As the genre's previous generation makes a final push, new, more diverse artists are pushing it forward.
Image by Devin Pacholik
Music publications and Reddit threads have been eulogizing the death of indie rock for what feels like an eternity— you can read such obituaries here, here, here, and here. The indie they're mourning is from the early 2000s, when bands like The Strokes made Is This It and The Libertines in Britain had Up The Bracket. From there, four- and five-piece rock bands cropped up everywhere; a veritable Whack-A-Mole of sound and presence like Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand, and so many more. Thanks to shows like The OC, the genre was further popularized as Seth Cohen became a reluctant but fitting posterboy. Nevertheless, the times have changed and what indie rock is today is not what the indie rock of the Aughts was, and that's a large part of why that era's music has lost steam.
In 2016, we were treated to, with little hubbub, a new Kings of Leon album, Walls, and an excellent EP from The Strokes aptly titled Future Past Present. Arctic Monkeys revitalized themselves in 2013 with the greasy AM but they made that shift specifically so they could hit a larger audience. We're also getting new albums from The Killers, The National, Broken Social Scene and, Arcade Fire this year and it's hard not to imagine that we'll get more of the same. Recently, The Shins announced that their new record Heartworms—their first in four years—will be released in March. The album's lead single "Name For You" is still very much a Shins song, with characteristic simple guitar strumming, and signature yelps in James Mercer's voice when he unironically sings, "it's a bland kind of torture." It's a song about a woman whose youthful years have been lost to motherhood and reading gossip magazines at a grocery store checkout since indie rock has always made a habit out of documenting its aging. In the years since Natalie Portman's character Sam in Garden State made The Shins cool to Zach Braff's Andrew Largemen and a broader audience, the band has undergone a lineup change and James Mercer even started a side project with Danger Mouse called Broken Bells. The sameness of this new song, which isn't to say it's bad, suggests that this is where The Shins is at their most comfortable. But comfort can also be stagnant; a lack of evolution is what leads music critics to prophesize the genre's downfall. That said, indie rock will never die, per se—it uses the same tropes over and over. It also no longer reflects the reality of our current musicmakers and that of its consumers. This year looks like a last push by the old guard of indie rock to find its relevancy.
Speaking to Noisey last year, drummer Ronnie Vanucci of The Killers said all the tracks for their new record were mostly done but the sonic direction wasn't necessarily revealed. The Killers' catalogue is a winding path of sound: Hot Fuss brought electronic elements into the genre—pulling inspiration from Britpop and new wave; they then switched gears to Americana and Bruce Springsteen on Sam's Town; and went back to the 80s for safe, anthemic stadium U2 rock on Day & Age and Battle Born (my theory is that U2 as inspiration serves to cause more musical harm than good.) It's where they found their safest success and what is potentially the best direction sonically to satisfy. Death Cab for Cutie's last few albums since Plans have been less than memorable; their latest Kintsugi was to be a fresh start for the band (their first record without Chris Walla) but it doubles down on more of the same. Newness, by the old guard of indie, appears to just mean it's new and not necessarily ground breaking. Nostalgia—a rekindling and reliving of that a feeling or experience—is a vital element in indie rock; it has kept its bands and musicians afloat for as many years, even while in decline.
Indie rock's slump in popularity can be, in part, attributed to a rise in hip-hop and critical interest in pop. Hip-hop, according to Jay Z, was meant to have a real spot in the early 90s but it had to wait: "It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know? Those 'hair bands' were too easy for us to take out; when Kurt Cobain came with that statement it was like, 'We got to wait awhile.'" Wait it out the genre did to see Drake become a global superstar, Jay Z and Beyonce as cultural royalty, Young Thug' iconic Jeffrey cover art, and then there's Migos' "Bad and Boujee." We've seen artists in the genre push forward representation, political discourse, and more to try and ride the wave of the culture instead of remaining stale.
There was a shining spot of momentum during indie's initial burst. In 2003, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs unleashed Fever to Tell fronted by frenzied power presence Karen O, a queen of the era and beyond; Karen O's place as a South Korean born woman in a male and white genre is unmistakably important. She is a better template and example for a new generation of indie rock bands because she was bold where she wanted to be (on "Art Star" or spitting into the audience) but also soft, like "Maps"or most of Show Your Bones. The space given to men and women who were not exclusively white shifted as the decade went on: Kele Okereke in Bloc Party in 2004; Dev Hynes first in Test Icicles and then Lightspeed Champion and now in the powerful Blood Orange; and Brittany Howard brought the rock genre back to its roots with Alabama Shakes. Plenty of white, male indie bands still exist but the space isn't occupied exclusively by them anymore nor are women in bands token pieces either. In 2016, we were gifted innovative work by artists such as Angel Olsen, Mitski, Weaves, PWR BTTM, and Kevin Abstract—an artist who considers himself hip-hop yet wrote a thematically indie rock record. We're set to get a new St. Vincent album in 2017, as well as East Coast Canada's Partner, redefining garage rock; and Girlpool, Haim, Chastity Belt, and Shamir. These indie artists—as fluid as the genre's definition is now—provide a better scope of identifiable experience that many Aughts bands did not. Mitski, an Asian American, belting out the lyrics to "Your Best American Girl" is skin-tingling but also references a very specific experience positioned next to a usually white identifier. Gender and sexuality, too, are fluid and gaining wider recognition. PWR BTTM make a glittery spectacle for their live shows and present their queerness, their authentic selves, in the process; not undercutting who they are. The same can be said for Partner: the self-identified lesbians from the East Coast who are impeccable shredders, even dedicating a track to actress Ellen Page.
Indie now is trying to make a space for everyone but, even more important, the producers of this music want to ensure that their audience can take part in that representation. Truly looking outside of one's self is a cultural progress that has sped up over the last several years. The apathetic yet emotional thrust that indie put forth on albums like on Death Cab For Cutie's Transatlanticism, Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights, Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In The People, and Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning are some examples that set the genre on fire; men, for the most part, were given space to emote or be bored or present their perspectives. But emotional explosions or half-hearted frustration and weariness are found on Kevin Abstract's angsty verses; Angel Olsen's raw lyrics over searing guitar riffs; Girlpool's adolescent, choral yelps; and Weaves' garage pop subversion on a track about living in a shithole. This wave of indie builds on the foundation of the older guard: they pull influence from a myriad of genres, not limiting themselves to simply one or one mode of musical thinking; and they often look outside of their experience to see whom else they may be representing and what, even if music is entertainment, what other impression they are leaving on their audience. So is indie rock dead? No. It shifted its focus to look out as well as in. We'll see if the old guard indie bands can keep up this year.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer for Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.