Front Page Reviews & AIR
The King is Dead - What About the Kingdom? (Part 1)
Last week, The Decemberists’ new album The King is Dead debuted atop the Billboard charts, selling nearly 100,000 copies in its first week. This was only the latest in a new trend of chart-topping debuts for artists formerly known as “indie rock.” Last year saw huge first week success for Arcade Fire (The Suburbs, #1), Vampire Weekend (Contra, #1), The National (High Violet, #3), Sufjan Stevens (The Age of Adz, #7), Band of Horses (Infinite Arms, #7) and Mumford and Sons (Sigh No More, #8), among others. While the overall sales have still been modest for most of these albums, the growing success of this type of music is an undeniable trend. But what exactly is “this type of music”? Who is sustaining it? And what does this trend mean?
In a long-winded previous article, I traced the overthrow of the rock music establishment over the last decade-and-a-half. Without rehashing all the details, I think it’s sufficient to say that rock music is no longer king, and hasn’t been for over a decade now. Its disappearance from the charts and the radio has been conspicuous to say the least. But, while the king may be dead, the kingdom of rock music is surviving – even thriving – in a new (and arguably better) way. More and more rock artists are making a living with their music, even if very few of them have become household names. The music is out there – and people are listening. As our old friend Nick Hornby says, “If you love music, and you have a curious mind, there has never been a better time to be alive.”
If You Love Music…
Personally, I have always loved rock music. I understand that this is a subjective taste and that there is validity in other genres, but I also understand that I am not alone in loving rock music. Since rock music is what I know and love, what I relate to best, I want to make it clear that that is what I am going to focus on here. I’m sure there are plenty of things going on outside rock music that I am not aware of, and I’m sure that there are nuances to those things that I am not qualified to judge. What I do know are the facts: rock music was left for dead at the turn of the millennium, and now it seems to be breathing again with a new life.
When the old rock establishment was overthrown for good a decade ago, there was a lot of rubble to sort through. Many things were left behind in order to make a fresh start. The first casualty was the historical narrative of rock and roll, which may have been lost for good. This included all of rock’s icons and what they meant in context. Those too young to remember the days of rock music’s relevance will have a hard time understanding exactly how important certain things were at the time – like the release of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming (totally forgotten), the first coming of Born to Run-era Springsteen (now lumped in with later Springsteen), or the anticipation of U2’s Achtung Baby (you mean people took U2 seriously?). These were watershed moments in popular culture, and not just for a small group of fans. A huge number of people took rock music seriously (yes, maybe too seriously, but it’s just something to keep in mind - it wasn’t really that long ago, after all).
In those shell-shocked days following the establishment’s overthrow, it felt awkward to take rock seriously anymore. Not enough people were paying attention. And, while some great artists were making some great music, it became clear that the old goals of fame and fortune were no longer realistic. Forced outside the mainstream, rock artists searched to find themselves, but none of the old ways seemed to ring true. Many found their way by embracing the traditional “indie” ethos. With major labels no longer a player in developing rock acts, artists chose not to seek them out at all, instead embracing indie labels and a do-it-yourself mentality. No longer preening for their big break, this gave many aspiring artists the freedom to be themselves. Unburdened by money and expectation, many of these artists were inspired by having nothing to lose. There were less and less artists trying to be “rock stars,” and more artists trying to make it on their own terms. This injected new life into the underground music scene that hadn’t been seen since the end (read: corporate takeover) of the “alternative” scene circa 1994.
At the same time, fans (like myself) of rock music were also struggling to find the music that was once so easily accessible through the radio and MTV (yes, there used to be music on there, and even shows about underground music, but that’s a whole different story). We realized that something had changed. All the radio was feeding us was John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Train and Nickelback. Wait a minute!, we thought, Whatever happened to all the good music? Where did it go? When I was in junior high and high school, I had listened to the radio to discover The Smiths, The Cure, REM, The Pixies, The Stone Roses, Radiohead. Now those same stations were playing things like Godsmack and Linkin Park. Is there really nothing out there for me anymore?
Of course, the music eventually found me, like it always does when you’re looking for it. It started with a few scattered albums – a Delgados record here, the Postal Service there. Eventually, there came a steady stream: The Shins, Modest Mouse, Low, Broken Social Scene, The Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie, The National, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Band of Horses, and on to Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, etc. This was the music I had been looking for. It was here. And we called it “indie rock.” The best part was, not only did I genuinely like this stuff, it was actually cool to like at the time. I got that fleeting feeling of being “in” with the in-crowd. Coming a little late to the party (2004), I had to catch up on my Neutral Milk Hotel, my Bonnie “Prince” Billy, my Soft Bulletin. Eventually, though, I felt like I understood the narratives, the stories of these artists. I began to follow them, to anticipate their albums. They lived in my car, on my ipod, or even just on the CD at home. I took them in, the way I had all my old friends before, with Sufjan taking his place next to Jackson Browne, Arcade Fire with U2, Modest Mouse with The Pixies.
By the time Arcade Fire came out with The Suburbs, I realized that I felt like I had in high school. I was eagerly anticipating the latest epic from my favorite band, wondering if it could be the masterpiece I hoped for (like when I had pre-ordered Achtung Baby – the first CD I bought with my own money – so I could be guaranteed a copy on release day). And then The Suburbs was everything I had hoped for. It spoke to me of things I knew well: the loneliness of being a teenager, the endlessness of suburbia, the comfort of home, the innocence of youth, and the questioning of everything your life has become since leaving those things behind. These were feelings I knew well, these feelings were true. When I saw that The Suburbs had debuted at #1 in the U.S. and the U.K., I didn’t just feel happy that an album I liked was doing well. I felt like I wasn’t alone.
I think a lot of people around my age (early thirties) have similar stories. Maybe the specifics are different (maybe you prefer The Decemberists to Arcade Fire), but they’re essentially the same. Just when we thought we might be done finding any new music, we were captivated by this new wave of music that we just thought was so…good. After my initial conversion to this past decade’s “indie rock,” it took a while for me to understand that there were also “indie” fans that had a very different story. For a couple of years there in the early to mid-2000s our paths may have crossed, but looking back it seems that we were moving in very different directions. And now I know when to expect the inevitable backlash…
I went to see The Decemberists in Boston with my wife last week. She had always loved the band, whereas I hadn’t liked them much until their latest record. We were struck by how diverse the audience was in age, appearance, attitude, etc. Six or seven years ago we would have been trying to fit in with a more monolithic audience – younger, cooler. But now, looking around, we were both surprised and comforted by the sight of other couples like us, having a rare night out to see our old friends, The Decemberists. You see, we had grown up. I enjoyed the show. I found the band endearing, where I used to find them annoying. It seemed they had grown up, too. I felt in this a kinship between us. From the stage, Colin Meloy smiled: “I’d like to apologize for ruining indie rock… Did you guys read that?” I didn’t know what he was referencing at the time, but after a quick Google search I found the Boston Phoenix article. It was written by an “indie” fan who seemed angered somehow by me, Colin, and all the thirty-ish couples at the show, someone who couldn’t quite figure out what bothered him so much about all of us who didn’t feel guilty about The Decemberists having a #1 record. I think I have an idea what was bothering him, though, even if he doesn’t. When I read the article, I realized the extent to which we are in the midst a struggle for the soul of rock music – and that’s something worth fighting for.