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February 16, 2017

GOLDFINE | Indie Rock is Girls: What the Whitest, Malest Indie Boys of All Time Got Wrong About Indie Rock

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As an arts writer, they tell you not to beat dead horses. We are told, when we get the keys to a one-bedroom flat of internet article space to dispose of our thoughts in, not to belabor on topics where debate is no longer generative; where a cultural consensus has been reached, or all viable arguments have been made. When Kim comes out with receipts incriminating Taylor for using Guys-Kanye-Called-Me-A-Bitch-Troops-Assemble feminism for personal gain, we are not supposed to shout into the crowded internet void about it, because the internet is a highly effective instrument that responds at hyper-speed to such events — and there are literally offices full of 20-something bloggers in every major city paid to sit around and wait for stuff like that to happen, and produce appropriately snarky takes on it. So, if you’re not one of those people paid to stare out at the internet and write that first “Taylor Lied and Here’s Why She’s The Whitest and Lamest Feminist Who Ever Lived, Who Gives Me Existential Doubt and Acid Reflux About The State of Feminism” article — don’t.

I’ve shouted a lot about indie rock in the past few days. Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time a shouting about indie rock over the past eight months — shouting and thinking and talking about indie rock, and what it means, about who is making it and why, and about the kinds of artistic and political potential it has. I promise you, there’s a lot to shout about.

It’s because of all this shouting and thinking and talking I’ve done, and because I know too many people who would be apt to hear Dave Longstreth and Robin Pecknold’s masturbatory white male symposium on the state of contemporary indie rock, and say “YEA MAN, EXACTLY, MAKE INDIE GREAT AGAIN,” that I am not yet sure if thinking through the implications their comments would be to shout into the void.

Last Tuesday, Dave Longstreth, lead singer and guitarist for the Dirty Projectors, posted a screenshot on Instagram that read:

“is it me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24 ½ th century both bad and boujee ? bad in the basic sense of like, musically underwhelming — mostly miming a codified set of sounds and practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now — and also bad like sartrarian bad faith , outwardly obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense (i.e. ‘independent’ music at a time when global chains of manufacturing, label services etc render the term aggressively meaningless, and when much larger, more democratic &independent communities than the founders could have anticipated exist online in digital space) and boujee in the world’s negative sense : refined and effette , well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience?”

Fleet Foxes’ singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold then, in the comments, added:

“I think music is as codified as emotions are codified. Sometimes I just want to listen to Townes Van Zandt, sometimes Debussy, sometimes Kendrick, sometimes you, sometimes Solange, sometimes Television… there’s this universe of potential feeling, the music that best exemplifies a given mood (or even creates a new mood entirely, like how newly coined words enable the existence of certain states of mind) is what finds an audience. I get bogged down in thinking there is a “right” music to make at a given cultural moment, thinking influenced by retroactive-revisionist teleologies of art / music history, but to me there is a always a vast expanse of feeling being explored by everyone engaged in music and it’s all valid in that it defines a feeling or creates a new one, for whatever group or groups have their ears turned on that music. Like the newest Phil Elverum song creates a feeling that didn’t exist before, even if it’s musically not innovative, by virtue of it being a direct expression of his life experience that feels honest, and that one can either relate to or recognize as true, in the same way that the spoken word and voice manipulation on “Keep Your Name” conjures something fresh, suggests and depicts a personal experience in a novel way. Like they are worlds apart musically but I’d respond to both as a listener b/c they invent a new feeling and let me feel it by proxy…

Also don’t rly know what counts as “indie rock” these days… like, Whitney, Mac DeMarco, Angel Olsen, Car Seat Headrest? Idk if any of that has “cutting edge” written into the M.O., even if it’s fun to listen to. Feel like everything else that gets covered that’s progressive is in other landscapes, either more commercial ones or less commercial ones. I feel like 2009, Bitte Orca / Merriweather / Veckatimest, was the last time there was a fertile strain of “indie rock” that also felt progressive w/o devolving into Yes-ish largesse. But this part of it is mostly semantics… if I were myself as a disempowered 16 y.o. rn, when $5 house shows, 7 inches and zines were my means of social empowerment, I’d probably feel more kinship w/ the term independent than I do as a bipedal 30 year old, who feels silly and too old at warehouse shows now, but maybe the world is sort of a static constellation of states that we just move through as we get older and it can seem like the world is changing when really it’s just us?”

To which, echoing my own sentiments, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste responded “😱.”

“😱” indeed. So that’s how Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold feel. Here’s how I feel: Dave and Robin are two indie boys who used to be on the front lines of the scene — who lived and listened and played shows and made records in a moment when indie rock was being milled out of the stuff of their lives; out of their perspectives, anxieties, existential crises, pains, gratifications, puzzlings, joys and pleasures: about the way the big bizarre, bleak world looked to them in that moment. So, today, at their ages of 35 and 31 and from their cozy spot on the sidelines of indie, Dave and Robin are expressing confusion about how indie rock doesn’t look or sound like it did when they were making it. Dave and Robin don’t seem to be able to see through the haze of their own nostalgia and arrogance, to consider that their peripheral subject-position to contemporary indie might be reason that they have all this apathy and confusion about the “paradigms” and “significance” of contemporary indie rock — that those paradigms might be very significant and reflective of lived experiences to somebody else, say a 21-year-old woman, today.

I am still processing how comically and profoundly ignorant it was for someone like Longstreth to make this kind of pedantic, finger-wagging comment about the indie rock of today, without an iota of self-awareness about the fact that, since indie rock music is no longer being made literally BY and FOR him and people like him (his age, his gender, his zeitgeist), it seems like something of a given that music made today will not sound as significant to him; that the paradigms will not burn as raw or relevantly to him as they felt when he was the one making them up. The hyper-evidence of his navel-gazing narcissism in this kind of a statement — poorly disguised with his beard-stroking, ponderous tone and Very Cool and Chill Pop Cultural reference to “Bad and Boujee” (the dude can’t be out of touch if he listens to Migos!) — proves to me that he isn’t necessarily someone even capable of listening to the indie rock of today and recognizing “cutting-edge” indie today, or the paradigms and lived experiences it’s responding to, let alone, appreciating them.

So, the whole project of his criticism seems misguided. However, presuming, Longstreth or Pecknold had a tablespoon of awareness about their subject-position to modern indie (and about the subject-position of the people actually making indie rock today), the white boy indie theory reading group would still be wrong in myriad different ways — as many commenters on the internet (including living, breathing, contemporary indie artists and fans) have pointed out.

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I want to break down the findings of this white-boy-indie research committee. So, Longstreth thinks modern indie is bad in two ways: (1) that it is boring and uninventive and reliant on washed-up indie musical tropes (2) that it is “obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense” (which presumably means that he feels it is not responding to the pulse and sensibility of the day) and (3) boujee/bougie, in that it is pretentious, inaccessible and affected. As a side note, he also seems to believe that he gets to claim that something is pretentious, inaccessible and affected, while using words like “sartrian,” “effette” and “hermeneutic” to describe it.

Pecknold provides a slightly more complicated, but also contradictory analysis: he rejects Longstreth’s progress narrative that music used to be good and now is bad. He acknowledges that the music being made at any given time is inherently right, and agrees that music is valid as long as people are engaging with it. Ok, cool, feel that, I’m with you, Robin.

Then, Pecknold proceeds to straw-man all of indie rock by putting forth a few names (Mac DeMarco, Whitney, Car Seat Headrest, Angel Olsen) that represent a few (mostly mediocre) corners of the indie music sphere, stating that he “dk if any of that has “cutting edge” written into the M.O., even if it’s fun to listen to. Feel like everything else that gets covered that’s progressive is in other landscapes, either more commercial ones or less commercial ones,” ignoring and erasing who and what actually represents the core artistic mode and sensibility of indie rock today. This might be not because he was trying to make his point stronger, but because he doesn’t genuinely know what indie rock really means today, but that in itself makes me skeptical of his credibility to make very big, grand, claims about something called indie rock.

So, the white indie boy think-tank appears to be both ignorant of what indie rock is today, and also unable to really recognize what might just be “progressive” or “cutting edge” about it.

The best and most important indie rock today is not Mac DeMarco, or Car Seat Headrest, and it’s definitely not Whitney. The best, most generative, innovative, indie rock of our time is being produced by women and non-binary artists. If you looked at indie top lists today, and took out all of the women, non-binary people, and people of color (which seems to be how Pecknold and Longstreth did their research), I’d agree with most of their conclusions. But indie rock today is Mitski and Girlpool and Waxahatchee and Japanese Breakfast and Frankie Cosmos and Vagabon and Jay Som and PWR BTTM and Sheer Mag and Downtown Boys and Eskimeaux and Adult Mom and Colleen Green and Cherry Glazer and Pottymouth and Honeyblood and Free Cake for Every Creature and Palehound and Purity Ring and Diet Cig and (YES) Angel Olsen and Grimes and Chastity Belt and Speedy Ortiz and Courtney Barnett and Florist and Allison Crutchfield and Hop Along and Cayetana and Perfume Genius and Sharon Van Etten and so, so, so many more artists that I haven’t discovered yet. Male-fronted indie groups like Whitney and Porches are an asterisk aside the musical styles and sounds of women who are leading the scene, so it’s painful and frustrating to see Whitney get recognized as a leader of indie (even if it’s only to get maligned by aging, whining indie council of elders!). It is, in fact, groups like Car Seat Headrest, Pinegrove, Parquet Courts, Teen Suicide and others, who I believe, as Pecknold claimed, are nostalgically “miming a set of codified sounds and practices whose significance is inherited,” whose “paradigm” we know in our hearts doesn’t really make sense anymore.

This diatribe begs the question of genre (truly a dead horse conversation), as you could debate me on most of these names, insisting that they are power pop or punk or grunge or emo or electronic or a slew of other things. I wouldn’t argue back. Genre is becoming less and less relevant to today’s music landscape, as collaborations and syntheses between different styles, methods and instrumentation break down genre lines, bla bla bla. However, I believe that we can refer to something called “indie,” even if it is divorced entirely from the concept of independence, as it largely is today). I use indie a shorthand and a titular home for music that is not mass-consumed or produced, for music which is probably guitar-based, and for artists who inherited an audience and a cultural space from people like the Dirty Projectors, and a scene more coherently known as indie. I’m comfortable with the vagueness of this definition, and the fact that most of the artists I listed also belong in other crumbling categories of genre.

Anyway, whatever — Longstreth and Pecknold said it first, and I’m not about to let them define it, even if it’s a less-than-useful denotation. But back to this “expired paradigm” which modern indie artists are making music within.

I was raised on the white male indie rock of Longstreth and Pecknold. I grew up on the sounds and stories of Arcade Fire, the Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Youth Lagoon, The National, Beach House, Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, The Shins, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, Real Estate, Panda Bear, Foxygen, Keaton Henson, Edward Sharpe, Dr. Dog and The Dirty Projectors (who are, of course, not solely male-fronted, and include the contributions of eminent artist, Olga Bell, whose influence on the band nearly make them an exception from this list) — and everyone else who might be corralled into indie at the time. The sound of men singing about their pain and whims and problems — and more often than not, at the hands of nameless female characters — were the sounds of my adolescence.

I loved and continue to love much of that music. I don’t mean to say that Longstreth and Pecknold are wrong because they, and all male indie musicians are misogynists. What I mean is that universality is a lie and there was something missing from, and dissociative about and alienating within the very music that held me together at vulnerable times in my life.

So, it is an equally dissociative and alienating feeling to hear a man tell me that the music which feels like finally coming home after living in a funny, too-cold place for so long, a place that was a bit like home but which was not home, where no one was really that nice to you, or really cared what you had to say; the music that feels so urgent and essential, so cathartic and expansive and powerful; the music that articulates experiences that I can finally point to and say “Yes, that. I feel that;” music that “makes me want to cry and drive really fast and trust myself and my emotions” as my friend Allison Considine ’17 wrote about Mitski’s Puberty 2; the music that finally gives voice to my sadness, rage, shame, anxiety, doubt, pain and discontent, as well as my joy and pleasure and blisses; the music which is telling such new and creative and untold stories about being a girl or a woman or queer today in such spectacular interesting, lush new soundscapes, with such candidness, and such a return to sincerity — is “musically underwhelming” and “not reflective of the world as we experience now” and “obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts basically makes no sense.”

I think the ultimate question that Longstreth and Pecknold failed to ask before commencing their white male indie brain-trust, is this question of “we.” Who is this “we” that Longstreth is talking about? Who is the “we” of indie rock’s artist and fan community? Whose experiences of the world as it is today are being reflected in indie rock? Who is it that knows in their hearts that the paradigms of indie rock makes no sense anymore?

Because it doesn’t include not me — and maybe the “we” they’re talking about never did. The paradigm and the experiences that are being reflected in indie rock today make more sense to me than any music ever has before — and from talking and listening to and writing about and studying indie rock over the past several years, I’m pretty certain that I’m not an anomaly.

So maybe I am beating a dead horse, but I’m not so sure. The voices of Longstreth and Pecknold and men who look and think and listen to music like them hold a great deal of capital in our cultural economy. Longstreth and Pecknold, each in their own way, erased and demeaned a huge amount of music that is delivering cultural justice to a whole lot of people — to the girls who were starving in high school with nothing but The Suburbs for sustenance; who didn’t even know it until they heard Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” — because they didn’t know about it, or found its “paradigms” nonsensical.

Luckily, however, I think that Longstreth and Pecknold are the anomalies. When it comes to the wider forum of music critics and commenters, a great deal of the music defines indie and rock today, actually is getting recognized and rewarded in the cultural economy. It is getting reviewed and talked about and paid for and put on top 10 lists. A slew of music journalists and mainstream publications refuted the white male indie workshop group on social media. So, I’m not actually so worried. The girls of modern indie are getting their due, even the indie white boy debate team refuses to see it.

Jael Goldfine is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Thursdays this semester. She can be reached at jgoldfine@cornellsun.com.