I'm a little behind in all things internet lately, but I did get a chance over the weekend to read Nitsuh Abebe's excellent overview of the decade in indie rock over at Pitchfork. It's a terrific read, surveying the various ebbs and flows of the decade in a fairly succinct yet broad (and entertaining) way. As I've tentatively dipped my toe into my own iTunes library in prepartion for some kind end-of-decade rundown (something I probably won't actually post until later in the fall), it really dawns on me what a challenge that really is. With that difficulty in mind, Abebe acquits himself quite well, not only reminding us of a few trends we might sooner forget (or wish to revive) but also illustrating how what's called indie rock these days has nuzzled up to more mainstream audiences. I'll spare you too much of my own assessment as I think Abebe gets it pretty much right.
The only thing I'd highlight that Abebe neglected is a little television show called The OC, which happened to debut in fall 2003, just before the boom year in indie rock that was 2004. The show was really a watershed for indie rock in the 00s—not because it brought indie to the mainstream, but because it brought the mainstream to the indie set. While it may not have been the first show to feature, subtly or not, musical acts either in the plot or on its soundtrack, The OC was the first to really embrace the indie sound of the era—Bloc Party, Death Cab for Cutie, the Walkmen, etc. Pitchfork would report it as news in a "gosh, wow, awesome!" kind of way—and it was, gosh, wow, kind of awesome to see the Walkmen make a bona fide appearance on a prime time TV show. It's not like MTV still had its pied-à-terre in the Alternative Nation, so where else were they supposed go?
For that matter, it's not like these bands' fans were necessarily buying their records. (Hello, dawn of the filesharing era.) Cries of sell-out in the last decade really dwindled to an occasional grunt—during The OC's commercial breaks, when that Outback commercial would come on—largely because fans and artists alike kinda figured out that the income options, slim as they already were for indie acts, were narrowing even more. So when Seth Cohen comes a-calling—he of the skinny frame and nice sweater, possessing an honorable awareness of manga and indie films, not to mention dashing out a self-deprecating charm and ego-less sarcasm—well, a lot of indie bands thought maybe it was about time they got in bed with this kind of thing.
Then they got paid. So when Grey's Anatomy dialed their number a couple years later, they picked up on the first ring.
But as an indie dick it's still easy to scoff at a show like Grey's Anatomy, which really only wants a ballad charmless enough to stay out of the way of the dialogue, or literal enough so that when the chorus comes in it narrates the action—"How to Save a Life!" Get it? They're medical interns! Then there's the groaner of the decade, that film set in New Jersey about vaguely depressed Shins fans. I don't even need to quote it—the point is it makes you angry; it almost makes you hate the Shins for being a part of some kind of cultural zeitgeist. That's a terrifically old-school indie rock reaction, one I admit I still let out every so often even when my maturity tells me I ought to can it. Yet The OC doesn't really elicit that reaction. Why not? Why was it basically okay for bands to have walk-ons on that show? Why did the producers' ploys to debut tracks from the new Beck album actually cause people to tune in, even when they could just suss out an album leak that day or the next? Why, of all bands, did Clap Your Hands Say Yeah—the most famous DIY band of the decade (not counting the other one)—reject the show's overtures in fears of being labeled sell-outs, only to become a punchline, a band that supposedly got too big too fast? (Did they get penalized by their fans for not making deals with labels? For not licensing songs to the right outlets and validating their worth in the marketplace?)
So where does that leave us? Well, for one thing it leaves a lot of indie bands—a certain kind of indie band, as Abebe is right to discern—hitting the pop charts and making it onto soundtracks for films about young, shampoo-less vampires. Bad thing, good thing, I can't really say. I'll only point out that I find it a little strange to see people on the web get way stoked about the New Moon soundtrack. Is it a validation of their tastes? I don't think so. If I were to make that charge I'd bet the response would be "Who cares what it's for? It just looks like a great collection of songs by my favorite bands so I want it." Okay, fair enough, though there was a time that punk and indie fans did care what it was for. Meanwhile, when films that seem actually marketed toward the indie sensibility—Seth Cohen 2.0?—I tend to see those films met with skepticism by many in the indie crowd. Good on the indie rockers, I guess, for recognizing that they're being marketed to (or exploited?) when films starring scrawny Pixies fans come their way. You can have your Nick & Norah, your 500 Days of Summer, your Juno—I won't have my identity sold back to me!—but can someone let me know when that New Moon soundtrack leaks?
What's the right business model for an indie band? What's the wrong one? What should indie fans tolerate? What should they not? Does being an "indie fan" even mean anything today other than trawling for leaks and bitching about Pitchfork album scores? Honestly I don't know. I only sense that there is a disconnect happening on both sides.