From The Archive
Mike O’Flaherty
No. 12  March 1999

Cordon Sanitaire

 Rockerdämmerung 

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While “late” capitalism has failed to deal the long-promised death-blows to “ideology” and “history,” it did manage a trick that likely took even Francis Fukuyama by surprise: It has killed rock ’n’ roll. There was an eerie parallel between the fate of rock’s avant-garde and that of the former Soviet Union in the nineties. The moment of truth came in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved itself and loud rock band Nirvana’s major-label debut, Nevermind, hit No. 1 on the charts. The “indie rock” scene and the Soviet Union had both defined themselves by their opposition to monopoly capital.[*] Now their vast and hitherto untapped resources were available for exploitation—or, in the more reciprocal language favored by both IMF officials and recording industry A&R men, “development.” In both cases the corporate overlords were full of hope that their new friends would provide the growth necessary to stave off crisis and stagnation. But in both cases the lucrative new properties were squandered and laid to waste.

At the dawn of the nineties the Big Six[**] corporations that dominate the recording industry faced the prospect of a protracted sales slump on the order of the 1979-82 postdisco debacle. The industry had managed to recover from that slump by cramming the Top 40 with appropriated black and British styles, but by the end of the eighties these, too, were bland and codified, and yielded diminishing returns. The handful of media-saturated superstars who had so recently served as public symbols of the industry’s recovery were (with the exception of Madonna) proving unable to retain audiences as stable and profitable as those of their “classic rock” predecessors. The fate of the recovery’s third element, heavy metal, was more complicated. During the eighties, the metal audience had bifurcated into rock (“thrash”) and pop (“glam”) factions. Thrash’s purist extremism of form and content deliberately limited its sales reach. But that purist extremism also did terrible damage to glam’s street cred: It made glam look “fake” by comparison. Something more commercially palatable than thrash would have to be found to take advantage of glam’s yawning authenticity gap.

The original punks had declared war on all other music subcultures.

Punk rock did not seem a likely candidate to save the recording industry in the nineties. In fact, punk’s complete commercial failure, along with that of nearly all the early “postpunk” and “new wave” acts, played a considerable role in precipitating the 1979-82 industry bust. Like thrash metal, punk functioned entirely as a negative genre, returning nothing financially but inflicting fatal credibility wounds on such proven bottom-line performers as disco and album-oriented rock (or “AOR,” the once-vanguard format that ossified almost instantly into “classic rock”). But while thrash had carved out a small but profitable subculture niche within the labyrinth of the Big Six, punk and its immediate successors went nowhere commercially. True, a group of vaguely postpunk acts tailored for major-label success (“new wave”) had once generated some income for the Big Six, but each succeeding wave of signings from the postpunk underground met the same disastrous commercial fate as the punk founders, usually losing their original audience to boot.

Then, in the guise of Nirvana and a few “Alternative”[***] satellites, punk rock finally paid its debt to society. It made its peace with the market. The original punks (and their truest successors) had declared war on all other music subcultures, and those audiences had responded in kind. Alternative promised precisely the reverse: The new sound seemed to offer something for everybody. To hard rock devotees, it combined the street cred, heaviness, and speed of thrash with glam’s pop sense and seventies trad-rock familiarity: In other words, it promised a return to what metal had been before the great glam/thrash schism. To new-wave trendy types—the people who were “alternative” before alternative was Alternative—it offered the frisson of apparent avant-gardism and a new and insurgent wardrobe to match. To hippies of all ages still high on the myth of rock as youth movement, it offered the prospect of an anti-establishment white youth music with genuine mass appeal for perhaps the first time since Altamont. And to the Big Six, it offered more than just a way out of a slump: This was nothing less than the new paradigm, a renewal. A new constellation of stars was called for, both big and small, along with fresh styles of publicity and a cornucopia of lifestyle tie-ins. Along with hip-hop, which was finally breaking commercially around this time, and the CD’s replacement of vinyl, Alternative solved several problems at once.

Independent American punk rock had begun the eighties dedicated to the destruction of the corporate music industry and the political and aesthetic values it stood for. Ten years later, now calling itself “Alternative,” it was playing a crucial role in saving the Big Six from economic collapse. What happened?

From its very inception, British punk rock had aimed to free itself from the production and distribution networks of the Big Six. The early British independent labels—such as Raw, Beggars Banquet, Step Forward, and dozens of others too tiny and ephemeral to be remembered—formed as a matter of grass-roots pragmatism, essentially to accommodate the punks’ fleeting and careless enthusiasms; you didn’t have to wait to be “discovered.” Oddly enough, most of these labels fell victim to punk’s very success. The genre’s supernova—the salad days of 1977 when it seemed that punk was going to destroy or absorb the Big Six on its own terms—appeared to vitiate the need to maintain and nurture independent labels for their own sake.

The Sex Pistols’ spectacular auto-destruction,[****] however, gave independence a new significance and a new political charge. A crucial portion of the British punk movement concluded that the celebrity framework into which the Pistols had been fitted trivialized their politics of confrontation into a circus of self-destructive outrage. These “postpunks” now regarded indie labels as permanent counter-institutions in explicit opposition to the Big Six. Though American record collectors may not know it, the postpunk labels (particularly the greatest of them, London’s Rough Trade) were thus part of the tide of political radicalism that swept Britain in 1978-79 and that culminated in a massive strike wave that shut the country down. Rough Trade people were active in the SWP, a powerful Trotskyist caucus in the Labor Party. Political radicalism was built into the postpunk model, and its implications would reverberate through American indie in the political big sleep of the Reagan years like a half-remembered promise.

In the eighties, American indie labels more or less followed in the footsteps of their British peers. American punk bands courted by fashion-conscious A&R men in 1977 were abruptly abandoned the following year, and no further offers were forthcoming. As had early British punk, the first wave of American punk went the indie route simply because nobody else was willing to release their work. Before long, though, the most prominent and emblematic American indie labels (Homestead and SST, among others) embraced the postpunk model of secession and opposition to the majors.

A cult of “niceness” and bland self-indulgence strained to hold back the numbing fear that the walls protecting the great American middle were crumbling.

Southern California was far and away America’s most prolific and inventive punk scene during the crucial few years following 1978. In response to what seemed a permanent quarantine by the Big Six, Southern Californians developed American punk’s first durable institutions and elaborated the affectingly quixotic worldview punk would bequeath to indie rock: a tenacious adherence to unrealizable utopian aspirations, and a principled commitment to “action,” no matter how ineffectual or absurd. The early L.A. scene took comfort, even reveled, in its own absurdity. It had to; while poverty and political upheaval were palpable to their British counterparts, American punks repined in sunny, suffocating prosperity and near-universal political apathy. There, at the heart of the American empire, the mass-cultural contradictions of seventies America reached a point of hysterical exaggeration: A cult of “niceness” and bland self-indulgence strained to hold back the numbing fear that the economic and military walls protecting the prosperity and security of the great American middle were crumbling. The early L.A. punks cheered on the collapse, hoping for a new world of danger and surprise, of extreme sensations and emotions. They didn’t make many friends around town.

L.A. punk turned social isolation itself into a virtue. The thrill of secrecy, something utterly alien to the British style, was a recurring theme (consider X’s “The Unheard Music” and the Germs’ “What We Do Is Secret”). This, too, became a crucial element of what American indie was all about. In the rosy-fingered dawn of hip capitalism, anything you could think of was now a marketable commodity, and overexposure domesticated even the most shocking features of contemporary life: the neutron bomb, Three Mile Island, brutal pornography, and the Sex Pistols. If you wanted to find L.A. punk (and indie rock after it), you had to discover it. Secrecy restored mystery and adventure to a numbingly familiar world: What looked like an abandoned porn theater was actually the venue where the police- and club-banned Germs were playing tonight under a pseudonym.

But secrecy did not mean secession. The punks were looking out at the world from their hiding places, and the L.A. punk world was itself a kind of looking glass version of the “real” world: Familiar social and cultural styles were grotesquely mimicked and put to perverse and idiosyncratic uses. The “serious” social and political issues that mattered to “informed” people were defiantly summarized as dirty jokes. The greatest inversion of all—and the one which survived longest as punk turned to indie and gradually accommodated itself to the outside world—was to find such inventive and audacious work being done in a format as seemingly banal and familiar as rock. It was this feeling of having stumbled into looking-glass land that gave the discovery of punk (and later indie, when it was good) its thrill, whether one found out about it through a friend, a record store, an all-ages show, a fanzine, a radio station, whatever. That discovery was like the moment in the film They Live when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts on a pair of shoddy-looking sunglasses and sees that the Reagan-era yuppies around him are actually space aliens who have enslaved the world. Punk showed you what the “real” world really looked like.

This impact was made possible by a restless formal adventurousness which in three years took L.A. punk far beyond its initial British models. The most daring of the Hollywood punks and the suburban kids who soon followed them gradually developed a formal language that broke with rock tradition far more radically than had the British punks, who were rooted in the sixties’ British Invasion sound. L.A.’s new formal language came to be called “hardcore.” Above all it meant playing fast, but the new demands posed by speed forced the musicians to take previously unthinkable liberties with song structure. Melody and comprehensible lyrics were discarded when they got in the way. Songs sped up and slowed down suddenly, ended in the middle of a verse, inverted their chord progressions halfway through. Where previously most punk (to say nothing of the rest of rock) had tried to express original ideas through an inherited, unexamined formal language, now those forms could be adjusted to fit the ideas. If you had a ten-second idea, you could write a ten-second song.

The suburban L.A. hardcore kids surpassed their Hollywood godfathers and -mothers by making punk accessible for the first time to people outside of a “hip,’’ style-conscious milieu. (The Minutemen, hardcore pioneers from the working-class L.A. suburb of San Pedro, later admitted to an interviewer how “uncool” they felt when they first made the Hollywood scene.) Hardcore expressed a newly comfortable and honest sense of place and identity, no matter how “uncool” such subjects were. This enabled the music to rapidly break out of the bohemian ghetto, where most American punk had previously been confined, and travel to D.C., Boston and the Midwest. The first full-fledged L.A. hardcore records appeared in 1980; a mere two years later dozens of bands, such as D.C.’s Void, Michigan’s Negative Approach, and Boston’s SS Decontrol, were releasing records that surpassed most of the L.A. originators in stylistic daring and sonic extremism. Hardcore gave a potentially huge group of suburban kids a language to engage directly with their specific social context, rather than some faux-universal music-industry fantasy that had nothing to do with anybody’s ordinary life. It also generated a vibrant regionalism which would sustain indie rock as well. Still, hardcore remained totally shut out by the Big Six. But the genre’s excluion created a space for both local scenes and the American punk independent labels, such as L.A.’s SST, Michigan’s Touch and Go, and D.C.’s Dischord. And hardcore framed its mutual hostility with the Big Six in the context of its larger hostility to the emerging social world of Reaganite America, a world the hardcore kids knew with the intimacy of a personal grudge: Transnational corporations sold narcotizing pop music to their mall-mad peers and transferred the profits to their missile-development subsidiaries.

Hardcore’s radicalism soon began to sound as prefabricated as corporate rock itself. Instead of attacking the actual militarists or consumerists around them, bands began to attack an abstract “militarism” or “consumerism.” This development stemmed from the emergence of a handful of hardcore institutions large and powerful enough to wield disproportionate influence over once-autonomous local scenes. Abandoning the humor and realism that had leavened hardcore’s insurrectionary pretensions, these institutions reduced hardcore’s politics and aesthetics to rote in the name of movement “unity.” Most notable was the San Francisco-based fanzine Maximum RockNRoll. The band Culturcide best summed up MRR’s astonishing reach and homogenizing force: “I’ve been all around this great big world and there’s punks wherever you go/ But they all wanna see their scene report in Maximum RockNRoll/ They wish they all could be California punks…. ” This predictability, along with hardcore’s fanatical formal purism, contributed to its rapid petrifaction into formula. But hardcore’s free-ranging hostility and ruthless self-consciousness also inspired its smartest adherents to go still further in challenging the audience and themselves. Think of Minor Threat’s obsessive jihad against that most intimate and hallowed of rock rituals, getting fucked-up before the show; or Flipper (and later Black Flag) playing as slow as they could for audiences who’d come to expect high-speed background noise suitable for the mosh pit. Indie rock had arrived.

Reasoning that bad music reflected a dysfunctional society and culture, punk and hardcore bands had built impressive solidarity around an explicit rejection of commercial rock and its trappings.

Unlike hardcore, “indie rock” did not have a single distinctive sound; in fact, it emerged largely as a reaction to hardcore’s increasing stylistic rigidity. The common thread uniting the archetypal LPs Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements made in indie’s watershed year, 1984, is an almost manic eclecticism, ranging from eerie drumless interludes to ragged noise-gush, set in conscious defiance of MRR-style demands for a straitjacket beat for unified-punk-youth to march or mosh to for The Cause. Yet however disparate the styles explored on these records, each album remained of a piece: an integrated, thought-out aesthetic and worldview lay behind them, and their greater complexity (especially in comparison to contemporary hardcore) necessitated a commensurately complex stylistic range. Indie’s aesthetic ideals—musical originality and expression of a personal but compelling worldview—were so banal that scenesters were often embarrassed to state them explicitly, but for once the music itself more than vindicated them.

At the same time, though, the move from hardcore to indie saw the first glimmerings of aesthetic deradicalization that would later explode with Alternative. Reasoning that bad music reflected a dysfunctional society and culture, punk and hardcore bands had built impressive solidarity around an explicit rejection of commercial rock and its trappings—especially rock’s sixties-era mystique of individual genius. Indie rock smuggled a sort of star system back into the underground. Where the leading indie labels, such as SST and Homestead, once had documented the constantly shifting cast of characters of a local scene, they now focused, naturally enough, on the long-term development of a handful of outstanding artists with no relationship other than their label affiliation. Where egalitarian punk and hardcore movement cultures had forced artists to confront the social context and implications of their work in a constant conversation with other people, the new heroes of indie rock could simply plead that Fifth Amendment of bohemianism, “self-expression.” And where hardcore had constituted itself as a self-contained counterworld—the Big Six’s absolute negative mirror-image—indie’s rock fusionists discovered that they could create music that resembled familiar rock styles but was “better” (an impression reinforced by rave reviews from mainstream rock critics who had ignored or despised punk and hardcore). The Big Six noticed the shift, and by 1984 they began to express interest.

Two of the best and most prominent early indie bands, Minneapolis’s Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, made major label deals in 1985, and the indie scene observed their unfolding fate with no small interest. Hüsker Dü’s music was becoming gradually more timid and circumspect even before they were signed by Warner Bros. The band’s lyrics moved away from engagement with the social world and toward more “personal” concerns; in mainstream rock culture this move is traditionally associated with increased “maturity,” and so it was hailed by the mainstream rock press. At the same time, though, the band’s increasing lyrical introversion was accompanied by growing formal complacency and diminished passion in performance. The Replacements’ stylistic shift was even more dramatic, so much so that many fans suspected they’d been coerced by Sire into changing their sound: By their second major-label release the once chaotic band was playing “tight,” Stonesy bar-band rock. The band itself seemed deeply confused about what it wanted. The video for their first Sire single, “Bastards of Young,” consisted entirely of a static shot of a record player; but this visual middle finger to the Big Six (and MTV) was cover for what seemed a blatant attempt on singer Paul Westerberg’s part to write a catchy youth anthem.

Both Hüsker Dü and the Replacements retained an instinctive fury and eccentricity that resisted any attempts to make their sound commercially palatable; in retrospect their slow unraveling has a poignant quality. At the time, however, a humiliated indie-rock audience responded by vehemently rejecting everything those bands were imagined to stand for. The use of traditional rock forms quickly became deeply suspect, and the genre’s leadership passed to a handful of more experimental bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black, and the Butthole Surfers. At the most basic level, audiences turned against nothing less than the Minneapolis bands’ heart-on-my sleeve sincerity, which now seemed more than ever to dovetail with familiar classic rock banalities (think Bob Seger). Savvier musicians abandoned emotion for sensation—the purer and more wrenching the better—and the confessional for an ambiguity that left tantalizingly open the degree of the artist’s identification with his or her (often unsavory) subject.

In many ways this change improved indie rock immeasurably. The new music restored an element of confrontation with the audience. The musicians seemed to have a homing instinct for the most brutally physical aspects of every previous punk and postpunk genre; they fused them into a sound of unprecedented force and visceral pleasure. In terms of sheer stylistic sophistication and formal command, punk and indie reached their pinnacle during the second half of the eighties. But there were problems as well, complications that would eventually prove fatal. The best bands seemed to be those who were most obsessive and extreme in developing some aspect of indie rock’s formal language to its logical end point. (One of my personal favorites, the D.C./N.Y.C. band Pussy Galore, released a series of records between 1985 and 1988 which, in a progressively refined and deadly manner, imagined what the British Invasion and U.S. garage rock bands would have sounded like if their music had actually been the socially toxic hate-noise its contemporary critics absurdly considered it to be. Listening to this band’s astonishing, beautiful work, it seemed that they were probing the limits of a potential for cathartic violence and sensuality within those forms, a potential whose very existence had barely even dawned on others. Yet these qualities made Pussy Galore’s music feel strangely suffocating as well; it was as if they were driven to reach a point where no further development of rock would be possible, for them or anybody else.)

The indie scene’s disengagement from the social world continued, even accelerated; increasingly, the main subject and interest of indie rock was indie rock. Even politics soon seemed just another variety of the hated “sincerity.” About the only credible attitude left for the knowing yet aspiring rocker, it seemed, was irony: embracing illicit social identities, banal musical styles, and so forth, then leaving it up to the audience to decide how seriously to take it (if at all). It was a delicate balancing act, and some did fall, undone by their own posturing. Perhaps the most dramatic such instance was the fate of the Dwarves, a band that fastidiously cultivated a reputation for violence in both their music and behavior. In 1992 the band announced to the world that its guitarist had been stabbed to death. It soon emerged that he had merely left the group; the remaining Dwarves apparently had decided to use his departure to enhance their menacing legend. Enraged, Sub Pop dropped them in the very year the label’s famous alums Nirvana were completing their conquest of mainstream rock. The two events form an eerily appropriate capstone to the indie-rock era.

Indie rock’s ironic style was useful, initially, as a kind of game of intellectual “chicken”: The threat of being informed that the latest hip thing they’d fervently embraced was actually a joke at their expense might (in theory) lead people to think harder about what they really liked and why. Problem was, in its increasing insularity and disengagement, the indie scene was less inclined to use irony as a critical weapon than to make it a snotty parlor trick. As it was, indie-rock irony rapidly took the path of least resistance: You could sidestep composer’s block—or the absence of talent, as the case may be—by retreating to banal forms comfortably familiar to you and your audience and claiming that it was actually a wry comment on rock’s formal impasse. Punk and hardcore had used sarcasm, but almost naively, as a way of expressing strongly held opinions. Indie-rock irony, by contrast, belied a fear above all of embarrassment, of being passionate or holding any convictions—of not being cool.

Within a year Sub Pop, the Seattle label most closely associated with seventies hard rock revivalism, was a household word in indieland.

Perhaps the saddest example of this phenomenon was the career of Urge Overkill. On their earlier records, such as 1989’s Jesus Urge Superstar, Urge deployed the mildewed, time-ridiculed sounds of seventies “classic” rock to conjure up a world of the forlorn and forgotten and vanished, a world where pleasure and beauty were no less real for being restricted to dusty, bittersweet memories—a world, most importantly, bigger and more affecting than any rock genre in and of itself. Slowly but surely, however, Urge shifted from using seventies rock trappings (and archaic showbiz trappings) to express a deeply idiosyncratic and poignant worldview to embodying those trappings because they afforded cheap, lazy “fun” to performers and audience alike. It was a horrible thing to witness, like watching a suit absorb its wearer. There was still the occasional great song, but the band mainly protected its credibility by emphasizing the overblown, ridiculous aspects of their persona: like, if these guys have so much distance from their work, they must be really smart and there must be some important point to the “joke.” But the prospect of actual rock-stardom eroded the protective irony that had precariously elevated Urge over the cesspool of their cheesy source material: In 1993, Urge released a major-label debut which, but for its glossy nineties production and a few witty lyrics, was utterly indistinguishable from the most banal seventies hard rock. The band had outsmarted itself: It seemed too palpably fake and corny to fully click with the authenticity-obsessed alternakids. Urge’s second major-label album tanked, and their career soon sputtered to an overdue finish.

By the late eighties, the indie scene was largely composed of people who had grown up in the seventies or of their little brothers and sisters. This was the demographic basis for indie rock’s most significant and influential ironic rediscovery: seventies-style hard rock and metal. Seattle pioneers Green River’s great Come On Down EP of 1985 heralded this sound (although punk of the Flipper/Black Flag variety was perhaps more evident). Only with the 1987 debut EP of Seattle’s Soundgarden (one of the first Sub Pop records) did a band with vocal and rhythmic approaches derived from seventies hard rock make a strong impact on the indie scene. Within a year Sub Pop, the Seattle label most closely associated with seventies hard rock revivalism, was a household word in indieland. And seventies-oriented indie bands were now appearing by the dozens, not only in Seattle but across the country. It was a return to the womb, with all the comfortable insularity and effortless self-gratification that implied.

This is not to deny the greatness of the best seventies hard rock acts, or indeed their influence on punk itself; rather, it is merely to say that nearly all their indie-rock epigones now embraced their music out of intellectual and aesthetic cowardice and failure of nerve, adding little to the source material and living parasitically on it like suckfish attached to the belly of a sodden, dying whale. White Zombie, unlike most, initially did something genuinely novel and adventurous with their seventies source material. But by their second album, even they were playing that material far more “straight”; a twelve-inch Kiss cover came next, followed by a major-label deal. To disappointed fan Lydia Lunch, “it sounded like they had some blood sucked.” Some denounced this nostalgie de la boue,[*****] but indie rock had long since abandoned the critical basis for a counter-attack. In a scene that fetishized the artist’s pursuit of his or her whims, Me-Decade retreads could even constitute a fuck-you to the conformity imposed by the punk-rock thought police (“You want us to go back to playing fuckin’ hardcore?”). And if that still didn’t convince you, well, you “just didn’t get it,” were “taking it too seriously,” etc.

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Irony ultimately made the crucial difference in indie rock’s long-awaited commercial breakthrough as Alternative. Audiences had already been acclimated, of course, to traditional rock styles, and they appreciated the punk and indie seasoning the new bands provided to make them seem so fresh. But more than that: Irony killed the scene’s obsessive suspicion of betrayal that had been so evident during the Hüsker/Replacements debacle, and substituted in its place a confident sense that the artist was eternally distanced from his or her actions, or their consequences. In the most generic descriptive terms, these bands were making commercially accessible rock music for the Big Six. But the ironic sensibility could explain this as a mocking commentary on same—or (if you were really smart) a bold critique of the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be above such things.

Urge’s experience—the sudden raising of commercial hopes to levels unthinkable in the indie eighties, followed by the rapid obliteration of those hopes along with the bands themselves—epitomized the trajectory of alternative in the first half of the nineties. Nirvana’s major-label debut Nevermind, released in the fall of 1991 to little media fanfare, had topped the Billboard charts by Christmas. Though in retrospect one can see how indie rock’s development through the eighties prepared the ground for the alternative breakthrough, at the time that breakthrough seemed somehow flukish or miraculous. America’s cultural punditocracy was baffled. It was quickly agreed that this had something to do with “disaffected youth” (one had seen this sort of thing before), that these kids resented their hippie/yuppie parents, that they adored flannel and opiates. But as the media catalog of alleged alternative paraphernalia expanded, it became less and less clear what (if anything) it added up to—one could make a case that virtually anything was part of such an amorphous entity.

Optimists construed the triumph of Alternative as a triumph for the punk rock ethos which had given birth to indie and, through it, to alternative.

Certainly the Big Six felt itself on unfamiliar ground; rather than be caught napping by the next unpredictable development of this new popular taste, it was better to be on the safe side and sign everybody. By 1993, acts whose terminal idiosyncrasy and blatant listener-unfriendliness had long been running jokes even with in the indie scene now found themselves uneasily ensconced in some Big Six sinecure. (I remember well my shock and amusement in the summer of 1994 to discover, at Tower Records in New York City, that Daniel Johnston—an artist then best known for violently erratic public behavior, frequent hospitalization for mental “issues,” fervent claims of divine inspiration, and wonderful home recordings which tended to evoke a PCP-addled ten-year-old warbling into a hand-held tape recorder over his dad’s polka records—now dwelt in the hallowed stables of Atlantic Records, an organization known for such pillars of music-industry tradition as Otis Redding, Iron Butterfly and Bobby Darin.)

By 1994 Alternative had swept a large portion of the indie scene up into its temporarily triumphant crusade for total dominance of the youth market. Optimists construed the triumph of Alternative as a triumph for the punk rock ethos which had given birth to indie and, through it, to alternative; as if the seed of the Sex Pistols, kept alive through the years by indie rock, was now flowering under the sun of mass success Big Six-style. In reality Alternative finally effected a complete inversion of punk-rock values. Stylistic adventurousness faded as each Alternative success magnetically drew other bands to tailor their sound to the proven formula. Regional distinctions dissolved as bands competed in a homogeneous national market and local scenes were signed up en masse before they’d even had a chance to develop a coherent collective identity. And Alternative’s lack of engagement with the outside world was so complete that the very distinction between private angst and social criticism was blurred. On those rare occasions when Alternative figures addressed concrete social or political issues, their pronouncements were indistinguishable from the smug liberal platitudes traditionally associated with the aging sixties mafia who still set the cultural tone of the record industry.

Indie rock still exists, sort of. A large minority with in the indie scene was not able or willing to get signed; unfortunately, it almost seems as if they decided to fend off co-optation by making their music as repellently self-indulgent as possible. Indie rock’s drift toward asocial introversion and the fetishization of the artist’s whim have reached their grotesque apotheosis.[******] But the acute and inventive formal sense which once redeemed those tendencies has vanished. These groups aren’t interested in crafting sharply defined musical forms that jump out and demand the listener’s attention; maybe they view structure itself to be repressively “rockist,” ironic in light of the fact that they’ve regressed to “jamming’’ aimlessly like stereotypical hippies. Indie rock still draws on other musics, but it now does so with the listless dilettantism of a yuppie Sunday browsing through the ethnic-foods section at Treasure Island (cf. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). Indie artists seem driven only by the desire to be something, anything other than what they are. Punk and its truest indie descendants wanted to destroy and replace the rest of rock music because it was part of a world against which they had declared war. Indie rock now seems driven by a quest to find a safe hiding place away from rock music and the outside world itself. But if it’s not rock, it’s not anything else either; indeed, it barely exists. It lacks the sense of purpose and confidence to become something new and real.

Still, you can hardly blame indie for wanting to have nothing to do with rock music. What punk failed to do despite years of conscious effort—destroying mainstream rock music—Alternative did inadvertently. Post-hippie rock acts had kept their audiences stable and happy by keeping their expectations low. They promised to provide the hedonistic familiarity of Zep/Stones-derived rock music, and that’s what they delivered. Alternative promised a full-blown cultural revolution, and it delivered … the hedonistic familiarity of Zep/Stones-derived rock music. Thus was created by 1996 a “credibility gap” of rock-historical magnitude. Having abandoned indie rock’s formal ingenuity, the already stultifyingly formulaic Alternative scene degenerated rapidly into pathetic self-parody. Lionized in the media as the voice of a new generation, alternative believed its own hype, abandoning the wit and realism of punks whose genuine engagement with the world around them made them self-conscious of the absurd aspects of their project. By the time the solipsism and deliberate vagueness of its putative youth radicalism became impossible to hide, alternative’s political pretensions had been so inflated that it proved impossible to retract them with any grace. This only added to the utter public humiliation its various artists suffered on the way to oblivion.

Alternative’s sales curve was plunging by 1996, and it has not recovered. Nor has any other rock subgenre taken its place commercially. And for the first time in rock history, long-term recovery seems uncertain: The mass white youth market which sustained the various rock subgenres for a quarter century has largely abandoned rock altogether for hip-hop or R&B. Once-successful alternative bands attempt to revive their fortunes by employing potentially lucrative non-rock strategies: Marilyn Manson’s new one was promoted as a move toward “electronica,” while Hole attempted to get over via Courtney Love’s prominence in a “synergistic” media world where celebrity shapes the perception of artistic merit and significance rather than vice versa. And despite this, and an avalanche of advance hype, the new albums of both groups flopped: The blatant attempt to distance them from the now-unhip rock scene may have made their rock content even more conspicuous. What remains of indie rock itself attempts such maneuvers: Labels that epitomized hip during the Alternative era now play a desperate game of catch-up, dabbling in “electronica,” and the former supreme taste makers who run them now follow the lead of younger cognoscenti “native” to the new subgenres.

Contempt for the past gradually stripped indie rock of the punk-derived core values which made it worth caring about in the first place.

Despite it all, a handful of indie-rock acts persist in creating exciting music. They have survived because they remain attached to independent American punk rock’s founding values while doing something new with them. The bands grouped around the Olympia, Washington indie label Kill Rock Stars, for example, embody everything that’s still good about indie rock. The KRS bands could easily have signed on with the Big Six during the “riot grrl” moment a few years ago, yet not one of them has ever defected to the majors: The bands see themselves as part of a specific, ongoing radical political subculture (feminism filtered through punk autonomism) and regional music scene, of which the KRS label is an integral part. The music of bands like the Bangs and the Cold Cold Hearts inventively fuses disparate forms into a coherent and original whole: the regional heritage (primarily the distinctively heavy garage sound stretching from the Sonics to the U-Men), as well as the fragmented history of women in punk which the KRS scene has done much to reveal and articulate. Crucial to the KRS project is its love/hate relationship with hardcore. Motivated by hostility toward male domination of the hardcore (and indie) scene, KRS has consciously done for the young women of suburban America what hardcore did for their male counterparts: created a voice and formal language rooted in a specific social context. Like the best of its punk and indie predecessors, it’s a new sound shaped to express a new kind of critical engagement with the world, from the immediate to the global.

Other bands are doing original and exciting work in the various subgenres nurtured by American independent labels—hardcore, garage rock, postpunk. This may not seem as exciting as what punk and indie rock seemed to promise between the Pistols and Nirvana: A permanent cultural revolution in which the music would continuously transform itself completely before it “got old.” But with hindsight we can now see that this promise was illusory. Contempt for the past gradually stripped indie rock of the punk-derived core values which made it worth caring about in the first place. And it was no accident that what replaced them—Alternative—was so compatible with the values of the entertainment industry. Planned obsolescence, the promise of the new and improved, the sneer of willful cultural amnesia—these are the values of the marketplace, radical only in their destructiveness.

If indie rock has a future, it lies in the cultivation of a sense of its own past. When the Kill Rock Stars scene started, there were perhaps fewer women involved in punk or indie rock than ever before, but punk’s ancient history offered the examples of Poly Styrene, Penelope Houston and others, and the KRS bands built on what they’d begun. The problem they faced is one which confronts all radicals today: The dead vacancy of the present culture, which consigns the past to the “dustbin of history,” the better to lay infinite claim to the future. All around the world, people are losing their ability to imagine anything outside the eternal present of a transnational corporate capitalism the depth and breadth of which now seems virtually limitless. And they are beginning to forget that anyone ever imagined something beyond it.

Twenty years ago the punks demanded far more than we even dare to imagine now, and behind them lay over a century of politics and art built on the idea that people can think and build far beyond the limits of the present. That expansive social imagination may be moribund now; we laugh at the conceit that a mass-market rock subculture can become the functional equivalent of a social or political movement. If a few million people care mildly about an art that advocates some conveniently vague “rebelliousness,” it means nothing; their lives are barely touched by it. But if a few thousand people care deeply about an art which challenges them to question everything about the world around them and shows them that they have the power to make something different and better out of it, they may be inspired to transport that imaginative power from art to a project of real political and social change. At the very least they will see and feel more of the world they live in; the depth and creativity of their engagement with it will be immeasurably and irrevocably enhanced. And that’s also a beginning.

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[*] The term “indie rock” will here denote music derived from punk rock (though often by a few degrees of separation); released on a record label not owned outright by the Big Six record companies (corporate distribution is an even more controversial issue); and rooted to some extent in rock forms while investing them with an eccentricity and/or abrasiveness alien to the mainstream, major-label rock of the given moment.

[**] The Big Six, at the time, were Warner-Electra-Atlantic (WEA), Sony (formerly CBS), BMG (formerly RCA), Polygram, Universal (formerly MCA), and Thorn-EMI. Polygram and BMG merged in 1998, incidentally generating massive layoffs—then there were five.

[***] “Alternative” as a musical genre has been most narrowly defined as a slick commercial version of the late eighties “Seattle sound” associated with indie label Sub Pop—sound that grafted dissonant, plodding postpunk guitar grind onto song structures derived from early seventies hard rock. Though this was indeed the dominant strain, Alternative was actually comprised of various slick commercial versions of nearly the full gamut of late eighties indie rock. One might even say that alternative combined the sound of eighties indie rock with the sensibility of eighties “new wave” or “new music—the MTV- and radio-oriented guitar-based pop-rock which was the first rock music officially designated “alternative” by the music industry. (Not for nothing did embittered hair-metal loyalist Chuck Eddy compare Nirvana to forgotten eighties jangle-guitar popsters Let’s Active and the Del Fuegos.)

[****] Disgusted by manager Malcolm McLaren’s increasing resort to cheap publicity stunts, as well as his attempts to screw the band members financially, vocalist Johnny Rotten abruptly quit the Pistols in January 1978, immediately after the last show of their chaotic American tour. (His parting remark to the audience: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?”) In one fell swoop Rotten deprived the record industry of the leading icons on which the marketing of punk would have depended.

[*****] Gerard Cosloy speculating in 1990 on Soundgarden’s indie-scene popularity: “Is it because most of you idiots secretly long to go back to junior high when you smoked pot all day and actually understood the simple music you listened to?”

[******] And this is true not merely of the willfully obscure but even of many of the most prominent indie bands. Cat Power’s music seems to exist in a hermetically sealed world. The music trickles along so anemically that one does not so much engage with it as observe it from a distance. Vocalist Chan Marshall sings like she’s peeking at you from behind a curtain; if you make eye contact she will dart back into the darkness. The effect is to short-circuit the very possibility of communication between performer and listener. Jandek and (pre-boogie) Royal Trux often sounded something like this, but they spiked their lulling introversion with sudden bursts of disquieting sound and imagery; Cat Power’s music rarely escapes its numb monotony. Still, Marshall’s vocal and guitar work is often quite beautiful, enticing one with the possibility of something behind the mystery. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Tortoise. These undeniably inventive musicians do not shape their creations into striking, compelling forms. The group cultivates an open-ended quality, investing rock-derived music with a sense of entropy, as if it were spontaneously generated, like the sounds of everyday life. But in removing themselves from their work (or rather, concealing their presence), they seem not to realize that even the random sounds of everyday life will include by the very virtue of their indiscriminate quality some personality, some dynamic and emotional range—and perhaps most importantly, some real-world content.

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Further Reading

 August 14

Williamson is neither a kooky radical nor a spiritual crusader, but rather a thinly disguised conservative moralist.

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