Frontier Psychiatrist

In Defense of the Genre: A Response to New York’s ‘Indie Grown Ups’

Posted on: November 2, 2011

Today, I am taking a stand. After reading Nitsuh Abebe of New York’s article “Indie Grown Ups,” an editorial declaring 21st century culture monuments like Radiohead, Wilco, Neko Case, Feist and Bon Iver founders of “the new adult contemporary”, I couldn’t help but feel protective of the bands he unfairly maligns.

On the surface, Abebe’s article seems inoffensive, ceding that these bands’ most recent works are respectable and retain artistic value. But then he calls them dull and lumps them in with the much-maligned “Adult Contemporary” genre; the mere mention of which has triggered Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” to repeat in my head ad nauseam. Quite honestly, I am offended. I think he is completely wrong. And a pretentious asshole. So, here is my position. It’s not just in the name of dispelling bad journalism, but mostly in defense to the great bands Abebe (subtly) trashes.

These were the bands that ultimately transformed me into an obsessive music nerd. I couldn’t tell you how many times I played OK Computer on my Walkman walking home from high school. Or how many times I gushed over A Ghost Is Born way back in 2004. Or how earth-shattering the first time “Almost Crimes” (by Feist’s original band Broken Social Scene) blared out of my car speakers during the Indie hour on the local alternative station (a welcome respite from the grating post grunge acts like Shinedown or Seether that the station normally played). And try living in Milwaukee for a couple of years and not hold Bon Iver as a dear symbol of Wisconsin pride on par with a wedge of cheese and a can of Miller Lite.

First things first: the new works of all of these bands are in no way my favorites. I think a lot of fans of these groups would also agree that none of these albums are these bands’ best (with the possible exception of Bon Iver, depending on your feelings.) But all of these works are worthy of accolade; at least more than Abebe’s “Meh” assessment. But adult contemporary they are not.

Abebe asserts that these albums represent “classic” and “safe” approaches to indie rock such that allow for crossover appeal into the adult contemporary world. I argue that these albums are far from “safe.” The King of Limbs sounds like Radiohead’s attempt to reconcile the rising trend of IDM with actual instruments. Wilco’s “Art of Almost” manages to distinguish itself from, say, a Matchbox 20 song by incorporating a pulsating Kraftwerk-esque beat and a cacophonous string section, all the while still finding room for a now-trademark face melting solo by Nels Cline.

Wilco – Art of Almost


And then there’s the newest Bon Iver full-length. The reason For Emma, Forever Ago catapulted Vernon from a lonely songwriter to indie fame (whatever that means), is the album’s emotive insularity and simplicity. One man isolates himself with an acoustic guitar in a cabin and writes songs about a breakup. So how does he follow this album up? By making an album that is the complete opposite. The songs are expansive. The lyrics are cryptic. He employs synthesizers for Christ’s sake, cheesy ones at that. And to seemingly further alienate the hipster kids who so adore him, he starts citing Bonnie Raitt as an influence.

You have to give credit to any band with the guts to embrace influences that are not the typical Indie touchstones. I may be alone on this one, but I am sick of the endless factory line of Brian Wilson-worshipping indie pop bands. Being dads themselves, Wilco has every right to embrace their dad rock side. And if any Abebe-acolytes scoff, kindly remind them that James Blake is on record covering a Joni Mitchell song, and, surprise surprise, a Feist song!

This is where I have to temper my defense of these bands. As I said before, these albums are not any of these artists’ best works. But the problem with every great band is they get old. Groups like Neko Case and Feist are eventually going to sound tired because they have very signature sounds. Even Radiohead, who seem to regularly redefine alternative music, have begun to sound an awful lot like Radiohead. The mountains of new music at our fingertips spoil us to the point we start to question the bands we loved since before the Spotify Age. Instead of being bogged down in the constant discovery of new music, I, for one, pledge loyalty. And there is no need to bring “adult contemporary” into this.

Tim Myers is the only student of The Ohio State we can stand to have around.


8 Responses to "In Defense of the Genre: A Response to New York’s ‘Indie Grown Ups’"

Great post…I completely agree with the pretentious comment–and just because you say “I might sound snobby to you” doesn’t mean that you are not. We can all be snobby about the music we like or don’t, and Abebe was being snobby in that article. Everyone’s looking to be the first to say something. So, maybe someday when OUR adult contemporary includes songs from these artists, Abebe can be the one who had said it way back when. Good for him.

I’d LOVE for someone to put Bon Iver’s “Perth” on my local Clear Channel station and see how many wtf? comments come from office workers and soccer moms. It’s an absurd claim, in my opinion. I still can’t get the majority of my friends to accept Vernon’s falsetto or Mark Berninger’s baritone enough to see the brilliance of Bon Iver or The National. And don’t get me started on The Tallest Man on Earth…no one will give him a second listen because his voice is a little too “harsh.” Mainstream is not accepting of amazing music unless it has whipped cream on top. AND…I love whipped cream. I don’t hate the music of Matchbox Twenty and Daughtry and P!nk or whatever. That would be like saying I hate candy. But I prefer a wholesome meal most of the time–thank you for that, Bon Iver. (I am still feasting on “Holocene” and “Calgary.”)

And speaking of that, as a proud midwesterner I, too, hold Bon Iver as a dear symbol of pride, and I hope that’s okay because I have to admit that I, too, am a proud graduate of The Ohio State U! (Sorry about that game last week…)

But seriously, I can’t stop listening to the new Bon Iver album. And how nice is it to truly talk about an ‘album’? A good old-fashioned album that is put together with thought-provoking intent? There is certainly nothing mainstream about that these days, in my opinion.

It is great how we all get to hold our own opinions on these topics, eh? Thanks for the post!

Why is it so inherently offensive that what you listen to might be defined as this decades’ “adult contemporary”? The music industry is a completely different game than it was 10 years ago. Listeners have way more opportunity to be exposed to different bands and sounds now that music has been digitized. Take Bon Iver, the newest act you discuss: Do you really think he would be the mainstream act he is now in just three years if For Emma, Forever Ago were released in 2003? And this is coming from a person who adores all his releases, so to avoid confusion, I don’t mean mainstream as a slur. I think the flaw in your argument is that you assume adult contemporary of the 2000’s and adult contemporary of the 2010’s have to sound the same. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s going to tell you that “Art of Almost” is equally safe as “Drops of Jupiter” or that they’re even in the same genre, but I’d agree with the assertion that they occupy similar spaces in the music industry for their respective times of release. If you Wilco’s your thing (and it’s mine too), then maybe dad-rock or NPR muzak isn’t such an insult. Own it.

Sorry, but you seem to miss the point of the Abebe’s article. He wasn’t attacking these bands or saying they are bad, or that “adult contemporary” is necessarily bad. That is your own defensiveness.

He *was*, however, raising the point that some of these acts are making music that is a little safe, and unlikely to ruffle feathers. Again, that doesn’t a priori mean that there is not quality to the music – the whole point of the article was not to judge this phenomenon, but to ask “just what does this imply?” What does it mean when so many of the popular “indie” or “underground” artists are making music whose unifying characteristic is its “listenable-ness?”

Most importantly, the question is really “what does it say about us?” not “what does it say about these artists?”

The genre ‘adult contemporary’ has nothing at all to do with the sounds each artist creates. It sounds like whoever created this ‘genre’ actually just created a target audience. Unfortunately (fortunately?) this audience changes every decade, because music from 20 years ago is no longer contemporary. . .

I would like to get away from describing musician’s music based on how approachable it is. Use whatever label you like to describe a band or an artist, but the meaning the label (or genre) gives to the music tends to not be a descriptor of the music itself. More often than not, the label is contextual and broad. I like to challenge people to use words that describe the music (or the sounds, rhythms, textures, melodies, treatments of the text) when talking about music rather than just generic labels. At least this way you can give the musicians credit for the music they are creating. Maybe it’s a step from being a consumer to a critic?

[…] has become the biggest story of 2011 in indie music.  Whether it’s his flirtation with adult contemporary, his “selling out” for a whiskey ad, or his contempt for the Grammys, some larger […]

[…] (Blondes) to spastic camp (Paralytic Stalks), to plaintive guitarism (No One Can Ever Know) to new-wave adult contemporary (Tramp).  Plenty of music to keep you […]

[…] sonic touch. First off, the album pulls absolutely no punches, noteworthy in our current days of adult contemporary indie rock. In eight songs, Dylan Baldi and his newly acquired bandmates (more on that later) have done more […]

[…] band. Based in Minneapolis, this sometimes eight-piece group fronted by Nona Marie Invie make “adult contemporary” baroque pop for all the lost Rain Dogs out there. The packed, silent venue stood enraptured by […]

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