How Indie Rock Changed the World

Indie Rock

 

Two decades before a bunch of geeky American boys messing around on computers created social media, an earlier generation of geeky kids (mostly boys) messing around on guitars created another sort of social network. At its heart was the kind of music you wouldn’t hear on commercial radio or, except in the wee hours of Monday mornings, on MTV. It came on the heels of 1970s punk rock, and while it owed something to punk’s velocity and sneer, the spirit was experimental, as if all the old rules had been swept away. Ragged guitar riffs, ferocious decibel levels, and unpredictable song structures were its trademarks, but the sounds—from the percussively headlong to the distorted and depressive—proliferated as fast as the labels for them. Under the various headings of punk, post-punk, hardcore, alt-rock, underground, noise rock, post-rock, and, most generic, indie rock, bands such as Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Slint laid down the soundtrack of an alternative culture. If you were over the age of 30 when the Berlin Wall fell, this music probably seemed pretty much pointless. If, on the other hand, you were in your teens or 20s, especially if you were a skinny white male and wore glasses, it’s just possible that indie rock sounded like community—salvation, even.

Unlike hip-hop, that other Gen X art form, which originated in New York and later developed regional variants, indie got its start in emphatically local and often unlikely settings. Its fertile crescent was provincial American cities and college towns. Indie rock took off in places such as Athens, Georgia; Olympia, Washington; and my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, though most big cities also had a scene, and each had its own distinctive ecosystem. In Cleveland and New York City, for instance, where thrashy, locomotive hardcore music had a long reign, white boys predominated and girls were scarce. In Olympia, as in Boston, there were sympathetic college radio stations, more women, and more of an art-school atmosphere to the enterprise.

Everywhere, the line between fan and performer was paper-thin. The approach was anarchic and participatory: the idea (at least theoretically) was that anyone could get a band together, learn to play, and maybe even press a record and take the show on the road. At the same time, indie music was a judgmental world of cognoscenti, of teenage boys disputing Talmudically about guitar tunings and feedback. Hole-in-the-wall venues, alternative record stores, ragtag independent record labels, and copy shops incubated a subculture where outsiders became insiders and found one another. Flyers on telephone poles were its smoke signals, xeroxed fanzines were its telegraph wires, bringing news from far-flung scenes. Before the breakthrough success in 1991 of Nirvana—whose album Nevermindtopped the Billboard charts and eventually sold more than 30 million copies worldwide—raw and abrasive rock, by definition, meant tastes and sounds that could never become popular.

How indie culture was built in the 1980s, sustained and transformed through the 1990s, and revived in the past decade is the subject of two new memoirs, Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) and Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band. The guitarist in a succession of bands—none of which was “threatened, even distantly, by actual fame”—Fine was one of indie’s middle-class worker bees, many of whom went on to adult jobs in media and academia. (He’s now the executive editor of Inc.)

Kim Gordon—the scene’s reigning queen—presided at its charismatic center, and then hung on. In 1981, with her partner, Thurston Moore, and the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Gordon founded Sonic Youth, a New York band of musical inventiveness and effortless cool. A bassist as well as a vocalist, she was an inspiration to the feminist-punk-rock riot-grrrl movement, which started in Olympia in the early ’90s and propelled more women (in bands such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney) onto indie stages. Gordon also painted, wrote art criticism, designed clothes, acted in films and on TV, and got to know everyone back when they were nobodies: she gave the filmmaker Spike Jonze his first break, cast a teenage Chloë Sevigny in a music video, and befriended a young grunge rocker named Kurt Cobain. Until 2011, when Gordon and Moore split up, ending the band’s 30-year run, Sonic Youth navigated indie rock’s hazards. The band made experimental music yet gained an audience, moving on to a major label with its cachet intact.

 

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