Thursday, January 4, 2007

Indie Meets Lit

I recently got my hands on a galley of Jonathan Lethem's forthcoming novel. (This post isn't a review of it, but for the record, I don't think it's his best stuff. Like all of his books, however, it's an enjoyable read, very smart and funny, and if you liked the style of As She Climbed Across The Table and Girl In Landscape, you'll dig it.) The book is about the short life of a nineties rock band, and at one point there's a brief quotation from a song by the New-Zealand-based indie group The Verlaines.

I have to confess that this moment kind of broke my heart, and there are many others like it. Indeed, one character has a mix tape of New Zealand bands stuck in the cassette deck of his car, and though Lethem never names those bands, I can promise you that I know every single one of them (The Clean, The Bats, Look Blue Go Purple, etc.) Why did these references drive me to despair? It isn't Lethem's fault. It's indie-rock's fault.

When I'm not writing or teaching, I have a hobby on the side, writing and recording music, for fun. And while I like all kinds of music now, I came of age as a musician in the late eighties indie scene, and listened to this music almost exclusively at the time. I still like it pretty well, but it meant something particular then; it was the soundtrack to white, middle-class alienation, an expression of interiority and a rejection of mass culture. It was insidery and cool to listen to.

But more importantly, indie turned the pop model inside out. Whereas pop made you feel like some little part of the world understood you at last, indie made you feel like you were the only person in the world who understood it. Part of its charm was the way it allowed you to think, while listening to it, that all the other people who had never heard of it were idiots. Never was this more bluntly expressed than in Kurt Cobain's liner notes to Incesticide:

At this point I have a request for our fans. if any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us - leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.

Oh no! The idiots have discovered us! Run for your lives!

I don't think many people, reading a piece of contemporary literature, would cringe upon encountering a reference to, say, Bob Dylan. Dylan, by his very nature, belongs to everyone. He rose to fame during an era in which the most popular music was often the most accomplished; the counterculture Dylan helped create eventually became a part of mass culture. Not so with indie rock. You can't start a revolution by looking at your navel, shapely as your navel may be. The bands that survived the era have evolved, become art-rock mainstays, are no longer "indie"; indie itself is basically dead.

The weird thing about Lethem's book is that, unlike books that use sixties counterculture as their setting, it works better if you don't know anything about its cultural context, and instead treat it as a self-contained world, like the one in Girl In Landscape. For my part, though, alas: I know too much.

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