The New Solipsism: What the Fuck Happened to Indie Rock?
Rock music used to have the decency to be about doing too much coke or banging groupies while complimenting itself on its own sensitivity; now it’s about maintaining your lawn.
I blame the Hold Steady. I blame The Hold Steady because they started this whole mess, what I’m calling The New Solipsism, because I’m academically insecure and I’ve always wanted to put name to what makes me unhappy. I blame The Hold Steady because they were arguably the band that most made the indie rock listener’s personal experience as someone who is deeply invested in being an indie music listener central to the music. Mind you, not just making music that the listener could relate to—that’s what music is supposed to do—but making music that was about how much the listener related to songs. I blame the Hold Steady because they wrote songs about songs, about being a fan, about identifying as punk or hardcore at one point but that, well, that was a long time ago, when we were young and the Jersey shore breathed hot against our necks or something, about being a white middle class indie dude as though this were something inherently worth documenting. It’s not that rock music was a foreign country before them, where the listener visited, took pictures, critiqued the food, and then left, returning to their safe and loving homes. But being a fan and a “regular dude” who just liked the sweet jams of his youth had never been romanticized to such a degree. Critics loved them because they were a band that made being a rock critic seem almost heroic. Listeners loved them because they were Springsteen epic for a slightly higher tax bracket. Now the field of indie rock is awash with music that celebrates the existence of the aging indie rocker.
It is grotesque.
The New Solipsism is much like The Old Solipsism (best exemplified by the ‘70s Laurel Canyon musicians; every one of them either an actor in “You’re So Vain” or acted upon, and repeated endlessly through Toto to Morrissey all the way through hot topic emo) but it’s happening now. Right now. And I’m afraid it can’t be stopped because we love ourselves and our low stakes existence just too damn much. Because this time indie rock doesn’t even have the decency to be about doing too much coke or banging groupies while complimenting itself on its own sensitivity; now it’s about being really reasonable and maintaining your lawn; metaphorical and literal.
While the Mekons sang “Destroy your safe and happy lives, before it is too late…” the majority of the indie landscape—from Hold Steady to Grizzly Bear to Vampire Weekend to Real Estate—seem to exist to provide assurance to the listener that their safe and happy life is well earned and, slight malaise that comes with mortality duly noted, perhaps they should just purchase some car insurance. It’s not millennials fault either. I mean, if you want to blame them you can. God knows they seem like monsters and I’m going to die way before most of them, so they can go kick rocks with no socks for all I care. But I’m afraid this time around, this particular egregious navel gazing of which I speak is on my general age group; whatever the group between Baby Boomers and literal babies is; Generation X/Y. Us, the schmucks too old for Kevin Kline’s kid and too young to pretend John Lennon wasn’t a prick. We can’t stop liking music that, while fine in of itself, is pimping to our worst and dullest instincts.
Let me digress for a moment and say a couple things; things are going pretty well for you, contemporary indie rock fan, and I’m glad. You’re not a bad person. You voted Obama twice, even if the second time was little touch and go but, really, what was the alternative? You act in a generally moral fashion even if that means more that you’re not actively evil. Hey, me too. Compromise is natural and you love your wife and children and mom and dad and there’s nothing wrong with that; why would there be? And if we, you and I, were born with certain advantages in life, be they class or just skin color (I know I know, your parents were coal miners or something an nobody handed you a damn thing but, you know, being white and American is pretty sweet from the get go. I’m not diminishing our accomplishments by admitting this and asking the same of you) then, well, it would be foolish to not take advantage of them. What are we, martyrs? No, we are not. And our stories are valid and our stories are worth telling and the life, love, aching death fear of the middle to upper middle class is worth documenting, because our stories are valid.
Rock and pop music has always been egocentric. To appeal to teenagers it damn well better be. But now that teenagers truly couldn’t be bothered with rock—particularly of the “indie” variety—rock music, while keeping the narcissism, has applied it to the most relentlessly boring life choices a man can make; good college, good brews, good stories (alive purely in the past tense), good jobs, good living, good death. Indie rock music is now every character in The Graduate.
Much of my condemnation—if you can call an essentially pointless and clearly embittered jeremiad a real condemnation—is based, admittedly on how I perceive these bands. While Vampire Weekend and Sun Kil Moon have overt lyrics that range from, on VW’s end, complete celebration (even under the smarmy guise of critique…nothing makes me chew rocks into sand like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”) of oligarchy and, on Sun Kil Moon’s, a pat on the back to lowered expectations that should, in a just world, come with a six pack of O’Doul’s, bands like Real Estate and Grizzly Bear are more subtle in their embrace of post-collegiate bourgeoisie existence. Their inclusion in The New Solipsism is because of the aristocratic cut of their jib, the way they strum their guitars like their dad’s hired The Feelies as their nannies—their utter lack of anything that could keep them from being my boss in everything. That and the fact that Real Estate’s video for “Talking Backwards” is three minutes and 11 seconds of hazy nostalgia for the halcyon days of… well, when they made the video for their song, “Talking Backwards.” It’s basically We’re An American Band for people too smart to ever do anything fun. Though, as with all these bands, a clear and present danger of Ultimate Frisbee and/or a Donna Tart reading group starting does run throughout their work.
Sun Kil Moon’s new record is largely about being a mid-level indie musician whose peripheral sorrows seem to mainly happen to serve as grist for Mark Kozelek’s existential musings. Every awful moment is read through the prism of how he feels about it, as though it wouldn’t exist without his interpretation. He says he’s sad because, again, they’re songs about being sad—more songs about songs. Kozelek even talks about how recently departed deserve art about them, art he’s kind enough to provide. He also goes to a Postal Service show. Middle class white dudes like myself love this album like it’s a gift from alt-heaven. All this “honesty” is beloved by those who are deeply invested in their show attendance and occasional grieving elevated to a thing of beauty. But loving one’s mother and father and memorializing those we purport to love isn’t a brave or radical act of honesty; it’s the bare minimum. In this case the dead don’t get the art they’re said to deserve, but those left behind sure get a nifty album. Real Estate’s album is John Updike as college rock; rural reverie with just enough grey skies to be mistaken as meaningful.
OK. That is entirely not fair, to either artist. I’m being a click-bait prick because black metal and hardcore isn’t getting the love my perpetually adolescent self wants for it and to you, nicest boys in the universe, Real Estate, and Mark Kozelek, I actually dig that one song about Son of Sam and your AC/DC covers, I fucking apologize. Real Estate and Sun Kil Moon (and, hell, all the other bands discussed) are extremely good at what they do. And they make very nice people very happy. But therein lays my main squirming issue with them; whatever tedious life decisions we’ve made, Real Estate and Sun Kil Moon, The New Solipsism’s newest and most beloved standard bearers, are here to justify them through song. And I don’t want my, our, or your middle class existence justified, I want it burned down and the wretched earth below it salted and its loss to be forever unmourned. I want shame and rage and self-loathing so deep that I can sail a Chrysler as big as a whale across it. I want hatred so over the top that it’s interchangeable with love. I want 24/7 Kraken. At least that’s what I want from bands I listen to. I want total destruction, not bland reinforcement.
Or I want a nice song I can dance to. Dancing is lovely, isn’t it?
Zachary Lipez will fight you, or dance with you. He's on Twitter — @zacharylipez