intelligent song, cut with home video footage. That song was “Video Games”, and her new stage name (chosen by her management) was Lana Del Rey. “Video Games”garnered critical acclaim and a popular following– a win for Interscope in its project of constructing, from scratch, a profitable indie artist. But the backlash from music fans when the truth got out was furious. They felt that “Video Games”was irrecoverably altered its subjection to Interscope’s commercial manipulation, rather than representing the work of a gifted lyricist who got her break through “democratic” popular acclaim on Youtube. Their anger was based in the feeling that they had been duped, which points to an important aspect of indie culture: the premium it places on authenticity.
Indie and the atomisation of authenticity
The indie resistance to popular music comes from a fear that our preferences are manipulated by top-down structures of commercial control, rather than being democratic and authentic. The possibility that our tastes are common rather than individual , that they are exactly like everyone else’s and can be predicted by company executives is the driving fear of the indie approach. Why is this so significant? Why must having conventional taste in some areas of culture be equivalent to being a puppet of capitalism?
Obviously there are many factors at play and generalisation is not necessarily helpful when discussing an innumerably-faceted culture. But I want to explore one contributing influence.
The twentieth century discredited many collective identities, identities which had previously allowed individuals to connect to something larger, and by doing so endowed life with a sense of meaning or authenticity. Imperialism, nationalism, fascism, communism; the great political ideologies were stained by their terrible human consequences. Religious belief, trust in political leaders and obedience to parental authority all declined significantly. Collective identities were also created by rebelling against such power structures: the anti-materialist hippie counter-culture, for example, which reacted against the US political-military complex in the sixties and seventies. But even these responses have become clichés; ‘peace, man’, ‘fight the power’ and ‘save the world’ are perceived as naive attitudes by today’s more cynical younger generation. There are problems with capitalism, but we don’t see social solidarity as the solution. The end of the Cold War heralded a period of Western dominance in the 1990s and 2000s, and with it came something of an ‘end of history’ feeling with regard to ideologies. The disenchantment of the world which Weber described at the turn of the twentieth century seemed to have arrived, and music reflected a retreat into the concerns of the private sphere– themes like fitting in, self-actualisation and hedonism came to the fore. “Teenage Dirtbag”is a very different beast to “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
So how does this connect to the indie ideal and authenticity? At a very basic level, we want to feel that our lives matter. One route is through larger, collective identities, but these have declined in recent decades. Another way to convince ourselves that we are unique, special, and therefore significant. This means we must seek out ways of distinguishing ourselves from seven billion other individuals: the atomisation which accompanies the decline of social identities forces us to construe our individuality by means of the accessories of the private sphere, like our cultural preferences. A unique blend of likes and dislikes – an independent set of tastes – makes us authentic. Cultural consumption becomes a quest for the ever more alternative and unknown. The hilarious footage of fake vox pop interviews at music festivals, where people nod enthusiastically and exclaim “yeah they’re amazing” upon being asked whether they’ve heard of non-existent band, is a positive externality of this. Another aspect of this search for uniqueness is the fetishisation of the style and sounds of past decades. The tendency to nostalgic sampling is more the territory of hipsters, a similar but separate sub-culture, but it is linked to the broader indie impulse.
Overall, the indie attitude fills a psychological void. This is why business ventures which successfully to imitate the indie style do well. American Apparel, which sells overpriced faux-grungy clothes, is just one example. It is also why the revelation of Lana Del Rey’s “artificiality” provoked such outrage: listening to “Video Games”was not simply about the music, it was a way of demonstrating discernment and authenticity. Discovering you have been fooled is an affront to your identity.
Indie and earnestness
The most resented aspect of indie-ness is probably the ironic, “too cool to care” persona. In its extreme form, this involves avoiding earnestness and sincerity, especially when speaking about music and films. It is an almost zen-like state where no piece of art, no matter how brilliant, can cause ripples of genuine appreciation to break the imperturbable surface. It can be annoying because the attitude implies a credulousness on the part of those who are ‘taken in’, and a superiority of taste in the indie kid (/monk/ninja).
In some ways this attitude has been exacerbated by the rise of postmodernism in academia in the late twentieth century. Postmodernism is a broad church, but several strands are reflected in the indie movement. Postmodernism emphasises the importance of deconstructing and critically analysing works of art. It deliberately mixes earlier styles and conventions and stresses that all interpretations are subjective, at the expense of the idea of inherent or objective worth in art. All of these threads incline towards a scepticism and detachment in discourse about art- and given the fact that university-educated are disproportionately represented among the indie population, it is possible that this shaped the anti-earnest tendency.
Another important factor is that expressing a strongly favourable opinion of an artist or film or book is an invitation for others to deconstruct or dismiss your preferences. By never taking a position, one never risks being out-indied.
Indie and redemption?
The most popular criticism of indie culture is that it is internally contradictory. Precisely by avoiding cultural conventions made popular by market forces, it loses its independence, because its content is still dictated by an external force. It is about form, not substance; it is a poor substitute for genuinely independent art which has a constructive give and take relationship with orthodoxy.
There is certainly a problem with the notion that the majority/minority divide in culture is directly proportional to worthy/unworthiness or innovativeness /unoriginality. There are better criteria for creating a hierarchy of cultural output. Oakes sees a crisis in the mainstream co-optation of indie culture, but an equally dangerous prospect is that, unchecked, the fixation with the alternative over the good (wherever it comes from) risks turning indie into a shallow cliché.
And yet, while the causal link between ‘popular’ and ‘ poor quality’ isn’t necessarily true, there is frequently a correlation between major labels or studios and the creatively cautious. There are various reasons why this is the case: the profit motive, institutional sluggishness and inertia, the need to satisfy a wide common denominator amongst consumers overriding artistic freedom, a fear of taking risks because relatively more money is at stake. For all of its arrogance and excesses, the indie movement still has a point. As Oakes writes:
“The word ‘indie’ may have lost much of its lustre, but… [a]s popular culture turns again and again to mass production and passive acceptance of the status quo, art that evolves outside of corporate America can and does make a difference in the way people think. That is what indie was once all about and what it will continue to be in the future… To make something on your own, regardless of its potential to bring in money, lends the end product an inherent sense of value that would be absent if it were a copy of a copy of a copy.” (Kaya Oakes, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture)
It is possible to make a legitimate argument about the value of independent production and avoid alienating the majority by painting all commercial output with the same brush. If the indie movement can find that sweet spot, it has a vital role to play.