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The King is Dead - What About the Kingdom? (Part 1)

Illustration by Kathleen Fulton
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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.

 

(CLICK HERE FOR PART 2)

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Nathaniel Gaede
[ 02/04/11 6:24 PM ]
King is Dead

Very insightful. Great analysis on the indie label mentality of musicians. But leave Jack Johnson out of it. Jack Johnson is a saint!

Luke Dennis
[ 02/04/11 5:40 PM ]
Why Rock Will Always Be Dying but Will Never Give Up the Ghost

I think record stores went out of business because they couldn't keep up with the overflowing tributaries with which genres split and branch out. Poor Tower Records ended up having to spend their finances on lettering for shelf labels like Indie-Dance-Rock, which had to be distinctly different from Pop Rock, Post Rock, Jazz Rock, etc Post Jazz Rock, etc.
All the labels we might apply to music, pop, jazz, blues, country, metal and onward have become modular building blocks (further colored by terms like "post" and "classic" and "electric") that through their creative reassembly have opened our ears to a broad spectrum of music that will only perpetually expand like deep space.
The downside of such a proliferation of sonic styles is that the business cannot help but become selective and watered down in what rules the charts.
I understand the appeal of the Decemberists, and I'm all for Gillian Welch getting her just deserves, but I struggle to bestow upon the recently touted success stories the mantle of rock.
Rock and roll was came from a black euphemism for sex, and frankly, the Decemberists makes my penis soft. Maybe I'm an early candidate for viagra, but I think rock has been underground since the "indie" boom (a genre that is in and of itself too large of an umbrella to call itself one).
The indie kids can have the charts if only to make the moniker all the more ironic. Rock won't die until sex is replaced by selective fertilization and mandatory soma doses.
It will only get rebranded and re-compartmentalized to people who think Nickelback is a new flavor.
Grunge was the last great true rock movement, and in it's demise, the unfortunately named stoner rock herd steamed (or would that be smoked?) onward.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go have sweet sonic sex with Them Crooked Vultures...

Josh Caress
[ 02/06/11 4:18 PM ]
Points taken...

Luke, you make a lot of good points here, esp. with the proliferation of subgenres, etc. And "rock" is def. a difficult thing to define. The second part will clarify the fact that I don't see the music I'm talking about as "indie," and also what I consider to be the "mantle of 'rock.'" While you are right about the origins of rock and roll, that all changed in the 60s with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who made rock and roll viable as an 'art form.' While there has always been this tension between rock as art and rock as fun/release, or rock that 'means something' and rock that doesn't, this Phoenix article makes the claim that the only rock that 'means something' is rock that 'doesn't mean anything.' I think this sort of thinking is counter-intuitive, and not just for the obvious reasons. I think we couldn't have even thought about 'meaningless' rock as 'meaning something' without Dylan, etc., and those who gave rock that legitimacy. Without Dylan and the Beatles, no one would have taken punk seriously, etc. Anyway, MUCH more to come in part two...

Nate Gowtham
[ 02/01/11 4:04 PM ]
spoon

i know you're not a spoon guy, but transference (last january, Merge) debuted at #4 - just another pertinent case-in-point

Nate Gowtham
[ 02/01/11 10:53 PM ]
fer sure

it was a good year for this sort of thing - power to the people baby

Adam Caress
[ 02/01/11 8:36 PM ]
re: spoon

totally agreed. and i bet there are other examples too...

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