If it were just any old source of pop music criticism that had published a recent piece on the rise of “indie-classical” music, we in the contemporary music racket might throw up our hands and wonder what took them so long to make the observation that most other commentators twigged in 2010. But this isn’t just any source of pop music criticism: It’s Pitchfork.
It doesn’t matter what you think of Pitchfork’s rhapsodic swoons and disdainful shrugs. It doesn’t matter how many spotlights Pitchfork has shone on however many great unsung acts. What matters about Pitchfork is that they gave Travis Morrison’s extraordinary solo debut, the sui generis revelation Travistan, a crippling, spiteful, arithmetically nonsensical score of 0.0: Bold move. No one expects Pitchfork’s tastemakers to know about classical music; that’s a given. But if there’s one thing that Pitchfork should know about, if there’s one criterion by which they should be able to fairly weigh the souls of the past fifteen years’ bands, it’s indie.
People kick that word around a lot: Does it describe a stance toward the market? Does it describe a library of aesthetic referents? Does it describe the way a shirt fits? For me, it’s a useful term in the same way that “New Complexity” is useful: It describes a particular constellation of people, pieces, and aesthetic epistemology. More specifically, it names a historically unique subjectivity that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s mostly (not by any means entirely) male. In pop music years, they’re a generation younger than the college-rock idols of the 1980s, the Stipes and Westerbergs and Natalie Merchants—and they’re positively salt-and-pepper-templed in comparison with your Vampire Weeks and your Animal Collectors, your Grizzled Bears. They’re like the bacteria that survived whatever cultural antibiotic did away with grunge and what was then, quaintly, called “alternative rock,” leaving only the hardiest strains on Merge, Sub Pop, Barsuk, and Jade Tree: The style-agnosticism— indeed the very impatience with style—of these Malkmuses, Danielses, Leos, Schwarzenbachs, von Bohlens, Bazans, Cawses, and (how naïve we were) Gibbards welcomed punk, hardcore, country, breakbeats, glam, math-rock, etc., into the same vacant urban lot, Edenic but on the cusp of gentrification, to sit in a torn-up couch with a beer and give revivified voice to an essentially new-wave subject position (de-Oedipalized, to borrow from Fred Pfeil) and be earnest and coy and injured, but injured in a wry way and not emo-injured in that vaguely sort of misogynistic way, all at the same time. If we’d known what a proper 21st-century hipster looked like, we’d have seen a whisper of the hipster in these folk heroes, but we wouldn’t have been able to believe that anything about them could have been contrived or pretentious in the slightest. At any rate, this is how I remember indie. They’re the bands whose t-shirts I own.
Can I see myself getting a Victoire t-shirt, a Bang On A Can t-shirt, or a Newspeak t-shirt? I cannot. That we have to describe these ensembles as “classical” illustrates as clearly as anything the inadequacy of the term “classical,” but to describe them as “indie” promises something from them that I know is not to be delivered. On Twitter, composer Marcos Balter defended “indie-classical” precisely because of its vagueness; I’m sympathetic to that point of view, not
least because it helps us move beyond perennial but not very interesting questions about what words mean. I guess my objection to “indie-classical” isn’t so much that I know it to be wrong but rather that I feel it to be wrong, and much of that feeling stems from the affective specificities that characterize “indie.”