The (indie) Kids Are(n’t) Alright.
he following was posted by one of our readers in the comments section of our recent Top 50 Singles of 2005 article.
Posted 12/09/2005 - 08:07:34 AM by tintin1000: i hate this list. but before i get into a rant, i shall tell you all the "rules" which i relied upon to come to the conclusion that this list is a pile of steaming bullshit. (a) this is a snobby list (b) i understand that this is a list of singles, so it cannot include bands like deerhoof or anything because they don't HAVE singles, but ... (c) this is a lame attempt at justifying why you guys like top 40 chart songs ... a shoddly constructed "logical" justification of listening to top 40 songs, with the "indie mag," stylus, as a sort of buffer ... "oh -- we're really into indie music, so that means we can accept pop music from an "elevated" plane of existence or some bullshit like that. okay -- who the hell thinks that the friggin' backstreet boys write "better" songs than the mountain goats?! than the futureheads!? uh ... and sure -- the concept of r. kelly's trapt in the closet is cool, i think, but how in the hell do you distinguish which gwen stefani single is the "best" on the album? is it the originality of the song? nope? is it in the creativity? nope. is it the craftmanship? nope. is it the songwriting? nope. as far as i can tell, you guys compiled a list that should be dubbed "best singles that will get you crunked in 2005," but since you worded everything so perfectly, it sounds like there is an actual intellectual, logical reason behind the creation of the fucking whisper song. the whisper song is about fucking. since when has fucking merited any artistic credibilty? just plain, raw, primitive sex? if you guys like to dance to this shit, cool ... but don't be dumbasses and pretend that you listen to this shit because you actually think it actually has a true artistic quality to it ... damn.
I usually try and avoid responding directly to people in the comments boxes, unless they ask a specific question about a piece or raise a factual error, because I think it’s slightly unbecoming for writers to be trawling their own work looking for flame wars, but I couldn’t help but respond to our friend tintin1000, initially with a couple of short notes in the comments box, and now here, in more length and with more thought.
tintin1000 isn’t alone in his indi(e)gnation (I’m sorry, that’s a terrible forced pun)—you can see dozens, if not hundreds of other people spilling outraged bile into the comments boxes every week in protest at our temerity in choosing to review a country record favourably (and I’m not talking about Lambchop or Uncle Tupelo) or vote Kelly Clarkson as our single of the year ahead of, say, the latest 7” by The Ambivalent Corduroy Medical Students on Squirrel Records which features nine Canadian college graduates banging ukuleles and broken harpsichords and singing about their guinea pig’s gravestone. What’s wrong with us? Why are we pretending to like such manipulative top 40 pop shit? How could we possibly be so short-sighted as to not see the genius inherent in something like Pig On A Stick’s masterful limited edition EP, I’m Ugly, I’m Lonely, All My Friends Are Dead?! Especially when we lavish such shallow, fetishistic praise on hollow, manufactured acts.
The thing is that Stylus has always loved pop, hip-hop and r’n’b singles, consistently voting them highly in the end-of-year singles lists over the last three years. Just look at the Singles Jukebox articles from the last 9 months—pop music is something we love and something we cover—we’ve never claimed to be an indie website any more than we’ve claimed to be an IDM website (something we used to get accused of every so often when we began). If you’re still not convinced, take a look at the Mission Statement; all we’ve ever been bothered about covering is music, not specific genres.
So why are indieboys still so vehemently disgusted by our (un)surprising pop-centricity, our schizeclecticism, by the fact that some of us like country records and others like pop records and yet others really do enjoy Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (I’m still not entirely convinced that that particular band isn’t a complex hoax perpetrated by Derek Miller)? I’d wager, for a start, that the majority of our most vocal indieboy naysayers are probably in their late teens rather than their mid-to-late 20s, and that the music they like isn’t just a sonic preference based on what tickles the hairs in their ears in a pleasant way, but that it is a much more deep-seated culture-aesthetic choice. A choice as much about identity as music, perhaps.
Which is fine, because adolescent cultural choices—hell, adult cultural choices too—are about identity. They’re about peer groups and aspirations and association. The music you like may well help determine the clothes you wear, the friends you keep, how you cut your hair—it’ll certainly determine which clubs or gigs you go to, and who you go with. It’s a chicken / egg conundrum, though, as to which comes first—the music or the identity. Do you like this music because of who you are, or are you making a definite effort to determine who you are and using the music as a tool to do so? Because like it or not, and whether you’re aware of it or not, your cultural choices are a signifier pointing towards who you are.
Here are a handful of bands and what liking them says about you:
Interpol - “I am deep, moody, urban and edgy, given to pathos and bad poetry. Please have sex with me, but don’t expect an orgasm.”
Bright Eyes - “I have read a book about true love and am too scared to treat you badly. Please don’t have sex with me, as I will cry.”
Embrace - “I really am in it for the music, because the public perception of my favourite band is terrible. Please have sex with me in a slightly dull, monogamous way.”
Kompakt-style techno - “I transcend the body-mind divide by being intellectually into dancing. Please have sex with me on drugs.”
Bloc Party - “I am very cool but not as alternative as I’d like to think, and I wish I knew more black people. Please have sex with me, but be careful not to mess-up my hair.”
Girls Aloud - “I am a shallow pop whore. Let’s fuck! But it will be without true, meaningful emotion.”
Arcade Fire - “I am into way more cool and obscure stuff than anyone else. Please let me say I had sex with you ages ago, before anyone else.”
Oasis - “I am a piss-throwing troglodyte misogynist. I am going to date-rape you.”
Each of these assumptions says as much about the inferer as the inferred, if not more so. Each one is a value judgement based on cultural baggage, and everyone’s cultural baggage is different. Most internet-based discussion of music that I’ve come across deals not with what people like, but with what people dislike. What people like is a matter of assumption, some kind of unspoken test to see whether someone is cool enough to be spoken to, to be let into the secret club. You wouldn’t want someone uncool hanging around with the cool kids (on a messageboard, natch) and making them uncool by association because they like, heaven forbid, “The Whisper Song”, would you?
Ah, “The Whisper Song.” Here’s what tintin1000 said about it: it sounds like there is an actual intellectual, logical reason behind the creation of the fucking whisper song. the whisper song is about fucking. since when has fucking merited any artistic credibilty? just plain, raw, primitive sex? This raises a whole other issue that indieboys can’t stand. Sex. It’s often been stated that indieboys are afraid to dance because they have an intrinsic “fear of the middle of the body,” a post-Victorian-era Catholic / Freudian guilt / paranoia about all things sexual which dates back, perhaps, to Morrissey’s fiercely foppish stance of asexuality and beyond, to Keats or Wordsworth or whoever, and the myth of the sexually-frustrated romantic, the idea that one’s art will be somehow purer if untainted by the dirty touch of lust. But go beyond that, go to Michelangelo sculpting David’s sensuous masculine frame; or all those countless portraits of St. Sebastian, pierced with arrows like an S&M stunt gone awry, loincloth barely covering his genitals; all those pre-Raphaelite female nudes; every film to ever reveal more flesh than grandmother would like; to Led Zeppelin wailing about plain, raw, primitive sex and John Lennon trying to make the end of “A Day In The Life” sound like a great big musical orgasm. Very few people would question Björk’s artistic credibility, and she’s written countless songs about sex. People are rushing to proclaim Kate Bush’s Aerial a work of genius, and it’s positively dripping with eroticism. Sex is not the be-all-and-end-all of human existence, and to get too caught up in its alluring juices and scents can screw with your head (just ask Michael Douglas or any random Tory politician) but to claim that plain, raw, primitive sex has never inspired any worthwhile art is the folly of the hungry, short-sighted virgin. Pop music in particular (and The Mountain Goats and Deerhoof are as much pop music as Charlotte Chruch or Sisqo) is about sex.
And of course sex is key to identity—as if I needed to say that after the assumptions about bands above. Anyone who ever wore skinny jeans or dyed their hair black did so because they wanted some of their idol’s allure by proxy, because they thought that listening to this record and wearing those shoes would get them laid. Everyone. Except me, of course, because I’m above it all.
The problem with our intrepid hero tintin1000 is that he’s finding his identity, and is thus vulnerable to having the fragile foundations of that identity shaken. And so he sees Mountain Goats, an act he loves for their literate, melodic music made in the cottage-industry style, unadorned by commercial trappings but instead blessed with deep insight into the human condition, at number 50 on our list and is pleased, thinking, hoping and assuming that the rest of the list will continue to reaffirm his identity. Because he trusts Stylus, possibly, as someone he can talk to about these things. And there’s the fucking Ying Yang Twinz, wtf? And Gwen Stefani? And other music that is liked by the people he sees at college or in town and takes an instant dislike to for their shallow natures and unthinking ways, and it jars his assumptions about what it means to like Mountain Goats, about what it says about him when he realises what he thinks liking Kelly Clarkson says about other people.
The thing is that once you stop worrying about what owning (and more importantly liking) a Girls Aloud record says about you, you can start taking it on its own merits, which are (generally) pretty plentiful. Something like Die Hard is a great film because it knows what it is and what it does and it executes its plan with zero faffing around—there’s no narrative fat in that film (unlike, say, the odious Goodfellas), every single event is a plot device, and there’s joy to be found in such craftsmanship, never mind the actual tangible visceral thrill of the finished article once we get past ontological rumination on the efficiency of the screenplay. Likewise Girls Aloud’s records are faultless exercises in meta-pop constructivism, not so much songs as processions of hooks and choruses with the boring, fatty verses left over for the likes of Okkervil River instead. And, of course, as with Die Hard there is the sheer physical joy of listening to them, of dancing to them, getting caught up in the beats and the insidious melodic hooks, which outweighs even the music-journalistic catnip attraction of playing spot-the-reference.
And once you’re past the stage of crushing insecurity and aspirational identity positing, the idiocy inherent in statements like how in the hell do you distinguish which gwen stefani single is the "best" on the album? becomes clear. You distinguish your favourite (no such thing as objectivity, kids) Gwen Stefani song on Love Angel Music Baby in exactly the same manner as you would your favourite song on The Sunset Tree—by listening to the record and choosing the song that you like most, for whatever reason(s) it is that you ever like any song. Until your superego stops screaming at you that it’s bad to like Gwen Stefani though, that’s not going to happen.
It works in stages though, this music / identity nexus. As a child one likes simple things, the multi-coloured hues of pop music perhaps, but once one senses the transition to adulthood one puts away childish things. By writing off whole areas of music for the simple reason that “it’s not the kind of thing someone like me listens to” you are, quite simply, denying yourself a whole lot of pleasures, both frivolous and profound. Malcolm X said in his autobiography that “children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so 'safe,' and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.” It’s not just failing that we shouldn’t be ashamed of. A major finding in neuroscience in recent years is the extent to which our brains display advanced levels of ‘neural plasticity.’ We are not forever ‘hardwired’ for rigid modes of behaviour; we are not static ‘slaves’ to our DNA. There is a remarkable degree to which we can change ingrained patterns of thought, intention and practice. Our identities are not fixed, are not immutable—admitting that you enjoy a Britney record unironically will not destroy your future character. And that goes for an awful lot of things besides music.
Of course this is all blatant assumption, and doesn’t mean anything at all. Except, perhaps, that you should give in to your ids, indie kids.