Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Indie rock's place in music history

Let's say you know nothing about classical music, and you ask me to recommend a good composer for you. Suppose I were to respond, "Well, there was this guy two hundred years ago who was really well liked by everyone in the Hamburg scene. He was always promoting upcoming shows, and he would always stick around for hours afterwards, signing autographs and chatting with fans. Oh, and get this: he started his own music publishing company, because he wanted to empower himself and others as independent artists!" If I were to say all that, I think you would look at me like I had sponge cake for brains. These aren't traits we typically value in long-dead composers.

And yet, it's openly acknowledged and celebrated that building up a following and being self-reliant in matters of promotion is precisely what gets a band noticed and respected in the indie rock scene. The kind of priorities which set indie rock proudly apart from the popular mainstream, in other words, are also counterintuitive to music history as a whole. If a band aspires to get signed to an indie label, they're expected to expend enormous amounts of time and energy on doing things, and being things, that really don't matter much to the greater world of people who listen to and appreciate music across oceans, generations, and ideological divides.

It's not that actual music is incidental to indie rock; rather, the goodwill that a band naturally generates by being out and about invariably carries over into our assessment of their music. Objective standards provide a mechanism to counter this tendency, but a scene like indie rock that rejects such standards will grow to cheer it on instead, comfortable in its assertion that a band's artistic worth is inextricable from its likability. So if one runs an indie label, and one likes Band A better than Band B as individual people, then one will attend more of their shows, one will hear and like their music more, one will judge them to be the better band, and one will ultimately sign them over Band B. And since supporting indie labels is how bona fides get earned, we're left with relatively few past instances in which these judgments have been openly called into question.

But how long can that kind of support last before it finally begins to erode? After all, the difference between Band A and Band B is still a blind taste test for the general public. We'll always choose Band A over the Band B we know nothing about since they didn't get signed, of course, but we don't live in a vacuum; all of us know some amazingly talented Band B working our local scene. Overall, they probably number in the tens of thousands. Check out the most recent addition to any indie label's roster, though, and chances are it won't be readily obvious what advantages their music possessed to have vaulted them over the tens of thousands of other bands equally worthy of consideration. Don't get me wrong, they're almost always pretty good. But the same could be said about all the forgotten bands snapped up by the major labels in the heady 90s. Remember Chalk FarM?

Back then, the major labels were casting a wide net, signing every band out there who had worked hard to build up a regional following, hoping to find just a few that could make it big and recoup all their investments, with a tidy sum added to boot. The rest had their fins sliced off before being thrown back into the sea. The majors were hoping to make a killing; by contrast, the indies in these uncertain times are simply trying to make a living. Signing bands who signal a can-do spirit towards self-promotion minimises their risk of losing money. So it's easy to sympathize with their struggles to stay afloat; nobody will be penning an indie label counterpart to Steve Albini's rant against the major labels anytime soon.

And yet, their respective criteria for choosing which bands to sign aren't really all that different, are they? And as such, couldn't the same be suggested about their respective places in music history?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A resistible Canaanite's request for crumbs

I don't pay much attention to what's happening in indie rock these days, but I still keep tabs on Bon Iver. Justin Vernon is like my doppelgänger of sorts: heartbroken and feeling like life had reached a crisis point, he and I each retreated into seclusion to write and record an emotionally cathartic album. Our stories kind of diverge from there, of course. He got signed to Jagjaguwar; I got rejected by their sister label, Secretly Canadian. His album made it onto numerous best-album lists; mine sold something like fifteen copies, mostly to friends and family. His latest album is now receiving the same level of critical acclaim as his first; I've spent the past five years unsuccessfully trying to convince music critics that I exist.

I think his music is quite beautiful, so this post isn't meant to criticise Bon Iver in any way. Rather, it's a commentary on the Pitchfork review of his latest album, in which Mark Richardson writes, "There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating, heartbroken, to a cabin to write some songs..." Some of you may remember my thought experiment from last month, in which I asked you to imagine the music of Sufjan Stevens and Beirut being made by people whose physical appearance probably wouldn't lead anyone to presume an indie rock affiliation. As you've probably already guessed, this post continues where that one left off.

Richardson isn't trying to argue that image and identity should matter in indie rock, but his statement reveals an ingrained comfort with the notion that some physical appearances and provenances possess greater myth-making potential than others. This probably doesn't bother women from small towns or bearded dudes from big cities too much, but we might ask whether there exists some point beyond which an outlier's personal identity is just too distant or foreign for his or her music to be considered relevant by this scene. I'm not saying that Bon Iver doesn't deserve the respect and attention he gets. He does. But I think we can also be sympathetic to the fact that not every band starts out with the same advantages.

Now, some might argue that music, like romance, isn't and shouldn't be concerned with providing equal opportunities. It's about what we as listeners and lovers want for ourselves, and nothing more needs to be said or defended. I understand this. But what people want can also expand and mature over time, so those of us who aren't presently wanted can still work hard to build up our merits, knowing the day will come when those efforts finally mean something to somebody. We all understand this as well. That's why, as a short man, I've learned to be gracious and not to gripe about my lesser fortunes. And that's why, as a songwriter, I've learned to write music that showcases objective mastery and isn't vulnerable to the subjective tastes of any particular time or place.

Well, here's where it gets tricky. So far, indie rock hasn't appreciated any of my efforts in the latter department, and now I have to wonder whether this modus operandi of mine will always backfire in a scene that values humble sincerity and frowns upon calculated effort. But really, how else could I possibly do it? I'm not a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin, and there's nothing irresistible about the thought of someone like me doing anything, period. So if it's blindingly obvious that I don't exactly know how to go about things, rest assured that I'm not completely naive, either. The reason I don't bother to make the kind of music that indie rock never fails to appreciate is because I have good reason to suspect that indie rock wouldn't necessarily appreciate it coming from me.

Here's a personal anecdote. When Liz and I left New York, we shipped a lot of our stuff through Amtrak. Their website doesn't give a whole lot of information, so when we got there, the charges turned out to be way more than what we had been quoted. I tried to stay good-natured and compliant, but Liz started sulking and shooting daggers from her eyes, and amazingly, that's what worked. The poor guy let us go with our original quotes. It then occurred to me that we all instinctively do things in ways that work best for us. Liz is very small with a soft-spoken Southern drawl, and I'm a short Asian fellow, so we both get walked upon with some regularity. But no one actually likes to see Liz upset, whereas I'm only an amusing clown when I get upset. Hence, we've learned to react very differently to the same situation.

So getting back to indie rock, I'd wager that few in this scene would sympathise with my current lack of recognition, given my insistence on creating a bloated, unwelcoming monstrosity filled with Easter mondegreens, doublespeaker rhymes, and emotions buried only beneath thick layers of sardonic wit. But I'm just not someone who can hole up in a cabin for months, laying down my unadorned whispers into something painfully earnest and vulnerable, and expect to be loved for it. That wouldn't work for me. I've been who I am my whole life, I've seen what that signifies to others, and I'm pretty self-aware as an individual, so you'll just have to trust me on that one. If it does work for some, I'm only glad to hear it; I wouldn't want to live in a world incapable of spawning Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, Daniel Johnston, or any other artists making the kind of music that only those like them could ever be loved for making.

In turn, everything I do is done with an intuitive understanding of what works best for someone like me. Given that my life's journey up to the present has been an endless series of sputters and false starts, it's obvious that my intuition is oftentimes downright wrong. But in my defence, I really don't have many precedents to work with, much less goodwill to inherit. If, by some miracle, Mark Richardson were ever to review a Bobtail Yearlings album, he wouldn't be tapping into any universal sentiment about short Asian boys from California. And so I strive over and over to create new archetypes from scratch, despite my perfect record of failure thus far, because creating new archetypes is all there is for me to do at this stage. It doesn't get me a whole lot of love from this scene here and now, true, but it's the only way I can do it if I'm to get any love at all. Tomorrow's music historians will certainly be sympathetic to this predicament of mine, and I think some of today's indie rock fans would too, given the chance to know about it.

The question is, will they ever get to know about it? That's not my decision to make, unfortunately. I'll leave you here with a parable. Jesus only preached to his fellow Israelites, so when a Canaanite woman persisted in begging him to heal her daughter, he told her, "It isn't right to take the children's bread and cast it to dogs." The woman replied, "Yes, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from the master's table." To which Jesus then said, "Woman, you have great faith! Your wish is granted." My point is that I'm not looking to be anyone's favourite here. What I'm asking for really amounts to just table scraps, and I've certainly proven my persistence. Hopefully, one of these bearded dudes around here will rise up to be my messiah!