Popular Music and Society | j RoutledqeVol. 28, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 55-77 l \ Ta,io,.F,ancsc,o.
What Is Indie Rock?Ryan Hibbett
This article defines the music category "indie rock" not just as an aesthetic genre, but asa method of social differentiation as well as a marketing tool. Using Pierre Bourdieu'sconcept of "cultural capital," it draws a parallel between indie rock and high art, both ofwhich depend upon a lack of popularity for their value, and require specializedknowledge to be fully appreciated. In its attempt to locate indie rock at the intersection ofvarious artistic, social, and commercial phenomena, the article engages in detailedanalysis of particular artists, songs, lyrics, websites, and reviews, from which it concludesthat this relatively new genre is part of an old and familiar social structure.
Rock music in recent years has seen itself parceled into countless categories, subject toa process of endless generation and definition that complicates the mainstream/alternative binary to the extent of inverting its logic. Punk, alternative, grunge, collegerock, emo, goth, indie pop, lo-fi, dream pop, industrial, post-rock, ambience, techno,britpop, hardcore, slowcore: one needn't spend much time skimming reviews orshopping online to experience the dizzying circulation and generally flippant use ofsuch tags. Is it conceivable that each of these corresponds directly to a unique "type"of sound, to a genre that can be defined and limited within a rapidly diversifyingfield? Perhaps. But such a list begins to make evident a certain makeshift qualityone that allows for a facility in naming, in mixing and matching, more than itprovides accurate representation of sounds. Although these terms refer vaguely (notinsignificantly) to notions of social class, industry politics, and aesthetics, they areoperative at least as much as they are responsive, providing an occasion for distinctionvaluable on both ends of commercial and artistic exchange. Like atomic particles,they exist in a paradoxical state of antagonism and interdependence, and allow forvarying degrees of separation from and within an implicit whole.
Rather than attempt to provide a stable and decisive definition of indie rock, Iwant to examine its significance both as a category and within this process ofcategorizingof endless differentiationthat characterizes the music industry andits consumers. The term, and others like it, positioned as they are at the intersectionof various aesthetic, social, and commercial phenomena, occasion a unique glance
ISSN 0300-7766 (print)/ISSN 1740-1712 (online) 2005 Taylor & Francis LtdDOI: 10.1080/0300776042000300972
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into the complexities of cultural production. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wouldhave us know, judgments and definitions of art have as much to do with social andeconomic power as with "taste," which functions to naturalize and legitimize suchpower; while indie rock (independent rock music) marks the awareness of a newaesthetic, it also satisfies among audiences a desire for social differentiation andsupplies music providers with a tool for exploiting that desire.
In order to preserve something of this complexity, I have divided the present studyinto four parts. The introductory section will explain Bourdieu's concept of culturalcapital and its relevance to indie rock, then provide a brief history and sociolinguisticanalysis of the term itself The second section will examine two aesthetic movementsassociated with the genre: first, that of Lou Barlow, whose "lo-fi" home recordingsbear perhaps a tighter relationship with the name indie than those of any other artist;then, a group of bands, including Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor!,whose music is now frequently referred to as post-rock, and whose orchestral, slowlydeveloped compositions stand in marked contrast to Barlow's. In juxtaposing thesetwo aesthetics, it is my intention to show both indie rock's dynamic nature, and,persevering within that, its logic of authenticity and otherness. The final two sectionstake into account the Internet as a medium for the dissemination of indie culture.Specifically, they will examine the rhetoric of two sites: Soyouwanna.com, whoseadvice on how to "fake being an indie rock expert" exposes indie rock as socialdiscourse, or a complex circulation of signs employed in negotiations of social status;and Amazon.com, a site now at the heart of record distribution that implements as amarketing strategy an elaborate system of classification, producing in their appeal tosocial distinction not only endless categories of music, but listeners.
To seek an "other" category of music and name it is to transform it into whatBourdieu refers to as "cultural capital," or that concerning "forms of culturalknowledge, competences or dispositions" (Johnson 7). As Randal Johnson neatlyexplains, cultural capital is "a form of knowledge, an internalized code or a cognitiveacquisition which equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for orcompetence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts" (7). It is theinternalization of this code, gathered from one's family, social relations, and formalor institutional education, that makes particular works of art meaningful. Possessionof cultural capital can contribute in turn to symbolic capital, or a "degree ofaccumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honour ... founded on a dialectic ofknowledge ... and recognition" (7). It is worth noting that, while both of these arerelated to economic capital, neither is reducible to it; one does not have to be rich inorder to exercise social power. We, know from Bourdieu's colleague Michel Foucaultthat "power and knowledge directly imply one another," that "there is no powerrelation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor anyknowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations"(27). Masquerading as taste, knowledge can be applied toward the acquisition andmaintenance of social distinctions, which "are never just assertions of equaldifference; they usually entail some claim to authority and presume the inferiority
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of others" (Thornton 10; italics in original). Foucault's and Bourdieu's respectivetheoretical approaches work well together in service of the power/knowledgedialectic; while the first offers a general, nonessentialist framework, a method ofdiscourse analysis that underscores the very constructedness of "truth," the secondallows one to ground power more firmly in social agency, to understand itsconservative function within class structures. In the final analysis, concepts such asindie rock open up vast spaces for the management of power and the manufacturingof identities: purposes far removed from the innocuous pleasures of listening.
That's a mouthful, but worth getting out since it complicates the split between"high art" and "popular" or "mass" culture that has formed the historical basis ofCultural Studies. In the reign of this massive binary, little attention has been given tothe complex processes and hierarchies within popular culture. Bourdieu distinguisheswithin the field of cultural production ("field" meaning a structured but dynamicspace with internal rules and power relations) between the lesser fields of restrictedand large-scale production. Johnson describes the restricted field:
what we normally think of as "high" art, for example "classical" music, the plasticarts, so-called "serious" literature. In this sub-field, the stakes of competitionbetween agents are largely symbolic, involving prestige, consecration and artisticcelebrity. This, as Bourdieu often writes, is production for producers. Economicprofit is normally disavowed (at least by the artists themselves), and the hierarchyof authority is based on different forms of symbolic profit, e.g. a profit ofdisinterestedness, or the profit one has on seeing oneself (or being seen) as one whois not searching for profit. It is in this sense that the cultural field is a universe ofbelief (15)
For consumers of high art, indie rock would likely be relegated to the nebulous and"inferior" world of popular or mass culture. To be sure, the respective codes are milesapart. It seems particularly striking, then, to find upon close examination the sameinternal logic occupying both fields. As with high art in its relation to popular culture,indie rock is part of a dichotomous power structure in which two fieldsone (A)having a large audience and producing an abundance of economic capital, the other(B) having a much smaller audience and producing little economic capitaloperatein a contentious but symbiotic relationship: while resisting the conventions of A, Bacquires value through its being recognized as "not A." Even without the powerfulsanction of a scholarly institution, indie rock demonstrates the principles and politicsof a "superior" art and applies them within the immense and multifarious domain ofpopular culture. As an elite sect within a larger field, indie rock requires its owncodes, i.e. cultural capital, and therefore can be used to generate and sustain myths ofsocial or intellectual superiority. Obscurity becomes a positive feature, while exclusionis embraced as tbe necessary consequence of tbe majority's lack of "taste." Indie rockenthusiasts (those possessing knowledge of indie rock, or "insiders") comprise asocial formation similar to the intellectuals or the avant-garde of high culture.
The origins of indie rock might be very roughly traced through a lineage of"underground" music dating back to the late sixties.^ Some would turn, for instance.
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to the lo-fi yet highly experimental productions of the Velvet Underground as anedgier and poorly received alternative to the Beatl