The Flying Walrus, January 2006
I am a musical outsider[i].
I represent a group of people who think radio isn’t so bad. Mainstream music has penetrated into my core and had its way with me. It feels damn good. And I am tired of feeling guilty about it.
I hate talking about music, but there’s no escaping it. Questions like “what kind of music do you listen to?” will surface eventually. Even MSN Messenger has the “What I’m listening to” feature so we can judge each other without actually interacting[ii]. People want to know this information because it seems to tell them something about you. Well, I own 6 CDs (one was a gift). Six. You could imagine how much I dread meeting strangers; I always feel the need to explain what’s “wrong” with me (a prepared speech) and then spend the rest of the evening trying to self-actualize.
Though I may stand on the periphery of the indie scene, I am neither blind to the smirk, nor deaf to the “ugh”. I know what people are thinking when I say things like, “I listen to everything” and “No, I’ve never heard of The Decemberists“[iii].
Music for me is like religion to agnostics: I acknowledge that there’s something missing in my life and I can appreciate what it does for others, but I just can’t believe in it until I experience that sweet sonic salvation for myself. And in my defense, music fans don’t exactly encourage the unbeliever. In fact, this indie music cult is the least proselytising religion I’ve ever heard of (besides Judaism). We all know these people. “Music Elitists” they call themselves, the Pharisees of the melodic world who scoff at those lacking the knowledge-nay the Truth-that only they possess.
Music elitists are eager to sneer at those who know all the words to Hollaback Girl, but are not so willing to divulge the lyrics to the new Mates of State[iv], let alone the ‘zine where they discovered the band. They are music hoarders. They want me to like the radio; I am what elevates them to elite status.
I have no qualms with indie music itself; outsiders like myself rarely take issue with any genre as we can’t offer a better alternative[v]. From what I’ve experienced, however, the scene is not about the music. It’s not about the supremacy of dynamics, lyrics, key changes or time signatures. I would be surprised if half these “elitists” have a background in music theory. And yet, they claim some sort of audacity on the subject and make major social distinctions based on their groundless opinions. Most of the indie fans I’ve met are more in love with the exclusive scene than the music itself.
Indie has become a lifestyle, a classification, and a mainstream one at that. It has a creed[vi] and comes complete with a look: straight black hair, thick-rimmed glasses, faded tight-ass jeans, vintage t-shirts, argyle sweaters (for the winter) and an asymmetrical lip ring for good measure. Totally un-American Eagle, granted, but don’t think “cool-because-it’s-uncool” is any less of a shtick. Music elitists buy into their subculture just like people who frequent clubs and gyrate to Fifty Cent.
If I’m not mistaken, Holt Renfrew was showcasing “indie gear” a couple of months ago. The mannequins were sporting guitars on their backs and the clothing was manufactured (not independently, I’m guessing) to look like it had been pre-worn by a bullfighter. “Indie fashion” is accessible almost anywhere; while the music may not be on a label, you can’t really own an independent belt. This is probably the easiest commercial entrance into the scene. Indie kids have to wear something and not everyone is willing to shop at Value Village.
Popular culture will make room inside itself for those who resist it. It didn’t take long for Much Music to create The Wedge, a Friday night program offering “an hour of the most unique, strange and thoughtful music videos” for those who seek refreshment from the mainstream. Even Seventeen Magazine has an indie beat called “The Next Big Thing”; it’s written by Billy Man, a Grammy-winning songwriter (who looks very convincing in his black Ramone’s t-shirt). The magazine’s website invites its young demographic to hear song clips from featured bands and then rate the band as either “hot or not”.
Of course music elitists don’t appreciate any exposure; it violates their creed. To hell with band loyalty. As soon as Death Cab for Cutie appeared on a t-shirt they became an old, no-talent, sold-out band. Publicity defeats the purpose of the scene. So, elitists must work harder. It’s a race to the bottom to find the most obscure bands. No coffee house, local bar or garage will be left unturned. You can see where this is going. Tomorrow I may discover a shady figure outside my bathroom with a tape recorder, hoping I’m the new Stellastarr*. Clearly, these are not fans that lose themselves in the music. The indie scene stifles the music because elitists don’t want their bands to succeed. In the meantime, I suffer for boppin’ to radio jams when scenesters can’t even get behind their own music[vii].
If the indie scene isn’t about the tunes, why all the fuss? Why all this elite bullshit?
Here’s where it gets sad:
Under the fitted band shirt and askew haircut therein lies a person wanting to belong. And instead of building relationships in conventional ways, like being friendly and compassionate, these souls opt to, as my mother would say, “Blow out my candle to make theirs shine brighter”. Makes sense. It’s an identity thing. Most people go through it in high school, but others are late bloomers.
I can’t offer any other reasonable explanation for such snobby attitudes. If it was just about the good music then it would speak for itself without anyone trying to prove something. I guess it feels nice to be a part of an exclusive group. Insiders feel like they’re in on something and, therefore, important. Well, if that’s what they need…
What sucks is that scenesters are missing out on the experience of music, its satisfaction and fulfillment. They’re too preoccupied with where they stand on the cool continuum. I don’t listen to music that often so I don’t know what that fulfillment is like, exactly. But I’m sure it’s out there. And I’m sure that you’re not going to find it by making me feel like an idiot. Thanks for the help, but I can do that on my own.
[i] The only time in my life when I could ever be mistaken for an insider-and by extension, musically “cool”-was when I was ten years old, watching a group of effeminate boys at a theme park. The year was 1995: two years before Hanson’s debut single Mmmbop hit number thirteen on American charts. That was a matter of luck; I wasn’t scoping out new talent… I should note, however, that before those blonde bombshells sold out, their shit was actually good.
[ii] I had to turn mine off because I didn’t want people to know I was listening to Britney Spears. Think about it: you rarely see mainstream bands in those titles. People want their friends to think they’re deep.
[iii] I heard somebody on the bus talking about them. They’re not hip anymore, are they?
[iv] With the exception of excerpts appearing in MSN names or in MySpace blogs.
[v] Many will say they don’t like Country or Gangster Rap, but sometimes I think that’s just what people say because it seems safe.
a) Cool is contingent on how long you have known a band
b) A band will lose credibility when they either i) get signed to major label ii) release a second album iii) are known nationally OR by more than 698 people locally
c) A band gains automatic street-cred when one or more of the band members die (See Elliott Smith)
d) Any review released from pitchforkmedia.com should be treated as gospel.
e) Dropping obscure band names bands ups your ‘cool’ two-fold.
[vii] As not to bash music elitists entirely, however, I feel that I should lend credit where it’s due. How they ever got away with self-imposing such a clearly pompous nickname is mind-bogglingly impressive.