This evening I’ll be giving a talk as part of Boston’s Church of the Advent series, Theology on Tap. The series theme is The Gospel and Pop Culture, and my particular talk is concerned with Indie Rock. My title is “The New Sincerity: Telling the Truth in Indie Rock,” and what follows is a slim preview of the more expansive (and multimedia driven) presentation.
In an effort to introduce Indie Rock to people who may not be interested in the genre, but are most certainly interested in theology, I’ll ask you to recall the parable of the sower. In the parable, sometimes the seeds, which Jesus later explains is the Gospel, fall on hard land and never sink in, sometimes they’re choked out my vines, or are allowed to grow a little only to find the earth too shallow. But, then, sometimes they fall on good soil, where the gospel can take root and grow.
Indie rock, I contend, is good soil.
From the ashes of grunge, and as a rejection to the mainstreaming of alternative rock, Indie rock was born. What emerged was a generation of musicians who shared alternative rock’s disgust for flashy image-laden music (the re-emergence of candy-pop in the late 90s gave them new fuel for the anti-pop fire), but they also eschewed the overly ironic and detached posture of their grunge forbearers. Grunge had shown that it wasn’t cool to be cool, and thus indie rockers took it even further: not being cool was cool. Ultimately, authenticity was the answer to image-driven rock of previous decades.
Additionally, and more significantly for our purposes, as another response to the ironic detachment of Generation X, this new generation of indie rockers adopted a posture of sincerity. For them, it is okay to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. It’s good to express joy over joyous situations, or perhaps more often, to be up front about hurt or pain. As it turns out, “indie” was codifying as a genre right after the turn of the century. Many cultural observers noted that irony took a major hit after the events of September 11, 2001; this is true, and indie rock was among the places where the decline of irony was most clearly seen.
In my presentation I will talk a lot about some of the post-ironic, sincere themes that emerged as fixtures of indie rock, but here I want to note a trend that should be particularly interesting to Christians. I’m not the first critic to notice (with a nod here to Christopher Cocca’s excellent Patrol piece, “Defining the Indefinite”) that many significant Indie artists, particularly early on, were either Christians or former Christians. Some of these include Neutral Milk Hotel, Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, Sufjan Stevens, Further Seems Forever, among others. More than anything (and certainly not coincidentally) I think this is a function of the characteristics of indie rock that make it acceptable for these artists to mine their religious backgrounds and continue to give voice to their spiritual journeys.
By way of definition, some of the best descriptions of Indie rock come from its detractors. One such criticism that most fully captures the broad range of themes that indie music often encompasses comes from the music resource site Allmusic.com. Among the reasons that Indie music will never be mainstream, the author suggests are, “the music may be too whimsical and innocent; too weird; too sensitive and melancholy; too soft and delicate; too dreamy and hypnotic; too personal and intimately revealing in its lyrics; too low-fidelity and low-budget in its production; too angular in its melodies and riffs; too raw, skronky and abrasive; wrapped in too many sheets of Sonic Youth/Dinosaur Jr./Pixies/Jesus & Mary Chain-style guitar noise; too oblique and fractured in its song structures; too influenced by experimental or otherwise unpopular musical styles.”
Another criticism, originally published in the Boston Phoenix but brought to my attention by Josh Caress in his excellent two-part series about indie rock at MuleVariations.com, recalls the history of Indie rock and then puts it (appropriately) into context: “Around the turn of the millennium, bands started to triangulate among the overearnest butt rock of grunge, the little-boy tantrum punk of emo, and the ironic indifference of indie. Somehow, they came up with the authenticity response.” The author goes on to describe indie bands as those “who care really hard about caring really hard.” And, he shows his hand as an indie hater when he writes, “Eventually, this shit will cycle around and we’ll get back to music that means something,” which, he says is, “music that doesn’t mean anything.”
So, yes, Indie rock means something. It is also, again paraphrasing the Allmusic.com description, whimsical and innocent; weird; sensitive and melancholy; personal and intimately revealing in its lyrics; and authentic. In short, I’m arguing, it is good soil in which to plant truth.
In my talk tonight, we will take a tour through indie rock and check out a few examples of each of these qualities.
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