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What’s ‘indie’ anyway?

| Monday, February 15, 2016

The question “what kind of music do you like?” always elicits some blend of excitement and stress for me. For one, any opportunity to fanboy-out about an album I’ve been really digging, or discover a shared passion for a particular group is one I want to participate in. That being said though, it’s almost inevitable that some derivative of “I like indie music” will surface at some point during the discussion. While technically true, I hate the inherent condescension that comes with that phrase. In reality, my musical tastes are eclectic and diverse, and the phrase “indie” is just no longer suffice in covering all my bases — plus, it turns some people off from sharing their tastes, something I really detest.

The term “indie” began in the UK during the ‘80s, and became synonymous with the term “alternative,” another meaningless catchall for off-kilter, low budget acts. Even today, when placed in front of other genre titles, “indie” evokes a D.I.Y aesthetic, its not just pop, it’s indie pop — i.e “we’re not another mainstream corporate sellout act,” sick. Yet, when so-called “indie” acts rise in fame, are they still indie? Does the term “indie” suggest a type of music or just the level of fame?

In a recent issue of Under the Radar, beloved “indie” artist Father John Misty addressed some of the conflict in the term “indie” — and its coalescence with the term “mainstream”.

“It’s true. The lines really are blurring more and more. Sometimes, when I am on my way to an indie rock writing session with my indie rock producers who have been getting pressure from my indie rock label executives who are still not convinced we have that crucial indie rock single that’s going to break indie rock radio …  I can barely tell the difference myself.”

Misty went on longer describing his “indie rock workouts” among non-mainstream activities, but his point is clear. As the consumption and distribution of music warps and evolves with the times, labels and genres are becoming less and less relevant.

Chicago-based online music magazine Pitchfork Media, the current mecca for independent music, has long been regard as the epitome of this “indie” condescension. Yet more and more, Pitchfork has been covering a much wider scope of music. Of recent, acts considered by most as “mainstream,” such as Rihanna, Fetty Wap and Adele, have garnered attention on the niche music critique site.

What really ticks me is just how paradoxical it all is. If the term “indie” is suppose to suggest the purity of independent music and the unmitigated creativity available to those artists free from the fetters of a larger, more corporate label, shouldn’t the listeners of these acts be open to all types music? Sequestering your musical tastes to just the acts on smaller labels prevents attainment of a holistic appreciation of music in the context of our culture. If you’re constantly spending your time seeking music from small independent acts, shouldn’t you give more popular music a fair shot?

Now that the lines between indie and mainstream are beginning to blur, it seems like my gripe with the tricky little word will soon be gone. If Rihanna can cover a Tame Impala track on her latest album and Kanye can get away with sampling an Arca track on his “Yeezus,” can we drop the distinction now? The black and white separation of indie and mainstream albums from the record stores of day’s past is just no longer the reality, and music is better off.

At the end of the day, music and is just music — what we label the specific genres and subsets really just gets in the way of enjoying it all. If it makes your head bob, don’t let cultural notions stop you. Next time I get inquired about my taste in music, I’ll just have to come with some cliché or something; it’s better then just saying “indie music.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Adam Ramos

Adam is studying international economics in the class of 2018. He hails from beautiful New Jersey and says "draw" instead of "drawer."

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