February 19, 2004

The Sound Barrier

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Indie rock: effectively born when Nirvana broke into the mainstream, taking the “alternative” label with them. And, thus, indie rock became the alternative to “alternative.” But this music was too sensitive and whimsical, too weird, too experimental, too low-fidelity and low-budget, too raw and abrasive, too oblique and fractured in its song structures. It’s always too-something or other. But the wonderful truth is that nobody really knows what indie rock means anymore. Is “indie” an aesthetic genre or an ideological one? And does it matter? Sure, we know some of the classics: Slanted & Enchanted, EVOL, Switched On, etc. Somehow one of these records speaks to you. And if they don’t speak to you, there’s another one that does. Something you discovered in a used record shop bargain bin someplace. Something you selfishly refuse to share with anyone else out of fear that it might become popular. But your intentions are good. And that’s the real definition of indie rock. It’s music that exists outside the margins and outside of the mainstream. And when it’s discovered by the mainstream, we wish that we could have kept it for ourselves. This is music that survives because we embrace it: we go to the shows, we buy the records from our local independent music shop, and we utter a collective “fuck you” to Best Buy as we try to pretend that $8.99 for the new Wilco record is not so horribly tempting. So, today’s column is for you: the listeners. It’s for all those wonderful people to whom the sound of record store bin dividers clicking by is music enough. It’s for everyone who has ever insisted that it sounds better on vinyl — and meant it. It’s for anyone who turns to the staff of Pitchforkmedia.com for record reviews. And to those who think the staff of Pitchforkmedia.com is self-important and full of crap. You understand that a three-minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop song (perhaps even with the occasional bridge) can affect us in the deepest of ways. You understand why countless bands drive around the country in beat-up vans playing empty bars for $13 and free beer. You understand that indie rock is not as much a sound as a spirit. And you probably can’t fathom the reason why a writer would spend 500 words trying to define something so inherent to your appreciation and understanding of music and art that it was purged from your consciousness long ago. And you don’t think The Sound Barrier is a very good name for a music column. And neither do I.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb