We live in tumultuous times. The economy is in the crapper. Jobs are really hard to find. There’s also all the usual stuff, like politicians being politicians, anti-intellectualism running rampant, and other general persistent awfulness like the always reliable stupidity of people. If you’re in a band, you probably have even more to complain about: people are stealing your music via file sharing sites, there’s a massive amount of competition, and even if you break out of the local scene, chances are you’re much less successful than Nickelback and BrokenCYDE.
That’s why I find it odd that if you were to send someone from the future a bunch of indie music from the last year or two, and have them judge our time period based solely on that music, chances are they would think everything was super. They would hear a lot of nice synth sounds, some fluffy indie pop, and whatever Bon Iver is gargling about. They would detect very little of the unrest and uncertainty that I think is defining life among my age group in 2012.
In the past it seems like a good chunk of music could function as a historical record. When I think of the 60’s, I think of a lot of protest music along with all the hippie peace/love messages that appeared in more mainstream pop. I associate the late 70’s very strongly with the punk movement. When I think 90’s, I usually think of Nirvana, who were heralded as speaking for their generation in a unique way.
The thing I think all of these bands or movements have in common is that there was a purpose to the music. It needed to exist and wasn’t disposable. In each case, it was used to articulate something that wasn’t quite being articulated anywhere else, and I think that’s what caused each example to strike a nerve with the general population. The music is still remembered and listened to today because something about it resonated deeply with people beyond a surface level — it wasn’t just “music”, it was almost more like a way of life for the listeners.
When I look at indie music today, it’s hard to find any artist with a similar effect on its audience. Perhaps the band that has the most unified support is Arcade Fire, who have released three highly acclaimed albums now and are beginning to achieve some mainstream success to go with it. But the problem with Arcade Fire for me is one that plagues most of the other highly acclaimed bands of the last decade or so: there’s no edge to their music, no real purpose behind anything they do other than just making stuff that sounds good. If I had never heard an Arcade Fire song, my life would basically be the exact same as it is now.
The emotion that I think Arcade Fire and so many of the other acclaimed recent bands (Animal Collective, Modest Mouse, you name it) are missing is anger. For me at least, anger is one of the most unifying human emotions there is. When I love the same thing as someone, that’s cool, but I feel a true connection to someone when we both really hate something, especially if it’s something that most other people like. And I think most music that has stood the test of time has had that pissed-off element to it: a lot of 60’s music, early punk and Nirvana were rooted in anger at the musical (and political) status quo. The reason that they’ve all stood the test of time is that they stood for something; they voiced a certain displeasure at the way things were and frustrated people agreed with them.
One of my all-time favorite songs is “Entertain” by Sleater-Kinney, off their 2005 album The Woods. The reason I love it so much (beyond the awesome drumming) is that it’s just so angry. Carrie Brownstein’s manic vocal delivery and lyrics sell the song, which completely rips apart the backwards-looking indie scenesters of the day:
You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new with 1972
Where is the fuck you?
Where’s the black and blue
“Entertain” admittedly goes after rather low-hanging fruit, but I don’t care because it’s so dead-on in its criticism of many bands of that time and this time. It made me think “THANK YOU” that someone finally said what I had been wanting to see said for so long. And since then, “Entertain” has sort of become my musical M.O.
A lot of my favorite rock music has that element of anger in it somewhere: Sleater-Kinney, early PJ Harvey, Helium, Bikini Kill (or any other riot grrrl band), Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Big Black, The Fall, etc. It’s something that I think the greatest rock music has, and conspicuously none of these bands have been active in the last five years (except for PJ Harvey, who did make a fairly angry, indignant album with Let England Shake last year).
At some point, I’m confident that this kind of great rock music will come back, because these things tend to go in cycles. So far this year, there’s been a slight resurgence thanks to Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory, which I didn’t think was an amazing album but it at least attempted to shake up the scene a little bit. It gave me some hope that this phenomenon is being seen by people who can actually play music and want things to be different. Right now, I think indie rock needs a savior, a truly great rock band that can save me from artsy pop, toothless faux-rock, and beardy folk.