Arcade Fire, the Grammys, and the State of “Indie” Rock

The Arcade Fire Band

A few weeks ago, something “unprecedented” happened at America’s most well-known musical honors event. Some little known, partly Canadian band not only got a chance to play two songs at the gala, but this under the radar group, known as Arcade Fire or something to that effect, also took home the prestigious “Album of the Year” prize. Reminiscent of Disney’s favorite children’s hockey team, the scrappy group of nobodys won the evening, just like the Mighty Ducks managed to pull off the big win against the Hawks. It is a story for the ages, and it brought a tear to the eye of every true-believing indie rock fan out there.

Uh, hold up a second. With all sarcasm aside, Arcade Fire even playing the Grammys, let alone taking the top prize, should begin to raise some questions about where indie rock is heading, or more importantly, what “indie” rock actually is. Whether Arcade Fire’s “Bowl Busting” The Suburbs is good or bad is not relevant here. However, the fact that this band was recognized in so many ways at a massive mainstream event begs one to take notice of how music can not only be categorized incorrectly, but how it can also (possibly) be completely misnamed.

There are far too many arguments that could be raised during any discourse on the subject, so things will be kept fairly basic at this time. There will be no discussion of what the terms “rock” or “music” actually mean. These are umbrella terms that most people have a fairly decent grasp on. I’m also not going to bother touching on when “rock” becomes “pop.” But how can people agree on what the term “indie” is meant to be understood as when associated with something like music? Beyond that, who cares about whether indie is being used correctly?

On the one hand, you might find those that feel being on an independent label allows a band to call themselves indie, no matter how popular they get. On the other hand, many people associate all things independent with a sense of underground, meaning as popularity is gained, the adjective should be dropped. After all, most well known bands have a lot of help getting to the big leagues. Does the outside help from mainstream publications, for example, mean an artist cannot claim it’s indie authenticity? There seems to be an overall dilemma created when a band starts to gain a large following of mainstream fans and critics. Arcade Fire was getting great reviews from magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, for example. No matter what label they are on, these articles create an astonishing amount of exposure.

Many argue that popularity is not what determines how “indie” a band might be. They say the sound the band has come to represent has more merit on how things get categorized. People still say The Strokes are indie rock, because apparently listeners feel they play a musical style that fits the bill. Let it be known that The Strokes release records on RCA, a label that is by no means identified as independent. Can they truly fit into the genre just because they replicate a type of music that might sound a specific way? Furthermore, suppose a band was once on an independent label, signed to a major, but then played the same type of music. Is this band still considered indie rock because they once were? It all seems a bit sketchy.

Honestly, it seems to me that bands not on independent labels cannot be called indie rock. Major label equals major rock. If a band wants to keep their indie cred, then a decision needs to be made to forgo all huge market dealings, which leads to a following point. If you have huge market appeal, you are probably no longer part of the indiesphere. The supposed tight-knit relationship associated between indie rock kids and the bands they love has now been broken. In addition, simply replicating an indie sound does not make you an indie band. If U2 came out with an album meant to sound like an Early Day Miners release, the world would laugh at the thought of them trying to be considered anything besides arena rock.

Although that’s my take on the subject, there are many others out there that can hold their own in a conversation like this, and every one of their ideas should be taken into account. Can anyone say comments section?

The point of this post was not to push an answer on anyone. There are obviously a lot of elements that need to be taken into consideration in this type of evaluation. It just seems pertinent for those that claim to listen to indie rock to take a look at what they might be saying or promoting. Fans of this type of music can become extremely bent out of shape if their authenticity is questioned, and that is exactly why it is important to determine if the genre is being used correctly.

6 thoughts on “Arcade Fire, the Grammys, and the State of “Indie” Rock

  1. I know for me personally I haven’t actually taken notice of record labels in a long time. I also don’t ever really bother with genres solely for the fact that the terms have become so muddied in the sense you mention–When does the term ‘insert genre’ end and become something else entirely? Because of that foggy, grey area I now listen to bands solely based on the fact of whether I enjoy their music or not. I often get scoffed at because of my refusal to partake in such conversations and I get thought of as ignorant. Maybe I am, but at the end of the day I won’t be barred from listening to enjoyable music based on their socially defined genres.

    Great article though, I enjoy your train of thought and writing style.

  2. I completely agree that it’s more important to listen to whatever you like as opposed to what genre it might fall into. I actually do think that genres are interesting though, more because it seems so strange how things are assumed to fit here instead of there. In all honesty, this post was more of a reaction to what people are saying about the whole Grammys deal, which in the big scheme of things is pretty irrelevant, no matter how one feels about Arcade Fire.

  3. I knew what you meant to do, I for some reason went off on a tangent with my response haha. I may start paying more attention to such genre details to understand some of the logic behind some of those peculiar placements.

  4. Matt — I think we fell into this discussion as well when we tried the facetiously-titled “Indie Rock Fantasy League” — — which, BTW, I would like to start up again.

    Danny has a really good point about genre names, especially in a music genre like “indie” that doesn’t refer to sound. To me, that feels like a genre of painting that doesn’t reference visuals.

    I like to think of genres as descriptive shorthand, but more often used to describe sound when the listener is unable to generate a strong description otherwise.

    Indie, like “alternative” and “punk” (and arguably even “rock”) before it, is now a commodity term. When a culture applies a term too widely, it loses its’ signifier and ceases to mean anything.

    People instinctually sort items to make sense of their surroundings, but this obsession to classify new music seems to be accelerated by a hype cycle that thrives on immediacy over depth, on tagging, and it may even have some SEO implications.

  5. Ha Brian, I thought you were going to be all over this the day it was posted because of the exact conversation you referenced. I don’t know if I totally agree with the hype of genres being fueled differently now more than in the past. Take jazz for example, which has obviously been around for ages. Different jazz artists were placed into categories like bebop, cool, or hardbop because the sounds were so different. As time went on, like you pointed out, people stopped using the qualifiers. Nowadays most people just refer to anything “jazz-like” as jazz, but that’s because they weren’t a part of that scene and don’t really know any of the differences. But in retrospect, those genres are important because these changes in styles were milestones throughout jazz’s history, and I think it’s for that reason that musical genres hold some importance, if used correctly.

  6. Good points Mr. Dangerfox. I really do think genres are very useful, especially when identifying significant movements.

    I feel that jazz terms (or, lets just say art descriptors in general) were created initially by those who followed that art subsection, or, better yet, by a collective of artists themselves who defined their own boundaries, philosophies, aesthetics. Any genre classification in earlier eras rose up from either its continued repetition in relevant circles, or by a cultural “gatekeeper” of sorts, who, as a journalist would disseminate the term from an earned cultural podium.

    My feeling is that in modern times when “a journalist” means “anyone with a wifi connection”, there’s no quality control for identifying and categorizing music in any useful way. Especially when “breaking” an artist or a new genre is so desirable.

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