I FEEL like I should have known about Neutral Milk Hotel a long time ago.As it is, I discovered them last year when an article I read coincided with spotting their On Avery Island album at my city library.A few months later, I went to a local cafe to see a friend play at an open mic. When I got there, some 16-year-olds were covering Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” to the collective glee of their friends in the audience, all of whom where dressed like the Spin Doctors. Later, when they started on “King of the Carrot Flowers Parts 2 & 3” with odd caution, like they weren’t sure if that first line (“I love you, Jesus Chriiiii-ii-iiiiist”) was comedy or subversion, another 30-something with me asked how it was that teenagers in 2009 were into old Christian indie.You know how sincerity’s the new irony?”Is this, like, the new punk?”
“It’s just … indie.”I don’t know the woman who answered. She’d come to see our mutual friend, the performer, and she looked about his age.Early 20’s, in college.More sophisticated than the kids who were by now freestyling (it was much worse than you can possibly imagine) but not old like us.
“Indie defies categorization,” she continued. “It’s just indie. You know, independent. Not mainstream.Is this Christian?I don’t know.Everyone listens to it.It’s just good music.”
Insert my laborious, no-fun rant on the meaninglessness of the word indie, the paradox of a non-mainstream form that everyone listens to, and a protracted discussion about how overbearing it all seems to have become.This was August, so maybe it was the heat or the fact that those kids were all wearing ski caps, or maybe I was just being lazy, but I decided to let it slip that as a result of discovering Neutral Milk Hotel and the events of that evening, I’d decided to put a personal moratorium on the genre.(It’s a genre, right?)
Marketing realities and stale gripes about homogenization aside, what had been bothering me most about much of the music I’d been listening to since divinity school was my decreasing confidence in the idea of personal internal narrative as art. I started worrying about what identifying with that kind of art said about me as an artist or even as a person.Was I self-centered? Self-conscious? Self-righteous? Too privileged?If you’ll forgive the generalization, it occurred to me that indie music was a little bit like the lacrosse of aural ambition.Only rich kids seem to play or follow it.
That’s not to say that indie bands and songwriters don’t keep making brilliantly wounding, compelling favorites or that I really think, deep down, they’re all only navel-gazing.But I know my own tendencies.Writers, especially writers attempting literary fiction, are supposed to understand and control irony, but I have a hard time holding back, finding distance, verbing out pathos and catharsis in elegant arcs.I can get lost in narrative, especially my own.
Clearly, there’s a pseudo-populist dimension to my sometime mistrust of indie music or, for that matter, lacrosse (and skiing while we’re at it).There are indie folk artists, sure, and plenty good ones.But there’s something distinctly anti-folk about setting up the primacy of individual narratives as art.It’s that revolution trick Dylan did in ’64—the year before he went Judas-electric—when he got up at Newport like a folk singer singing intensely personal, introspective poetry instead of archetypical protest or, you know, folk songs. Since then we’ve believed that we can glean personal, and then communal, meaning from someone else’s personal (sometimes inscrutable) poetic narratives the larger they’re writ across popular culture or the more we give ambivalent forces (mass media in all of its forms) the power to frame our stories.
Like only he could do, Dylan recast the bounds of folk music all the while saying he only spoke for himself.And while “Mr. Tambourine Man” isn’t a folk folk song, saying the ’64 set wasn’t a protest isn’t honest, either:it begat one of the great artistic and psychological inversions of the 20th century.Dylan didn’t invent self-conscious poetry or code-word introspection, but he played it at the Pete Seegerery Newport Folk Festival with all these earnest cats in dungarees wondering what the hell was going on.Honestly, truly brilliant. He was protesting the form, sure, but he was also inventing the rock star, the pop anthem, the “oh this is my theme song” cry of people everywhere, the “it’s like he’s in my head” fandom and resetting the fountainheads of collective expression.
I think it’s fair to say that almost 50 years downstream of Bringing It All Back Home, we have now, by volume, more intensely clever, sophisticatedly delicate, beautifully nuanced, poetic music than at other time in the pop music era.And like we do with any arty poem or book, we imbue these personal narratives of people we don’t know with definitions filtered through our experiences with people we actually do.The music of the movement turns over, sure, but as long as we call it something other than mainstream, it works.Has anyone started saying post-indie yet?
Clearly, I digress.I think the kids at open mic night were right, anyway, that the music put out by people like Jeff Mangum and Sufjan Stevens has traction because it’s good art.Christ-haunted (to steal Flannery O’Connor’s phrase) people just happen to be among those making it.For many of the haunted (or even the distinctly confessional), moot but not muted questions of religious identity drive creative expression and deliver us from schlock.Thanks be to God.
That many darlings of the indie moment come from backgrounds of faith isn’t surprising, and as many emerging artists (and many in the receiving public) continue leaving the religious institutions they were reared in, many do so while retaining a longing for spiritual sincerity, personal religious experience, good news for the margins, the environment, and the forgotten.
What’s indie music?What’s religion?I’ve boycotted both in attempts to purge inherited systems and corporate expectations, to make better art and to live before God more artfully. I’ve need to reset, often, the internal narrative and the“that’s my theme song” proxy faith and living.
There have always been people who reject received religion because they take the possibility of God so seriously, and when these people make good art, we’re all the richer for it.I don’t know David Bazan but I wonder if he’s on that journey.I wonder if his break with Christianity isn’t motivated by the need I think we all have for a God who can’t be confined to how people interpret the Bible or what they say about it.Most days that’s where I am.
Some brilliant artists retain their inherited religious structures and their own singular expressions and bless us just the same. But if and when your God or your expectation of God outgrows the framing propositions you were raised in, fidelity to God (or loving God) means rejecting those limits, doesn’t it?When God gets too small for your system, which do you throw out?Your system or your God?Your Christ-haunted indie music?
In the end, it might not matter how many ski-capped hipsters in the wings make this genre theirs.It might just matter that it’s good.And if God haunts you, it might not matter how many times religion fails, it might just matter that God is.
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