Anthony Fantano, David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and Hua Hsu of the New Yorker think that indie rock is all out of ideas. Hsu writes, in an article called “Parquet Courts and the Uncertain Future of Indie,” which examines Parquet Courts’ latest release, that “it can seem a little beside the point to play rock music that aspires to sound like rock music” and ponders if there’s any “conceptual heft” left to the idea of an indie musician.
This is a story that’s been written over and over again over the past few months: indie is on its last legs. Critics and artists argue that Mac DeMarco and Parquet Courts and and Car Seat Headrest’s music is tired, uninspired, and reaching backwards into an older musical ethos for a sound and a feeling that today, is extraneous. I agree.
However, I disagree that it’s even possible to make a coherent argument about the indie today while only looking at artists like these. It simply doesn’t make sense to write an article about what indie means and looks and sounds like today, while studying a band like Parquet Courts — who, if you pay the slightest attention to rock music today, you’ll know have little to do with the current pulse of indie and DIY rock. It seems clear to me that the most exciting and creative rock music today is being made by women artists and artists of color. However, many commentators appear unable or unwilling to recognize quality or creativity in indie rock outside the paradigm of the whiteness and maleness that has so long defined it; and this tunnel vision is impeding an accurate and robust conversation about the indie music of today.
I will be ready to lay indie in its grave when it is really done — but indie, whatever it means, is not dead as long as it’s a word that describes the music of Mitski, Frankie Cosmos, Waxahatchee, Jay Som, Eskimeaux, Palehound, Japanese Breakfast, Adult Mom, Allison Crutchfield, Crying, And The Kids, Girlpool, Diet Cig, Angel Olsen, and many more women artists, and artists of color.
Indie is alive and kicking and dancing and reflecting on itself and brimming with ideas — as long as Vagabon’s Lætitia Tamko has anything to do with it.
Tamko grew up in Cameroon, moved to Harlem as a teenager where she learned to play Taylor Swift songs on the guitar via online instructional videos, and through the socio-digital maze of Bandcamp, stumbled upon the Brooklyn DIY scene and the Silent Barn, where she began performing alongside eminent peers like Frankie Cosmos, Mitski and Crying. She released her second EP, Infinite Worlds this February.
Vagabon is telling stories indie hasn’t heard before, about dislocation, transience, smallness, and place — as well as bringing a new perspective to familiar indie themes like loneliness, loss and apathy, that unsettle them out of cliche. She creates a flushed, slack, raw soundscape of electric guitar and drums, keyboards and synths, occupying and absorbing the emotive sonic space she creates with her penetrating, aerial voice. Her ethereal synth and keyboard harmonies are infused with her guitar’s choppy roughness, which brings an emotional vitality and elasticity to the album as a whole.
Her music has a powerful ebb and flow of volume and tension. Tamko whispers and strums on parts of “Cleaning House,” but shreds, bangs and booms on tracks like “Minneapolis” and “The Embers.” The bold swell and cease of her music, particularly reminiscent of Mitski’s crescendoes, evokes that precarious line between the good days and bad, balance and crisis, elation and apathy, confidence and doubt, self-peace and self-loathing — a precarity endemic to the lives of young people.
Tamko is a sharply creative, honest and audacious songwriter. There has so long been a privileging of abstraction and crypticness in indie rock storytelling: a preference for enigma and esotericism. Tamko, along with peers and collaborators like Frankie Cosmos (who plays guitar on “Fear and Force” and “Vermont II”), is telling stories that are evocatively intimate, direct and exposing. This is not to say Tamko doesn’t make use of metaphor and allusion — but the metaphors in her songs feel like they are meant to be connective to her listeners, rather than meant to perplex and be praised for their abstraction, like when she shouts “I’m just a small fish / and you’re a shark that hates everything / You’re a shark that eats every fish” on “The Embers,” or weaves together history and home to evoke collapse on “100 Years:” “100 Years ago / we walked through the aqueduct / to see your old home / You didn’t know it was falling apart / Father will sit on his favorite couch / with a TV dinner on his lap.”
There is play, humor and pleasure in her stories of heartbreak — also in “The Embers,” she apologizes “I’m sorry I lost your cat / It’s just that I was so damn mad.” She writes about sadness and smallness, in a way that is uniquely occupied with space “I feel so small / My feet can barely touch the floor,” effortlessly capturing that self-conscious feeling of shrinking in public space, that, as a woman, I am intimately familiar with.
As an immigrant, a woman of color, and specifically, a black woman making indie rock, there is almost no one in the scene who shares Tamko’s experiences and perspectives. Whether she is thinking about her relationship to America as a nation, or just to the ever-whitening streets of Brooklyn and the largely white crowds she sings to, Tamko writes about that out-of-placeness, discomfort and dislocation poignantly and politically: “What scares you so much? My standing there threatens your standing too / no longer yearn to be gentler, pure, sweet, not intimidating, yet sure / If I lived the way you lived, I wouldn’t be here today” (“Cleaning House”). One synth-heavy dream pop track is titled “Mal á L’aise,” the french word for discomfort, and it’s an affect that is palpable throughout the album.
Tamko’s presence and success in the indie and DIY scene as a black woman, is, in itself, radical. But what is more radical is the intervention of Tamko’s perspective on space, body, movement and place, as someone who has not had the privilege of traveling and existing in the world with the same ease as many of her white and male peers. Infinite Worlds is an album about the anxieties and struggles of trying to fathom a self, and to trying find sureness in an identity and a place. Tamko finds sureness on Infinite Worlds, but with ever-present awareness that, for someone like her, it will always be fragile.
Tamko is a part of a movement of artists who are taking indie rock away from a place of enigma, to a place of intimacy, where pleasure, joy, malaise, loneliness and anxiety can be woven together to tell a complex story about what it means to be a body; what it means to be a girl; to be a person, in love, feeling good, feeling bad, feeling alone, existing today.
So I’m not sure whether those indie rock ecclesiacs insistent on writing indie’s eulogy haven’t heard of folks like Vagabon, or simply aren’t able to recognize or feel what is unique and pulsing about her music and sensibility, but it seems clear to me that the women of indie are just beginning to brainstorm.
Jael Goldfine is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org