Monday, December 5, 2011

Indie rock is intelligent design

Mrs. K: Now, class, the big magic recital's coming up, so we're going to start with some basic toad-to-prince spells. Everybody get out their toads.
Lisa: Hocus-croakus!
(Her toad turns into a tidy prince.)
Mrs. K: Oh, excellent, Lisa. A-plus. (Aside to prince.) And we'll discuss your grade over breakfast.
Prince: (Gulps and chuckles nervously.) Yes, rather.
Mrs. K: Well, Bart, did you study your spell book last night, or did your fairy godmother die again?
Bart: I studied. (Waves wand.) Abraca... turn-into-a-prince-guy?
(His toad turns into a monstrous cross between a toad and a man that can't stop throwing up.)
Mrs. K: Sloppy work as usual. Lisa's casting spells at an eighth-grade level; you've sinned against nature.
Toad-man: Please kill me.
Bart: (To Lisa.) You think you're so great just because you have godlike powers.
Prince: (Walks between Bart and Lisa.) Stand away from milady!
Bart: (Picks up toad-man.) Get in there! Defend my honor!
Toad-man: (Throws up on Lisa's prince.) Every moment I live is agony!
--The Simpsons, in the episode "Treehouse of Horror XII."
Those who defend the theory of evolution often bristle to see religion asserting itself in a debate where it has no role to play. What tends to get overlooked, however, is that a very secular reason still exists for why some out there might prefer to see an omnipotent hand in life's creation: natural selection is just mind-blowingly brutal. The random, unguided process of trial and error necessitates that innumerable creatures had to struggle in pointless existence, and entire branches and lineages had to be wiped out with nary a protest from the indifferent universe, just so that we could be here today.

The thinking goes like this: we don't have to give up on the technical processes of evolution completely, but wouldn't it be great to know that some conscience up there was in charge of the whole operation? Because if it was known all along that the goal was to steadily push towards humanity, then there would have been no need to branch out into countless detours and dead ends that could only result in widespread suffering and mass extinction. And the miracle of human life would not necessarily rest upon past cycles of cataclysm and genocide after all.

When you think about it, the major labels in the 80s and 90s worked very much according to the evolution model. In their attempt to seek out the strongest and longest-lasting, they laid a claim on any and every aspiring contender they could find. There was no central, coherent vision, as exemplified by Geffen's signing of both Guns N' Roses and Nirvana, two bands that could not be more different in their ideals and temperaments. And every once in a while, a lackluster Pablo Honey today blew up into a world-changing OK Computer tomorrow. In fact, it was exactly such surprise successes that kept the wheels churning and justified every Material Issue that inevitably got trampled by the wayside. Survival of the fittest, after all, means that the unfit do not survive.

The major labels had no idea what they wanted, and therefore they simply looked everywhere, indiscriminately exploiting and tearing apart music scenes as they went. The indie labels vowed not to repeat this sin. Partly out of necessity and partly out of principle, they took the opposite course, choosing bands with great care based on predefined aesthetics, methods, and values. When you know in advance what you want, you need never unwittingly string anyone else along, allowing them to chase false hopes and empty promises down countless detours and dead ends. I think you know where this is going. Indie rock is based on the model of intelligent design.

Now, I support the theory of evolution myself, but it's not so essential to my argument which side of the debate you're on. Perhaps the amazing diversity of flora and fauna on this planet was brought about by random processes taking place on a global scale over billions of years, or perhaps it was guided along by an all-knowing and all-powerful entity. Either way, it definitely couldn't have been micro-managed by any one of us, and this is the flaw of the indie label model: they're human, so what comes next is only what they can readily envision. Now sure, if you're an indie label, it's quite possible to find and be charmed by something a bit off-kilter and completely unexpected, should it happen to land in your sights. But your fundamental assumptions regarding who, what, how, and why will remain unchallenged, and your scene will fail to evolve.

I'm not saying we need to go back to those uncaring days when the major labels threw everything against the wall to see what would stick and then tossed away the rest. But the indie labels have left us with a music scene that isn't committed to thinking differently so much as it just happens to think differently, in a manner no less fixed or rigid than the mainstream it sought to overcome. What makes it the worse scenario is that faith in their intelligent design allows us to revel in a feeling of progress, without actually having to endure the kind of woefully unfair and world-shattering upheaval that actual progress often entails.

Because, for better or worse, pain is an unavoidable part of making history.