Looking back on this decade, what stands out most is not war, terrorism or recession. It's something more intractable, in a way more disturbing. It's how Americans fell apart from each other.
-- Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register, Dec. 30, 2009
I've seen a lot of looking back lately. We've had lists of the top everything from the decade. We've had lists of the top everything from the year. I've seen more than one joke about top 10 lists of top 10 lists. "Lists sure seem to be popular," the Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz tweeted today. I'm sure famous people died in 2008, too, but I've learned more in the past few weeks about the famous people who died in 2009 than I will ever need to know again.

I haven't seen as much looking forward. Sure, some people are making new year's resolutions they'll soon break, just like every year. And a new poll shows Americans are more optimistic about next year; if the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then perhaps that positive sentiment will prove itself self-fulfilling. What, however, do we have to expect from the coming decade? It's impossible to predict the type of events that for many defined the Zeroes-- war, terrorism, recession-- but will the main trend Basu cites persist? Will Americans continue to fall apart from each other? Is entropy inevitable?

I dunno. But here are some top-of-the-head, totally arguable, probably embarrassing thoughts I was sharing over dinner the other night. About music, because that's what I'm (again, totally arguably) qualified to write about. Can we stipulate that in the 1990s, indie rock was a relatively apolitical affair, characterized by Gen X irony and detachment? You weren't going to find Beck, Pavement, or Sebadoh at a Bill Clinton rally. As recently as the early 2000s, people from almost anywhere on the political spectrum could dig some of the most indie-acclaimed albums-- although even then records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were pretty consciously challenging not only the major labels, but also traditional radio listeners.

At some point, however, I feel like indie's anti-corporate story became simply an anti-Bush story. More and more artists and albums took a political stand, or at least gestured toward politics-- whether the 2004 Vote for Change Tour or vaguely war-themed albums like the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or Radiohead's unsubtly titled Hail to the Thief. For some (probably indefensible) reason I feel like this cross-identification of "indie" music with progressive politics peaked around the time of Arcade Fire's Funeral, if not so much because of anything in the music then because of the way countless people first heard about it: "Fear is wholly pervasive in American society, but we manage nonetheless to build our defenses in subtle ways-- we scoff at arbitrary, color-coded "threat" levels; we receive our information from comedians and laugh at politicians," wrote online-friend-of-Des-Noise Dave Moore in the first paragraph of his widely read Pitchfork review. The same year, a rapper named Kanye West rose up in indie circles in a way few recent rappers had-- it's embarrassing and probably more potentially more self-destructive than worthwhile to admit, but I, for one, let peer pressure sway me into including his debut album on my year-end list (I felt guilty because I had fallen out of touch with recent rap-- despite growing up on the stuff... and hearing journalism professors say rap coverage was a good career move for would-be music critics). I doubt I was the only one. Eventually, West would cement his indie cred with a few famous words: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." From there, if "indie" meant anything, it came to mean "stuff left-leaning people like and people who are right-leaning probably won't."

Now, as the decade ends, I wonder whether we've reached a crossroads. Barack Obama is president. Prominent critics have declared the death of hip-hop. The snake of contrarian thinking has eaten its tail; we've gone from the unironic revival of Journey to multiple articles calling for a reappraisal of Creed. Meanwhile, the actual death of Michael Jackson-- plus the popularity of the Beatles' "Rock Band" video game-- has left many of us craving the universal icons of the old monoculture. To that end, there's already been a groundswell of critical support around Taylor Swift, an artist who is nominally mainstream-country, a genre that is traditionally conservative (and which indie had been slowest to embrace). This is a change. That her big moment this year came in a kerfuffle with West is only appropriate and symbolic.

More and more of the new music I hear every day seems content to connect with only tiny, self-congratulatory niches. That's the way all media have gone in the past decade-- you read the blogs you like, watch the TV news you agree with, and you tune out whatever disagrees with your worldview. There's no turning back the clock. Nor should there be. But my hope for the 2010s is that more artists will see the value of reaching outside of a small coterie of fans-- fans who devour dozens if not hundreds of albums a year but devote their lives to precious few-- and start truly touching people who maybe have tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from theirs, but who will maybe appreciate their music more fully. You know the great Oscar Wilde quote: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." Let's work on reaching some people who couldn't rate an album on a 101-point scale if it killed them, who could barely put together a top five list let alone a top 50 list, but who know what a song is really worth.

So my hope for us as music fans is the same as Basu's hope for us as citizens: that we'll be able to find some common ground. That, even if we end up differing, we'll at least be communicate with each other. If you believe great music can touch what is fundamentally human in each of us-- and I do-- then why close off that possibility by speaking to ever-smaller, arbitrary niches who will download your music for free, listen to it once, form an opinion, and then move on to the next big thing?

In 2020, everybody will appear on at least one top 10 list.


  1. "Let's work on reaching some people who couldn't rate an album on a 101-point scale if it killed them, who could barely put together a top five list let alone a top 50 list, but who know what a song is really worth."

    This sounds good to me, but even the next Beatles or Micheal Jackson won't to reach these people without some corporate intervention. The people who listen to top-40 radio hear about 60 new songs a year. The huge numbers listen to classic rock radio have been listening to the same 50 songs for the last three decades. Making incredible music seems like it might be the easiest part of this adventure...

  2. And I don't mean to say making incredible music is easy...

  3. Totally agreed, the system has changed. The corporate apparatus isn't there to reach people anymore. But I feel like so much music I hear doesn't CARE if it reaches people. And that's what bothers me... what I see as an increasing solipsism in indie circles. (Not that there aren't plenty of artists I like who do their own thing, whether or not anyone will listen. But the pendulum has swung pretty far.)

  4. what also bothers me: a decreasing ability to see outside of its own perspective, to communicate in a human way rather than a tribal way, a quality it seems to me is essential to lasting art.

  5. one more thing: It's as if it's often only OK to strive for mass appeal if you're already approved by that very crumbling corporate structure! (i.e. has marketing dollars behind it to bolster your opinion) See: Kanye, Taylor, hell, even that great Timberlake album a few years ago. Back in 2004, I remember arguing with people about Robyn's self-titled album-- a self-released affair that went on to garner No. 1 hits in multiple countries and do well on the p4k decade-end list-- but I feel like indie listeners are still suspicious of musicians who came up on the strength of their own songwriting and who strive to have fans who aren't indie listeners. The "sell-out" syndrome is still alive and well; like any virus, it has just mutated.

  6. Vampire Weekend or Passion Pit or the National, it sometimes seems, are about as "populist" as indie is allowed to get-- and that ain't very.

  7. Wait, just realized what Chris this probably is-- Chris Ford? If so, your band isn't what I have in mind at all when I talk about indie-ish groups being insular and closed-off to people outside that circle. To the contrary, really! Yeah, there's a political tinge to some of your songs, but the riff on the color-coded terror warnings, for example, I think would be funny to anyone-- it's a human thing, not a closed-off, tribal thing. And yr tunes/showmanship are totally communicative, as well, interested in connecting with an audience more than congratulating them on their great taste. (Unless they love Randy Newman as much as you do, I suppose!) Great seeing ya the other night. Hope your 2010 is off to an awesome start!

  8. "But I feel like so much music I hear doesn't CARE if it reaches people. And that's what bothers me... what I see as an increasing solipsism in indie circles."

    I totally get this. There's a self-indulgence produced by a search for "authenticity", one that is motivated less by creativity than by exclusivity. I admit that I dig artists like Ganglians or Wavves--bands that veil vocals and trumpet their hazy, concealed production--but these groups are contributing to an impersonal regression in indie rock. The solipsism encapsulates what is a selfish pursuit for "creativity" or "authenticity".

  9. I like those guys, too! And then when I hear a band like Freelance Whales, who really could be popular with the 17-year-old me, I cringe. (Sample lyric: "And if you're partial to the nice guys..." in Owl City-ish voice.) But there has to be a way to be creative without playing only for nerds, to reach people without idiotic pandering.

  10. I am grateful to have NEVER heard Owl City.

  11. i wish i had something profound to offer, but i never do. my version though, the "indie rock" movement didn't succeed. at least not the way we all wanted it to. it was near-sighted thinking. but just like any revolution or movement of recent history, it influenced the mainstream culture. but it doesn't mean an album or artist or song that only a hand full of people heard didn't mean the world to a few people. and if you're lucky enough to find that, shouldn't that be enough? at least, as a fan and lover of music?

    also, "funeral" was the peak of indie rock. so it's only natural for the genre/style to digress after a peak. there was just a big, big plateau for "funeral" to sit atop of.

  12. no, austin, that's great! and yeah, obviously, there are lots of albums or songs that mean the world to me that very few people will ever hear, so i'm not trying to argue against that at all.

    i think i may actually just be way too deep in my own pitchfork-writer bubble here, but:

    i read all these blogs, get all this music sent to me, and a lot of it (as always, throughout history) is stuff that won't mean much to almost anyone. but i guess the obscure songs i like are things i have faith that i could share with friends and make them like, too. or turn on in a public space anywhere in the country and have one or two people turn their heads, ask me what it is. and so much of what i come across feels like it is narrowly conforming to increasingly microscopic sub-sub-sub-genres in order to please a few influential people who will then make it cool for a few other people to say they like it until it's not cool anymore next week, when 12 people have heard of it instead of 11. but the idea of music as a culture-wide conversation? as a sort of barometer for the human condition, or at least the american one? seems to have long ago been left by the wayside by many bands, if in fact it was ever embodied. (still just thinking out loud here, sorry. and you might not know it, but there are smart, persuasive, and-- worst of all!-- perfectly nice people who will argue that it doesn't matter at all whether anyone ACTUALLY "likes" anything, just how interestingly they play out their tastes. so here i am caught between worlds.)

    basically, i like to think of myself as someone who likes unpopular music that COULD BECOME POPULAR, UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES rather than as someone who likes unpopular music that is somehow too profound for anyone but a record-collecting elite to enjoy. and the ambition to make music that COULD BECOME POPULAR, in any meaningful way, is dying out just as the ability to become popular in any meaningful way is, too, with the collapse of the record industry/niche-ification of the media.

    wow, am i still typing here? obviously i have something to procrastinate this morning.

  13. Coincidentally, there's a similar, much more precisely worded discussion along these lines going on over at Tom Ewing's Tumblr, centered around an article I hadn't seen yet in The Economist. (Tom is someone I had in mind toward the end of the previous comment; I hope he won't think I'm misrepresenting his views on taste, though I'm 100% sure I'm over-simplifying them.)

  14. i'll have to check out tom ewing discussion, but first i need to completely agree with what you said.

    "basically, i like to think of myself as someone who likes unpopular music that COULD BECOME POPULAR, UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES rather than as someone who likes unpopular music that is somehow too profound for anyone but a record-collecting elite to enjoy."

    but you and i are not in control of the music industry. ultimately, the majors (and their pocketbooks) are back in control, but it's not a stranglehold. this whole indie movement has created a permanent place for independent artists and labels, it's just not the share we hoped we'd end up. but neil young said it best: "i'm a dreaming man, yes that's my problem." we were all idealistic about the possibility of the complete downfall of the major label corporate music system structure. but evil never sleeps, and we were too busy dreaming.

    i dunno, i kind of take comfort in the way everything turned out over the last 10 years. i admit the music that's being churned out by big corporations is ruining america, but the problem runs deeper than music. and now we're into a discussion about society as a whole. again, neil young, man.

    i'll have to check out that article in the economist.

  15. to be clear (at least about one thing), i don't think "music that's being churned out big corporations is ruining america." there's good music to be found eveywhere.

    now, it's true that my open-mindedness actually benefits those big corporations-- and, when it comes to how we divide up our time and attention, it's a zero-sum game.

    and the big labels are still the ones with the marketing budgets to get their music into the average person's product set. look what's in the advertising supplements in the sunday paper: american idol, american idol, person who was famous before the music industry died, taylor swift, justin bieber.

    but i mean, to ignore music because of who makes it or how it's marketed means you risk missing out something great.

    i just want indie bands (however you define THAT) to be as OK with each other trying to be more popular as they are with kanye or taylor swift trying to be popular-- not by watering down what makes them great, but by doing their own thing in a way that actually communicates something, gives some pleasure, to lots and lots of people.

    if stillness is the move, is lack of pleasure the pleasure?

  16. apologies for all the typos in that last comment.