Can you remember how it felt to find out there was a whole world of “cool” bands that weren’t played on the radio?
The first time one of your older friends told you about The Strokes. Or when that led you to look bands up on the internet, where you first heard about The Hives and Interpol? People born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age at the same time as an era of bands which seemed undeniably cool and irresistibly underrated. As soon as we found out about these bands, more like them had appeared and some were even popping up on the radio. (cue “Somebody Told Me,” please!)
It’s called “indie rock,” and it’s the focus of the inaugural installment of High Noon Saloon’s new monthly trivia series, “You Oughta Know,” on Tuesday, July 16.
Indie rock has continued to fascinate me later in life as much as it did in the early aughts. Its induction to the great genre tree of music has been a peculiar one from the start. Rather than abiding by musical parameters, it’s always been more about the idea of being cool. And it was, but of course that wasn’t the whole story. Things really became interesting when this “underground” movement became one of the dominant cultural forces of the 2000s.
What did we do to deserve indie rock?
Millennials reaching their teens during the 2000s came of age in a weird time. In the post-9/11 Bush years, kids’ teen angst and awakening to the world around them coincided with not only a bleak political climate but also a landmark shift in computer access. This internet era ushered in a watershed era of globalization. There was little preventing isolated kids in small towns from keeping up on the latest music from New York City, the unflinching heart of 2000s indie rock.
We started the decade at the height of CD sales and the advent of Napster. We ended it fully able to use Google to find a Mediafire link to pirate the new Modest Mouse album in minutes. Progress!
Thanks, Seth Cohen!
But it’s not like teenagers are coming from school and randomly googling “good bad news people album zip.” Generally, they have to hear this music somewhere. And enabled by increasing accessibility to technologies to make, disseminate and access music, bands’ reliance on major labels decreased, at least in terms of reaching the ears of new fans.
While it’s true that fledgling blogs like PitchforkMedia.com exerted increasing influence as the decade progressed, for much of the aughts these outlets were still niche. And as much as I want to credit the pre-TouchTunes electronic jukeboxes in Hollister stores, the most influential music media outlets of the 2000s were probably TV and film soundtracks. The aughts certainly didn’t invent the mixtape, but the mix CD appeal of official releases accompanying The O.C. and Garden State introduced listeners to 15 or 20 bands at a time, in an era when CDs still dominated digital downloads.
This song will change your life, I swear
In retrospect, one of those most interesting aspects of this era of music is how intimate everything felt. The internet allowed fans to build relationships with artists and their output on a scale not seen before. Everything felt personal, and often how you found the music was as important as the music itself.
While it’s true that a decade is something of an arbitrary measure of time and culture, it is often a convenient way to think about the past. My adolescent years overlaid perfectly with the aughts. Growing up in Fond du Lac, I learned about music from a broad mix of influences: various aunts and uncles, Spin magazine, other kids at school and online, and the BMG record club mail-order catalog that came to my house each month. It’s tough not to think about these things when parsing through the concepts of 2000s indie rock.
Long live indie (whatever that means)
Just like “alternative rock” before it, “indie rock” was an imprecise genre tag that stuck. Many bands were signed to major labels, making them hardly independent. Instead, it embodied an elusive concept which I can honestly only pin down to being “cool bands.”
More than anything else, what crystallized the 2000s indie canon is just having been there, even for a little while. There is no strict parameter to what makes an “indie” band. Arcade Fire is an indie band, despite now being signed to a major label. Neutral Milk Hotel is a 2000s indie band, even though they haven’t released an album since 1997. Mastodon is one of the best known metal bands around, but began as an independent act that garnered critical acclaim from the cool kid music press. Are they not, by that metric, indie?
It’s like Pusha T (who is also 2000s indie) said: “If you know, you know.” As it turns out, indie isn’t so much a sound as it is a feeling, one derived from the experience of stepping outside of the box built by the radio and into another, slightly cooler world.
Think you know 2000s indie? Test your knowledge at “You Oughta Know,” Tuesday, July 16 at High Noon Saloon. If you blank on a question, just guess Jack White.