Thursday, January 11, 2007

Indie Anger

There was a time I would would have given my left arm to the elbow to be in an indie rock band; now I can hardly listen to the stuff. Everything sounds like a mashup to me: Joy Division crossed with Brian Wilson, late Pavement meets Nick Drake. The inner rock critic refuses to shut up. I thought maybe I could dig Devendra until I got the first three Tyrannosaurus Rex CDs.

The problem is broader than the bands; I’m feeling betrayed by the genre, which stranded me at 35 with no other means of musical support. If I’d put the same amount of time into, say, swing bands, there’d probably be weird conventions I could still go to. Experimental jazz? A long happy life of online discussion groups and eldritch discographies. But with indie, as I nosed into my thirties the context that once made the music so important to me just sort of receded. My love for it grew in the petri dish of suburban ennui, regret for missing the ‘60s, and a postgraduate identity crisis that delivered me to the outskirts of middle age with no meaningful career pattern in sight. That’s alright, I was staying true to the music, or anyway the life the music seemed to promise, faithfully waiting for the NEXT BIG THING. Then, almost imperceptibly, old radio formats created in Nirvana’s wake disappeared (somehow I didn’t bother to find new ones); band names in the weekly listings started to blur together, even the starred ones; the prospect of staying up till 1 a.m. on a weeknight to see almost anyone in a room where conversation’s impossible and the liquor comes in plastic cups came to feel like an archaic form of torture.

I tried to stay excited via Pitchfork, took a couple of magazines, but no use: the core of the thing had died. The music had resolved for me into a way of talking about the music; I didn’t see bands anymore, but the field they occurred in—the network of labels, review outlets, and rhetorical gestures that seemed to conspire to make every next big thing sound interchangeable with the last big thing. I came to feel like Ulrich does in The Man Without Qualities, when he sees the term “genius” applied in a newspaper to a racehorse. In a world where a racehorse of genius is possible, what’s the point of the concept anymore?

This makes it sound like the bands somehow betrayed me (less original), or the business conspired to kill off the magic (too greedy), and while I thought that for a long time, I realize now the change was essentially in me, in the shifting role you ask art to play in your life as you move through it. It’s hard to deny the intensity of the feelings I once had for my favorite bands, but I see now too how much of my passion was really for the context in which their music occurred. I liked the Rocky Horror feeling of being in a small room late at night with a select group of devotees. I liked being able to listen alone, without the hassles of a community or formal academic program. I liked to drink, and I liked the ever-present possibility of an indie savior appearing—because it is a kind of savior industry—that would gather all my reasons for drinking into a form of devotion. I hadn’t sold out; I was witness to this; I was saved.

My dad likes country music. He’s liked it all his life. There’s a way it fits into his particular version of late-middle age that I envy. I don’t think he was ever “into” music the way I was, but he’s left with sounds he can use—BBQs, wedding receptions, sonic wallpaper for any occasion. It makes him feel good, it makes him feel Kansas, in some inchoate way I imagine it validates his view of the world as it was and still ought to be. “My” music hasn’t weathered so well outside the milieu of overinky hand stamps and Talmudic readings of where Stephen Malkmus’s career is headed that I no longer have the time or focus for. It’s not that I’m looking for new sounds so much as a new platform for delivering sound into a life that no longer needs to be so tightly wound around music. Without really noticing, I've slipped out of that key “18 to 35” demographic, don’t care so much anymore if what I’m listening to is new or cool. What I’m after now I guess is a music that will last me to senescence.

6 comments:

CLAY BANES said...

it might be age. i know younger indie lovers (younger than me, than you) who would put it to that. i wouldn't want to be 22 and have somebody older tell me my new bands are wan.

the rock era ended a long time ago.

is it possible there's a vitality and collective joy — and everyone's missing it?

Logan Ryan Smith said...

hi rodney. one good thing i discovered is that there are bands that slipped under the radar from THE AWESOME AGE OF MUSIC (aka 1977-1987) that is something akin to "discovering" a new band. a few MUST listens of bands that maybe slipped under your radar:

1. THE SOUND
2. The Comsat Angels
3. The Chameleons
4. The Names

if you listen to just one band there, listen to THE SOUND.

and i'm still excited by new music. well, recently anyway. but some bands you may want to give a chance:

Tv on the Radio

Wolf Parade

Wilderness

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (the DO NOT sound like Talking Heads. You play CYHSY and then play a Talking Heads album, and they don't sound like each other AT ALL)

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (terrible f'n name. great band)

The Knife

just thought i'd throw in my two cents.

Willem said...

Hey, man, we're old. And wise. Or maybe wiser at least? I've talked with Anna about this forever -- leaving work yesterday at 4ish, there were already 50 people lined up outside the Warfield for the Incubus show. Remember when you had that kind of time? I flashed back to when I got to the Whiskey A Go Go at 4 for the X show (ouch, 1989 -- met John Doe at the diner next door, though). Remember when it was crucially important to your identity to have a story like I just told in parenthetical (see, I was cool! In 1989). When it was crucial to love this band and dismiss that one? Well, who has that kind of time now? And that need for identity now? We have our friends, our wives -- and whoa, kids! Kids, man! Our lives are full, too full to responsibly spend the kind of time we used to on indie rock. Hey, I still keep my toe in the water and love the music -- when I find good stuff (Clap Your Hands, Wolf Parade for sure). It just isn't life's organizing force anymore, and I'm much, much quicker to dismiss whatever doesn't grab my attention anymore. So the music didn't betray you and you didn't betray the music, you just grew up, moved on....

Dan B. said...

Willem: it's not longer crucially important to our identity to have that sort of story? madness!

Also: I loved this piece. It seems like more and more of of the music I'm finding and loving comes from poking through lost slivers of years gone by.
-Dan

rodney k said...

Hi All,

Thanks for checking in!

Clay: your friends who are younger are probably right: that is no country for old men. I'm sure you're right re: the collective joy too. I know you are.

Logan: Thanks for the list! Via the miracle of YouTube, I'll look forward to checking them out. And I second Jared in voting you up to Portland.

Willem: Great to hear from you. Hi to the JB-Tuners from me. Now *there's* cool.

"dan b.": seems like everything that's crucially important to my identity happens in parenthesis. Will check out the Karen Dalton ASAP.

Mark said...

I am glad that you posted this, as I have had pretty much an identical experience with indie rock. I am about your age (soon to be 35) as well. There was a time back in the 90's where I'd be at the Middle East in Boston 6 nights a week. Before that, I worked in a record store in Brattleboro Vermont, started by a with a punk label called Old Glory Records. At a certain point I realized that all of the time and energy I was putting into a community that I wasn't participating in in any way (I am not a musician of any kind) could be better spent in a community where I could actually contribute something (poetry). Once I was no longer that interested in the community, my interest in the music itself also waned. It's kind of like comic books--you pretty much have to consume constantly to hold your interest.

My soul source of contemporary musical knowledge at this point are poetry bloggers (Logan and others.) I do like the music Logan's exposed me to, but I have become pretty ambivalent about a lot of stuff (Drag City, Matador, etc. etc.)

It's funny because my entry into the world of punk rock was Joy Division. I still love Joy Division, and when I want to listen to Joy Division, I listen to Joy Division. Mostly these days I listen to Drum and Bass and Classical music (I guess that makes me simultaneously an 18 year old and an old man...) and, of course, the mix CDs Logan sent me...x