An Indie Snob comes clean:
(Or my life history)
A standard agreement among those striving towards enlightened: labels are lame.
Yet we all feel the need to sometime label ourselves. Few would argue that. Recently an editor I work with came up to me and asked me to read a manuscript on indie culture, a manuscript she had recently bought*. Apparently I came up in the meeting. My boss proclaimed, “Dana can work on this book! These are her people!” My friend wanted me to read it to see if it was authentic or not. On the train home I thought am I indie?
Indie. Fuck the Mainstream. I’ve always affiliated myself with something that sounded like that. As a little girl I liked the Misfits better than Jem and the Holograms. I colored my Barbie’s hair purple with marker and made them dance around with me to Prince. In middle school, I emulated Ani DiFranco, who, while arguably lame, is indie and one of the first people I knew about to start her own label (Righteous Babe).
Then came the advent of Goth in my life, which I embraced during the horrid time when I was 14 after having decided color and happiness were overrated. Now, Goth, while not an “indie” thing—The Cure are certainly mainstream and it doesn’t help that everybody thinks Goth equals Marilyn Manson—had and still have specific enclaves entitled to snobbery. Similar to indie snobbery but no one wears sneakers. At 16 (it was 1998), I found a strain of indie-dom in Goth, buried underneath the parody and the bad makeup and the mallrat culture. I discovered this when I started to go to clubs in Philadelphia and listen to industrial dance music, electro and EBM– music that was very much, in the US at least, limited to a tiny scene. I was introduced to a kind of lifestyle where you bought imported records for way too much money and sorted through boxes for old Front 242 albums at used record stores. And you never went to the beach.
It was a really comfortable place to be. You weren’t different, you were better and more enriched because you liked things no one else knew about.
Although I was never punk rock, many of my friends were. When I was busy trying to decipher Joy Division lyrics alone in my bedroom, they were going to Antiflag shows. I realize now that had I been part of a larger community of people who were familiar and took part in subculture, I wouldn’t have hung out with punks. “Don’t punks hate Goths?” I was asked once. In my universe, though, it was not so West Side Story. In the suburbs if you don’t fit into the cookie cutter, you hang out with everyone else who doesn’t fit, whether they are punk, Goth or hippie or just a drug addict. It was actually a very equalizing force.
However, I hated “punk rock” for the most part, except for the classic shit like Ramones and Buzzcocks (who are actually pop punk, really) and, of course, the stuff that falls under the umbrella of punk influence, like Suicide, the Stranglers, Patti Smith, X Ray Spex, Television. But much of this music I didn’t totally embrace until college. I loved The Clash as a teenager, but The Clash were only “punk” for one album, the self titled, and then they broke free of that paradigm—or at least I would argue. The Clash I dug (and still do) is the Clash who recorded “Straight to Hell” and the Sandinista! record. The weird Clash stuff.
Weird Clash. That was one thing. Then there was the Velvet Underground. They were the first band that spoke to me like literature, but with the added component of the audio experimentation. Lyrically clever, sonically expansive, angry and beautiful at the same time. All that while still utterly fucking cool all the time. Plus they did drugs (I did drugs), wore black (I wore black), and were arty (I took bad black and white photographs). I immediately not only loved the music but wanted to BE VELVET UNDERGROUND.
The style was one thing, but what I I didn’t realize then, was the attraction lay most in the SOUND. It didn’t follow the rules. It was bent and abstracted but still had traces of pop music, sometimes quite strong ones. At the time, I cried when I contemplated the ennui with life of “Heroin.” Now I realize it’s that guitar pluck, the simple slow drum beat (dum…dum….dum), the clang of tambourine and then the introduction of a viola that makes this fucking timeless—at least for my senses. Even Lou’s drone is just another component to the overall composition of sounds.
Likewise, are the hellishly doomy lyrics of Joy Division that sounded like they were written from just a step away from the grave. At 15, that was how I thought I felt. I GOT IT. Now, I hear it rather than feel it. It’s that sound, the irregularity thrown together to make something new, something cohesive in a way I had never heard before. That is Joy Division to me now.
But try as I might, I never, ever got into the Cramps or the Descendants or Minor Threat (and yes, I do know these are very disparate bands, but I’m trying to cover many bases). I did have a “punk rock boyfriend” when I was fifteen who I’d make out with sometimes and we’d listen to Crass and I’d try to like it. “They have girl singers!” proclaimed my boyfriend. It wasn’t me. I appreciated it. He played me Bikini Kill and I liked it, though. But I wouldn’t learn to love until later.
I was lucky, though. I had friends who were older, who hung out in the local coffee shop. Over the smell of clove smoke, I learned about post punk and it’s many derivatives, like Cabaret Voltaire, The Birthday Party, Gang of Four, The Chameleons, early Siouxsie and the Banshees, Einterzende Neubautan, Meat Beat Manifesto, Aphex Twin, etc. etc. etc. I became to think of my genre, the marker of my place in late 20th century culture (subculture that is) as POST PUNK. I swallowed the music and all the strains it mutated into in the 1990’s—from PJ Harvey to ambient to Massive Attack and other trip hop acts.
I also took the artsy 80’s period from which the heart this music came out of and incorporated it into my dress. It was Goth, yes, but a special sort of avant edge, with influences from Cindy Lauper, Exene Cervenka and Nan Golden’s photography. Think striped tights and huge hair, disshelved hair, skinny blazers over baby doll dresses. I read Please Kill Me, William Burroughs, Sartre and Rimbaud, along with the liner notes of the newly re-released Raincoats album (from a very loving Kurt Cobain, who used his fame to promote the weird shit he wished people knew about rather than knowing about him). I chain-smoked. I drank 8 cups of coffee a day. I had pins galore on my messenger bag claiming my love of Public Image Limited and “Fuck Normalcy.”
Oddly enough, though, my first real boyfriend was a wannabe raver who ran on the track team. But he was depressed (we met by playing the “what medication are you on” name game), he had a funny accent and everyone thought he was gay. Those factors made me love him. I’ll even admit that for a little while I was into trance music when we were together. And still I was embarrassed to admit that we were dating, since he seemed so square. He wasn’t square—he wrote me love notes ending with NIN quotes and had a burgeoning alcohol problem. However, superficially he seemed to most people just like a closeted prep school kid with bad skin. All in all, although I thought I was an expanded human being, I was limited. I was stuck in image.
Yet, much to my dismay, he became much “cooler” after we broke up. One of the things that made me truly hate him after our parting was that this raver kid, this kid who lived for fucking Underworld DVDs, later started djing 80’s music and claiming it for himself! I taught him about Modern English and Soft Cell! To have your musical idenity stolen by the person who stole your heart, damn that sucks. And I wasn’t even that into synth pop. But still, he stole my idea for a dj night, not to mention the music I suggested spinning—a genre of music, I will note, that became extremely popular again in the early 21st century.
So, it was after this first boyfriend, the raver prep douche, that I embraced my first truly American indie scene: RIOT GRRL. Granted, I was about 5 years too late and Bikini Kill had already broken up. However, Sleater-Kinney had also learned how to play their instruments, so there was an upside to the era. I remember buying the The Hot Rock and screaming along while thinking that this is what it is to be a woman NOW. To be angry, smart, multi-dimensional. I really lamented I wasn’t gay, because I loved those gay grrl’s haircuts.
Yes, Riot Grrl was style, but it was substance too. You could like kiddie barrettes, Simone DeBouvoir and the Slits. Before RIOT GRRL, I was always a feminist, but this was a hip, rock n’ roll way to be a feminist that made me want to show it off. “I STOPPED TALKING AN HOUR AGO!” Kathleen Hanna screamed and as she did she breathed life into my own anger at boy culture. She also made it sound unbelievably sexy. So, at 18, my heart broken, I put my hair in pigtails and added a Le Tigre pin to my blazers and carried around a copy of The Beauty Myth in my backpack.
It was Sleater Kinney, a band that in the late 90’s and early 00’s were moving into indie establishment and out of riot grrl trenches, that were the catalyst for my discovering college radio. Princeton radio showcased complex music that was not made by drug addicts in black, but instead opened my ears to jangly stuff like Belle and Sebastian and lo-fi brilliance like Pavement. Wonderful classic “indie” bands who put out some stellar, groundbreaking albums. Cliché in a way but what a glorious cliché! Oh and the Pixies. I fucking loved, loved, loved the Pixies. “It’s educational!” screamed Frank Black. But while I was in love with them, so was every other indie kid in 1999, or so I found out when I went to college. But for New Hope, PA, I was fucking indie. I was ALTERNA! I felt the shackles of Goth begin to come off. I even bought a pair of jeans.
Also at this time (2000), Radiohead became extremely popular, yet still acceptable to like if you were a music snob. I remember buying KID A the day it came out. I got home, sat in the dark, got high and listened all the way through. Technology is evil! Yet, those synths are so emotionally moving even in their coldness! How can this be? Somewhere out there is a hideously pretentious review that I wrote for my school paper on the album. I think only my friend Zach, who helped me with some technical terms and probably my ex boyfriend, who was exceedingly competitive, were the only ones who read it. Those poor kids studying for the SAT’s all the time actually had things to do beyond getting high and trying to figure out the hidden meaning in bass lines.
I also remember listening to “Lucky“ (pull me out of the air crash) on the afternoon of September 11.
So, yes, that brings me to college. 2001 was when I entered, two weeks before towers fell. Well, when the world collapses, retreat into what you feel most comfortable, right? So, as a freshman I burrowed further into this “indie” culture. I was no longer one of 10 people who were alterna, but I went to a college ENTIRELY MADE UP OF THE WEIRD ART KIDS. All my friends were “indie” too, many musicians. Most had never been into Goth, but many were once into punk and hardcore. So, we banded together, bitched about Bush and Afghanistan, wore ugly clothes, and listened to a lot of Modest Mouse and Fugazi, along with bands that were just coming out like the Faint and the Rapture (who sounded suspiciously like my post punk loves from high school). I also began to discover more of the music which I love most: ambient and kraut rock via a brief fling with a technology loving nihilist film major.
I went through a good three years of dressing terribly, making my own tee-shirts, cutting up denim and making them into ugly skirts, wearing my hair in little buns, buying vintage skirts that didn’t fit well at the Salvation Army, making out with a sweet Asian boy who wanted to be Ben Gibbard, wearing sneakers with cuffed jeans, and dreaming of being a music photographer. I began to make mix cd’s and also had a makeoutclub profile. I started to like Beat Happening, name check K Records, and I praised the temple that was Kill Rock Stars. I read Venus and Bitch and scoured H&M for the perfect new hoodies to patch up. My best friend in the world was a gay boy who wore children’s clothes.
And now, am I indie? At 24? In my apartment in South Park Slope? Well, my roommate and I sit around and listen to vinyl. I promote leftist writers for a living…but also work for a corporation. I go the gym 4 times a week, which might be deemed “aging indie.”
And I read Pitchfork. I know about “mumble core” filmmaking. I’ve been to Bushwick. I’ve been kicked out of parties by the cops in Bushwick.
I still listen to early Smog records and I get real excited when I find out a friend also likes Do Say Make Think. I feel like I know the guys from Flight of the Concords, sans accent. I melt when I listen to anything touched by the hand of Brian Eno or when I break out some old Godspeed You Black Emperor!; I still jump around the room to the Stooges’ “Shake Appeal.”
But am I indie? I don’t think so. I think perhaps only 19 year olds are truly indie, those kids who spend all their extra cash on tee shirts and show tickets and have time to blog while they are taking a break from studying politics in Latin America. That is when it really means something. That is when you need it; you need a culture to hold on.
But indie is a reminder of where I come from. It’s political, it’s feminist, and it still holds many of the ethics I value—independence and artistic integrity. I also still find boys in tight jeans with raggy hair very attractive, but I’m really trying to, you know, like, expand my horizons too. But indie isn’t just the music or the style; it’s the sonic taste of every boy I’ve ever kissed, every lover who meant anything and even the ones who didn’t. It’s the bad outfits and the ones that weren’t so much bad as truly unique.
And of course, the records still sound as good as they did ten years ago.
Sleater Kinney “Get Up”: Directed by Miranda July