Thursday, April 13, 2006

Is Indie Rock "Dead?" Is Death Cab for Cutie "Good?"

A friend of mine recently lamented the state of music today, falling prey to the old adage that it is impossible to create anything new since anything one can think of has been done already.

I'm never sure what to say when I fall into this conversational trap. I mean, true enough, anything I usually think up has certainly already been done. It's probably also fair to say that, in terms of great breadth, most styles and genres that will ever exist have come into existance long before our time. But what's so wrong with achieving newness by changing the details? Tinkering around the edges of brilliance?

Considering music can either be stunningly complex or staggeringly simple and still bless the ears, it seems to me that by indulging in the intricacies, one really might be able to innovate after all. Mind, I'm not talking about plagiarism, or blatant rip-off artists like Franz Ferdinand (let the hazing begin). I simply mean that if a chord progression occurs to me, chances are it already occurred to some more talented mortal long before I decided to write a song around it. But does that mean hands off? Or that if I happen to hear the same string of notes that someone heard before, I have to bust them up even if the influence is subconscious or even unknown? Sure, there are only so many chords and even progressions. But there are infinite songs.

We can't ever really say with any authority that no new ideas remain, because if we could predict ideas, then what's the point? I know if I could predict what might someday change everything, I wouldn't be writing a blog about it. (I'd be writing songs around it). Until somebody stumbles across the next idea or innovation, what's wrong with simply writing new songs that rock?

My discussion with Bruner was chased close on its heels by another careworn discussion about the state of the music industry in general (note that Bruner and I are bandmates, and this constitutes fun for us when we're not busy discussing Nixon's secret war in Cambodia). In any case, Lonnie asked me the dreaded endless discussion question:

Do you think Indie Rock will ever die?

My reply of course, was that according to Robert Pollard indie rock died on April 24, 2005, at the Bowery Ballroom. I'm not sure I'm inclined to agree with Bruner, who thinks it is locked in eternal stasis, or with Pollard, (who you probably know once claimed he could write "five songs on the shitter, and three of them would be good"). Somewhere in between those two extremes, a lot of indie rock bands are still churning out incredible music. Fair enough, nobody's written "I am a Scientist," lately, but I could name a dozen songs that give Pollard's masterpiece a run for its money.

With respect to the whole innovation and indie rock is dead commentary, my estimation is that originality remains while perception of that reality has changed dramatically. Listeners can no longer consume music in a vacuum. Whether or not a given band was influenced by a another given band, the listener nonetheless draws his own parallels. These comparisons aren't even always based on music solely - but rather an assortment of the listener's own life experiences and associative contexts.

I remember whipping myself into a high-school frenzy of delicious melancholy over an unrequited crush. I would lie awake at night in a haze of happy despondency that could only have been perpetuated by The Cure's disintegration album played on repeat night after night after night. If, as a result, I've always associated the Cure with melancholy and if, someday another song gets associated with a later sense of melancholy, does the music recall the Cure or does the melancholy recall the earlier experience - including the music that fueled the flames? It's hard to say.

More importantly, today's concept of originality is drastically different than the previous generation's. The sheer volume of music and the unparalleled access to music that listeners enjoy today means that more and more of the good ideas have been heard by more and more of the unwashed masses. It doesn't take as much effort to criticize and compare anymore, so today everyone's a critic, and everyone draws comparisons. My college band got away with ripping off the then-extremely underground band Love. Today, thanks to i-pod deejay nights and internet programs designed to lead listeners from an artist to their supposed influences in the hope of shaking loose a few more nickels from listeners wanting to be "in the musical know," Forever Changes is about as underground as Pet Sounds. Since we have more to consume, and we enjoy greater facility of consumption than ever before, we set higher standards for originality.

The natural reaction to this seems to be to compartmentalize music into genres and to marginalize bands we get tired of by claiming one genre is more "original" than another. Those who subscribe to this reasoning usually conclude that "Indie" was once a genre filled with innovative music, but as it has subsequently crawled out of the underground and onto Starbucks compilations and the OC, it's hackneyed and unoriginal by default. But that's silly. Most of us grew up getting our music from the radio, and we all know it does't get much more "commercial" than that. Wanting to deliver one's music to large audiences is natural.

Okay. So most singer-songwriters these days emulate some combination of Jeff Buckley, Dylan, or Nick Drake and most bands seem to want to sound like Joy Division. (I know I do and I'm not even a man!). But in making this generalization, critics dismiss almost out of hand the enormous number of bands out there writing good music and playing good shows. And I don't think the assumption is fair or accurate.

To close this post out with some fun, I've uploaded footage I captured last night at the a show headlined by (arguably) one of the most readily-named "indie" rock band out there: Death Cab for Cutie. This song didn't change music or the world, but I put it on every mix tape I made for a few months after its release.



Blogger Lonnie Bruner said...

Hmmm ... I sense real desperation in the tone of your post ... leading me to believe that I was correct.

12:46 PM  
Blogger red storm said...


12:53 PM  
Blogger Johnny Shades said...

For the record, I was at that concert, and Franz Ferdinand totally WHIZZED on DCFC. And that seems to be the consensus.

DCFC killed my buzz. FF should have been the headliner.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Johnny Shades said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:41 PM  
Blogger rockthefaces said...

I think you're absolutely right. I have a real problem with the notion that if something isn't new and original, if it doesn't somehow break the boundaries of something or other, that automatically makes it bad. I mean, I'm no fan of blatant me-too-ism, either, but there's a difference between copying somebody and just, as you said, doing something well within a certain paradigm.

I just used the word "paradigm" in a comment about rock music. Somebody set me on fire.

5:30 PM  
Blogger All Rounder said...

Your post is pretty well thought out. I think I trust your optimistic view over LB's.
I always thought that early genre artists have it easier since the field is wide open. Now, when there is new talent, it stands apart from a wider array of artists and their music.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Dan Morehead said...

Thanks for this.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Lonnie Bruner said...

Hey, I never said new music was bad, just that it is a sedentary animal.

So since no one here seems to disagree with the "sedentary animal" argument, it still leads me to believe that I was correct.


11:22 AM  
Blogger Jeff Simmermon said...

Everything old is new again...

4:04 PM  

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