Indie is in a lot of ways more rock than rock — or at least, more rockist than rock. Rock holds up Dylan and Mick Jagger as cool avatars of authenticity, but indie gives those corporate dinosaurs the side-eye. For indie, authenticity isn’t just a style; it’s an ethos.
No session musicians, no label execs, no corporate magazine covers, because corporate magazines still suck. Fifty million fans of anything are all wrong, every one. Indie insists that the real thing, the authentic thing, is precious and rare. If you know about it, it’s already over. Indie kids boldly sneer at all those who are not as cool and knowledgeable as they are — which, understandably, pisses off just about everyone who has anything to do with them.
It’s no surprise, then, that the recent discussion of racism in indie (started by Sarah Sahim at Pitchfork) has led several critics to criticize not just the racism alone, but indie in its entirety.
George Grella at the Brooklyn Rail sniffs that indie “was never much outside the entropic regression to the mean that is mass culture,” hoisting indie (and not incidentally himself) by its (and his) own authenticity fetish.
Carl Wilson at Slate makes similar points with less self-parody. “Indie” he says, “is an acquired and self-sequestering taste, an implication not only built into the name but now its only functional meaning—the distinctive cultural ‘sophistication’ and social status of its audience.” Indie is just a way for fans to say, we are better than that thing over there on the radio. Building your identity around how you’re better than the drooling populace, Wilson maintains, is gross. If that’s what indie’s about, who needs it?
I don’t really disagree with Wilson; indie can be gross. Among other things, indie often defines itself through its whiteness. Indie is the cool white band you should listen to rather than paying attention to corporate crap like Beyoncé or Chris Brown or Rihanna. The authentic alternative that indie offers has long been a specifically white authentic alternative. A genre that prides itself on the superiority of whiteness is not a genre that deserves to survive.
And yet, for all its failings, and all its racism, I’m reluctant to toss the indie genre in the trashbin of history quite yet. Indie’s authenticity enthusiasms may be silly — but they’re at least a way to balance out the obsessive pop market logic that says that the only thing worth covering is the absolutely most popular thing on the radio right now, so please write me 12 more Beyoncé think pieces before noon. Don’t get me wrong; Beyoncé is great, and I expect to write many, many more think pieces about her, world without end, hallelujah. But I appreciate that indie offers a way, however flawed, to ask whether maybe, possibly, we couldn’t cover some other folks as well.
Those other folks who are not Beyoncé should, ideally, include black musicians. One of my absolute favorite performers, journalist and musician Jordannah Elizabeth, doesn’t identify her music as indie rock. She says she’s part of the “experimental underground neo-psychedelic scene” and part of underground hip-hop, jazz and soul. She does see herself as an independent musician, though — and being an independent musician for her was a choice. She had an offer of a major label contract early in her career and turned it down even though she enjoys and admires many major label performers.
“My music is weird,” she said, and she was worried that she’d be pressured to make it more conventional.
Those worries turned out to be justified. Music industry pros told her “'You don’t talk. We have the beats lined up for you, we have the producers lined up for you.” At the time she was a size 2; they asked her to lose 15 pounds in six weeks.
“Did I want to walk out of my front door in full-on make-up and high heels every day?” she said. “As an indie artist, I’ve been able to make my audience comfortable with who I am. If I want to wear cowboy boots and no make-up, that’s me, and I don’t have to negotiate that. I’m not a pop star. And if major labels want to take me now a decade later as a crafted artist, I would be ready.”
Singer-songwriter Mobley also expressed ambivalence around the indie label. “I’ve never loved 'indie’ as a distinction,” he said.
“I don’t think most people who see it as useful in terms of marketing love it, because anybody who’s thinking even a little bit is thinking, this is kind of BS. There’s not really anything here.” But, he added, “it is a nice shorthand. It’s a nice way to say, hey, you might have to work a little bit while listening to this. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having some kind of marker that says, don’t expect me to pander to you 100 percent … or maybe, I’ll pander to parts of you that Clear Chanel isn’t quite as interested in pandering to.”
Mobley pointed out that getting rid of indie won’t do much to get rid of racism in music, because racism in music isn’t restricted to indie.
“The problem will just go hide somewhere else if you don’t call it what it is,” he said. “The problem didn’t start with indie.” Genres associated with skill and competence and genius and cultural cachet tend to be tagged or defined as white. Wilson suggests getting rid of indie in favor of “experiments … in screaming unpalatable truths, in sustainability in all its senses, and in the simple joy of making music with others on more localized, intimate grounds.”
Which all sounds good. But if those experiments aren’t explicitly also focused on anti-racism, they will end up with the same kinds of racial barriers and problems that have plagued American popular music for generations.
There’s nothing magic about the label, or the genre, indie, and nothing magic about eliminating it, either. Blaming genres, as genres, for broader social ills is one of indie’s least useful legacies. Rather than turning that particular indie trope back on indie, I think it would be better to try to mine the genre for more useful resources.
Indie offers the dream of listening to, and marketing, music without preconceptions — of finding wonder and beauty and insight and genius in places no one else thought to look and getting the chance to share them. Indie gave me a way to tell you about Jordannah Elizabeth and Mobley. It gives me a way to say, in a place where folks might read it, “Go and listen to Polly A and Radkey and Open Mike Eagle and Mirel Wagner.”
At its best, indie is expansive, not insular; it’s about discovery and celebration. That can mean, if indie fans want it to, a recognition that people of every background can make music that doesn’t fit neatly into marketing boxes or racial preconceptions.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.