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Pop goes Indie

Pop goes Indie

by Kavish Chetty, image by Abel Scholtz / 28.04.2010

Indie long ago feasted on its own substance and retreated into a cult of
aesthetics, and its partygoers are always as fascinating as the bands themselves. There are carrot-shaped girls in polka-dot dresses who dance like horses in heat. There are young boys with stubbly upper lips, ears punctured and studded with silver all along the helix; they jam themselves into jeans too tight for their fleshy legs. They mince too, whether with deliberate feminine artifice, or because their balls are just squeezed up into an awkard little parcel, I can’t tell.

Desmond and the Tutus are youthful and brash. Their songs are wild, exclamatory; an urgent and final paen to their youth. All this exuberance belying a certainty that they’re growing up and growing old (the sexual carnival of underage flesh at these indie concerts is already starting to pucker and blemish, grow world-weary with the weight of young adulthood). That one day they’ll have to trade in the guitars and artistry for bills, polyester suits and wives. So, their music is doubly as unhinged to balance out this eventuality.

Tonight, Shane looks like a burn-out from the 1980s. His shoulder-length hair looks like it’s been perfectly fixed to his scalp, to resist the impact of each rapid-fire headbang. There are some wispy brown bristles beneath his nose. He hops all along the stage, high-fiving his fans, energised and commanding. The guitarist may do ballerina spins in the corner of the stage, but he is living in his own head. Shane is the centerpiece of this band and he is unstoppable. Caught in the purple bath of the strobe lights, he has a rhythmic epileptic fit to the kwela bass-lines of ‘High Fives’, shaking and taken, all but foaming at the mouth. He is going apeshit in the proper primate tradition. After the song he squeals out in his typically affected voice, “I apologise if it didn’t look like we were giving it our all that time.” Quite.

Interestingly, Shane sounds more authentic when he sings live. On the record, he had a chance to perfect his vocal affectation. But this kind of music doesn’t want perfection. It wants spontaneity, roughness, sweat and haggard breath. So when his voice breaks over the edge of each stanza, his real sincerity comes out; raw, unrefined, it makes me think of Maynard James Keenan of Tool.

I’ve watched the development of indie, this half revivalist-80s culture since
about 2005. It doesn’t really change. The die-hards get older but their uniforms stay the same. Standing in line outside the Assembly, queued behind the wailing whine of American accents, I get a sense for how culturally fractured this city is. It’s chopped up and served in neat little packages. An evening in Observatory a few nights ago was a night of black lips and painful facial piercings. This evening in Harrington Street is a night of plaid shirts and spotted kerchiefs. Their fashion and dogmas conflict, but all these kids are searching out the same thing in the music: escape. Escape for three hours of hedonism, alcohol and marijuana. Suspension until 8 AM the following morning, when play-time is over, the garish get-ups are packed away in the closet and the man wakes them up for cake and sodomy.

Caveat: At the expense of sounding old and thoroughly unhip, the sound at Assembly last night would’ve benefitted from having its volume turned down a couple of notches. Some of the uniqueness of the music gets lost in the overpowering drone of bass; plus, when your heart’s vibrating with each bass line, and your eardrums feel like someone’s playing paradiddles on them with mallets, the enjoyment is lessened. Hearing aid specialists and otolaryngologists love the Assembly – it’s going to give them lots and lots of business in a couple of years’ time.

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  1. good says:

    Nice one Kavish.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    *that “wailing whine of American accents” you heard most probably the group of American exchange students I met from New Jersey…. don’t think you should be too worried about the “culturally fractured city”
    I enjoyed your review… was entertaining

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  3. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    “I’ve watched the development of indie, this half revivalist-80s culture since
    about 2005. It doesn’t really change.”

    For the sake of accuracy and fairness, I recommend the following phrase to be inserted between “of” and “indie” – ‘contemporary white South Africa’s poorly-informed and haphazardly implemented notion of’

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  4. Nathan Zeno says:

    Facist, I’ve always just taken as a given that that’s what everyone thought when they saw the word Indie here.

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  5. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Yeah, but I’m old and nostalgic enough to remember what ‘indie’ actually was when the term actually meant something. That was long before it became a fashion statement and another pointless genre.

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  6. Andy says:

    I guess there’s a whole article in that…

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  7. missy says:

    I don’t think indie was ever anything more than a fashion statement.

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  8. Nathan Zeno says:

    missy is not as old as us, it seems.

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  9. missy says:

    Okay, Nafan, so what exactly was indie before it was a fashion statement? And which bands are we talking about?

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  10. Nathan Zeno says:

    Saying Indie was/is PURELY a fashion statement is the problem, it’s like saying Grunge was all about lumberjack shirts and smack. Indie bands? shit, Guided By Voices?

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  11. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    The term “indie” is an abbreviation for “independent” and it refers to developments in the music iindustry that took hold in the late ’70s and became more entrenched in the early ’80s. The independence refers to the labels that bands were signed to and the fact that they were quite separate from the “majors” (labels such as EMI, Warners, BMG, … you get my drift).

    Indie bands were characterised by the fact that they did things on a smaller commercial scale and therefore could be more esoteric and experimental with their music. So in effect they were seen as an alternative to mainstream pop music – that’s why many people consider the terms “alternative” and “indie” to be interchangeable.

    In the ’80s magazines such as NME and Melody Maker started publishing a separate Indie chart for albums and singles, and this was rapidly seen by serious lovers of contemporary music as a more definitive guide to what was both interesting and popular. The criteria for consideration were largely based on whether the label made use of distributors that were separate from the major labels’ channels.

    As time passed the majors started to realise that indie labels were far better at niche marketing and that the popularity of many indie bands was growing to the point that they were competing with the profitability of many mainstream acts. So as big business does, they started to infiltrate the scene, buying up labels that were successful while still making use of the indie distribution channels so that the releases still qualified for the indie chart. It’s not too hard to join the dots between what happened from then until now…

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  12. the bear's woods says:

    robert pollard is alive and doing sound at the bohemian in johannesburg

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  13. missy says:

    But, but, but:

    While contemporary indie may share some genealogical roots with the indie of old, it is in effect, an entirely new genre of music predicated on fashion… like the writer says, ‘a cult of aesthetics’. What is the music supposed to be saying, other than, ‘we’re pretty, oh please somebody take notice of us! We like to dance around and dress up.”

    Also, Nafan, on the grunge point: Grunge, like all cultures, may have attracted a particular style of dress (it’s only about obvious, given that like-minded individuals will tend to behave alike from thought to dress) – but, the fashion was never the centerpiece of the musical style. It was entirely secondary. Grunge has a great deal of social commentary and substance, where the only thing indie has to say, in a kind of strange, unconscious, hypocritical, imitative behaviour, is how superficial both it and our society is becoming.

    Am I making sense or talking bullshit?

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  14. Nathan Zeno says:

    You are making sense, now that you make a distinction between indie and nu-indie.

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  15. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Missy, I don’t agree. It’s not an entirely new genre without musical genealogy.

    The indie of old did establish something of a sonic signiature over time, some of the characteristics becoming quite stereotypical. If you hear jangly guitars with skittish and less melodic vocals, that pretty much sums up the lo-com-denom that the less exciting bands of yore used as a blueprint. And many of those bands adopted the same approach to their appearance – skinny jeans and floppy fringes were de rigeur. Now if you listen to and look at many of the “nu-indie” acts today it doesn’t seem much different does it? They are in essence paying homage to a movement that had its heyday 25 years ago. Perhaps they should be inviting the same level of scorn that hirsuite rockers playing 12-bar blues invited back in the ’80s?

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  16. missy says:

    But then I guess the prototypical indie, given that its name means ‘independent’ is probably quite diverse both musically and in terms of its opinion. — other than some vague musical tropes, though, how much does nu-indie share in common with its nomenclatorial (okay, I just made that up to sound smart and/or poncey – you know what I mean) ancestor? Speaking about that as little more than mad distant relatives with a few common genes seems a little over-reaching.

    So, indie, as we talk about it, as we have been talking about it, and as we will talk about it, never was about substance.

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  17. missy says:

    Hi Fascist,

    So you’re saying that even indie of’ ‘yore’, may have been original, but was fundamentally substanceless as well? Fashionable, hedonistic, uniformed… What is this music about other than an obssession with self and image?

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  18. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Interesting points Missy, and you’ve just reminded me why I hate genres and musical pigeonholing so much. Isn’t it always the less interesting and less original bands that inevitably get associated with genres and stereotypes over time, while the more progressive voices are remembered for their singularity more than anything else? Do we gravitate to genre references when we discuss Swans, Talk Talk, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Miles Davis or even Robert Johnson? I certainly don’t, mainly because it would diminish the significance of their music if we embroiled it in descriptors that inevitably compare it to blander contemporaries.

    When I think of the concept of indie, it’s rather based on a new set of dynamics in the industry that gave voice to more marginal artists and helped them to find a more comfortable and self-sustaining place in society. In many ways the indie revolution was more about a change in the politics of music than the sound per se. And oddly enough, it’s probably the more politically astute bands from that era that are the most enduring from the ’80s “indie” fold – Gang Of Four, The Pop Group, Wire etc etc.

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  19. missy says:

    “Do we gravitate to genre references when we discuss”…

    Sure, we don’t. But musical historians, tracing musical development across the decades surely would. But I’m with you – genre-talk is little bit of a waste of time. It does help, though, for study, to be able see how particular pockets of music feed off each other, reflect back their context etc.

    It’s funny, though. When I think of ‘indie’ bands, the old indie bands, I think of bands (whether or not they were properly independent) like Josef K., Field Mice, Television, Orange Juice and Devo. I think a lot of these latter day bands owe everything these guys.

    When you say the indie revolution was a change in the politics of music – do you mean way in which music is created and distributed? Technology, and digital and online and blah-blah, all those completely unromantic modern developements have pretty much turned the credibility of ‘indie’ as a disconnected-from-the-man movement to dust.

    Being independent isn’t really a good gauge of anything anymore. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily operating in a paradigm outside of the more commercially-orientated record labels. I mean, look at the Dirty Skirts, one of the lamest, most unhip, slavish and shitty bands I’ve ever heard in my life – they once turned down a major-ish label deal, didn’t they? For what? Standards? Ideals? Independence? Their music was fashionable, superficial, synthetic kak from the beginning, so who the fuck cares? Oi, Jerry de Tolly, or whatever the fuck your name is – take the record deal, go make some money, because your music doesn’t exist to change minds (it exists to change clothes). Anyway, you look old, dude. Don’t you have a bond to pay or something?

    I digress.

    My point is: being properly independent these days just means your music probably isn’t good enough to make money. That’s still all these suckers wants. Money money money girls protected sex (oh, aren’t you so rock ‘n roll?) fame kudos more money better clothes adoration from slavering idiots with no critical faculties more blowjobs please can i go inside you now oh oh oh jesus i’m sorry that doesn’t usually happen i’m sorry * snore *

    Okay, I’m getting carried away.

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  20. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Jeez, I’m glad I’m not Jeremy de Tolly.

    Good point about modern technology making the original concept of independent music irrelevant. Perhaps the next question we should ask is how interesting and self-respecting music will differentiate itself from the fold in years to come? Will it be a totally viral and blog-driven phenomenon and how much will it have to be dressed up to attract the right supporters in the right niche markets? Is there a cyber-equivalent of a Peter Saville cover that will propel the next Joy Division into the (sad) hearts of those capable of cherishing the music and the visual?

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  21. Brett says:

    Mmm. Genre war.

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  22. Twakkie says:

    Indie in any case can be played by 12 year old kids, boring.

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  23. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Crap South African comedians can be replaced by 12 year old kids.

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  24. Andy says:

    crap south african internet commentators may just be 12 year old kids

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  25. The Fascist Dictionary says:

    Can’t talk now, mommy is calling.

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  26. Hikikomori says:

    Great points made and interesting conversation it was.

    what is puberty?

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