Comparing Two Big Bangs: Indie and Rock

Rolling Stone is the old geezer of rock magazines. Whether it’s still relevant is debatable, but it is certainly venerated on a social and, to a lesser extent, critical level. It was and is, in people’s memory, foremost among early rock magazines. Just the words “Rolling Stone” call to mind the music of the late 60s, which the magazine fetishizes to an almost myopic degree; within the top 20 albums on their “500 Greatest Albums List,” 11 are from the 60s (another 2 from the very early 70s). And when we say “the 60s” we really mean ’65-’69, as it was with Rubber Soul that modern rock began to emerge from rock ‘n’ roll.

That that period of five years could produce 11 of the 20 greatest albums of all time may seem inconceivable, but it reveals the meaning behind Rolling Stone’s preoccupation with the late 60s: Rolling Stone concerns itself principally with the development of rock. After all, it was not nearly as interested in Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, or any other rock ‘n’ roller as it was in the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix–all early rockers. If we consider that pop, jazz, folk, and classical are the four fundamental musical categories, then rock ‘n’ roll and rock must be separate subcategories of pop.

During the 1970s rock splintered into numerous factions. Of those factions the most instrumental to the next decade were punk, new wave, and post-punk, all products of the late 70s. These genres informed the development of alternative.

One could argue that alternative deserves its own category separate from rock (so that we would now have rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and alternative, not to mention electronic music and hip hop). But alternative developed fluidly from rock; there was no big bang moment, like the ones that had prompted the creation of rock ‘n’ roll and rock. Every 80s alternative band had its roots in previous rock music, despite certainly adding its own unique stuff to the mixture: the Replacements came from punk and rock, Husker Du from hardcore, the Cure from post-punk. REM, the Smiths, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Go-Betweens were all pop acts at heart. By the late 80s, alternative had been established as a definite genre, one which Sonic Youth solidified beyond all shadow of a doubt with 1988’s Daydream Nation. But as a mutation of what had come before, alternative was not in a category all its own.

It wasn’t until ’91, when Nirvana brought alternative to the fore with Nevermind, that a separate category was truly created. Once alternative was mainstream, it was no longer an alternative to anything–instead, it was all over the radio. Almost immediately, there was a retreat by artists “with integrity” back underground. What blossomed then was indie music.

People often contrast Nevermind with Pavement’s 1992 full-length debut Slanted & Enchanted, with the former representing the behemoth of 90s alternative, and the latter quirky, experimental groups everywhere deliberately avoiding the mainstream–in other words, indie groups. In a startling and quick change of roles, alternative had become Dane Cook and indie Louis CK (with a few exceptions, most notably Radiohead). The reason every critic has such a hard-on for Pavement is because, according to consensus, they were the first indie band (although one could make a case for Tom Waits or Camper Van Beethoven).

Indie was the realization of where alternative was going in the 80s; it broke away from rock, like the moon splitting from the earth, to become its own Genre with a capital G. Pavement defined the movement, but acts like Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill, and Beck were quick to follow, producing music that captured the huge amounts of energy that float around after any big bang. You can hear the same contagious exuberance in rock music from the late 60s–rock was so new and so exciting. “Drive My Car,” the first track on Rubber Soul, is full of that energy, as are the first tracks from any Pavement album, or Exile in Guyville, There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, Mellow Gold… any indie album from that era you want to point to.

Unlike rock in the late 60s, 90s indie was for the most part below the national radar, at least for a while. It grew steadily until the turn of the millennium, when it overtook alternative to become the most iconic contemporary form of pop music in the country (aside from hip hop). If you had to attribute this to two albums, you might say 2000’s Kid A by Radiohead–which showed in a bigger way than Nirvana’s 1993 disownment of the mainstream, In Utero, that a major act could spurn popularity and take big risks–and 2004’s Funeral by the Arcade Fire–which brought beauty to catchy arena rock.

Since 2000 indie music has exploded into a thousand different scenes, with each year seeing wildly different releases. For example, 2011 has had Fleet Foxes’ second album, Helplessness Blues–mostly acoustic, gorgeously melodic and contemplative–but also Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life–loud enough to ruin your ears, insistently energetic, driven by electric guitars and screams, and emotive in the extreme whether that involves anger or happiness or sadness. Due to this huge diversity, the 2000s are similar to the 1970s, which added nuance and depth to the sounds and themes of the late 60s.

One more parallel between the 60s and 70s, and the 90s and 2000s is that indie currently has its own Rolling Stone, in the form of Pitchfork. (If you’re not a fan, then realize too that even in its prime Rolling Stone didn’t perfectly represent rock.) These two music publications are probably the most significant in pop history, the two that stand out historically and in terms of cultural heft. It’s no coincidence that the successor to Rolling Stone emerged in response to indie; its arrival is one of many signals of major change in pop music. As with Rolling Stone, Pitchfork is principally concerned with the creation of a new genre and the aftermath of that creation.

And in the same way that the public has come to glorify the late 60s over all other music decades, due in no small part to the influence of Rolling Stone’s characteristic hang-up, it’s entirely possible that the public will in the future look back on the 1990s and perhaps the 2000s as a phenomenal era in music, on par with the late 60s. That we are witnesses to the crazy, gorgeous, incredibly productive aftermath of the indie big bang may be just as amazing to the youngsters of tomorrow as are Woodstock survivors today.

In ’97 Robert Christgau wrote of riot grrrl-kinda-sorta group Sleater-Kinney, “One reason you know they’re young is that they obviously believe they can rock and roll at this pitch forever.” But Sleater-Kinney did keep rocking and rolling with crazy energy until the broke up in 2006. Who knows how long indie will retain its newness? During the early 70s, when rock stopped being new and became the norm, music certainly didn’t see any drop-off in quality. Hopefully indie will remain powerful in the same way, and remain that way in people’s memory once the next new Capital-G Genre comes along. We should savor being in the here and now to hear this incredible phenomenon.

By Nathan Caldwell

"Fabulous in Flannel" I am a working class butch who keeps it all barely together by making movies.

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