Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Someone I know has been asking the question "Do you think The Strokes were influential?" It sounds sarcastic to hear it said aloud. Sonically, their music feels like a dead end, a rock band among many, at the start of a decade that was maybe most highlighted by the integration of computer technology and acoustic sound sources.

Over at The AV club, Steven Hyden just completed writing an overview of 1990s alternative rock culture. It avoids talking about a lot of bands to construct its narrative, which culminates in an essay about Woodstock 1999. The series might be frustrating to a reader looking to read about certain areas of interest, but giving the story being told, that particular ending makes it more clear what happened next.

I've talked about this before, because it's endlessly fascinating to me: That nu-metal essentially precipitated the end of rock radio, because in chasing the testosterone ideal, stations stopped playing female artists, or anything soft, and alienating 50% of the audience who had started listening to the station for 10,000 Maniacs. So, somewhere early in the decade, the rock radio format, as a thing that plays new music, dies an ignoble death. This is also parallel with the end of MTV as a channel that plays music. The main device of getting these "alternative" artists out to the public in a crossover form fades away, ostensibly to be replaced by the internet.

The arrival of The Strokes, and their heralding in the press, is the moment where a separate narrative is addressed and becomes dominant. The reference points- The Velvet Underground, Television, Pavement- were absorbed into the popular audience's collective consciousness, if only as names and vague concepts. New York City becomes posited as this bohemian ideal. Obviously, this was seeded by other things. The audience I'm imagining had probably watched Kids on VHS in middle school. But without The Strokes, you don't get Interpol, or, more importantly, "hipster" as a common slur. The whole idea of "indie rock," as a thing no longer having to do with independent labels, but designating a type of aesthetic, increasing in popularity, stems from this shift.

American Apparel plays a part in this too, and in some ways can be considered the same thing as The Strokes, in terms of its general appearance of lifestyle projected. The ubiquity of their advertising for a few years in the middle of the aughts serves as connective tissue for an underground turning itself into a thing of commerce. Due to the internet, nothing could succeed on the basis of selling itself as a product- records couldn't sell, and music magazines couldn't sell. But magazines could be given away, provided advertisers subsidized their printing, and websites could exist, if advertising could cover the cost of server-space. It covers compensation for contributors as well, although by all accounts this is largely minimal.

The internet's abundance of free content devalues culture, but the Bush administration does an even better job. I can't even begin to unpack all the ways that occurs, actually. Despite all this collapse, the idea of growth still persisted. Specific to my interests today is the fact that art schools and liberal art schools felt the need to increase their enrollment, bringing more people in: I tend to believe that most of these new students are aware of the fact that there is little chance for success after graduating, and are just saying "fuck it." I can't begin to unpack all the reasons they would say that, either, although the venn diagram overlap with the Bush administration's damaging effect is one of them, and so, in all likelihood, is the hipster archetype.

Essentially, with The Stroke you have a paraphrase of the old Velvet Underground quote: Not everyone bought their record, but everyone that heard about it got the idea that you could make records that no one would ever buy. Planting the seeds of mouths you can't feed. The fact that they came from privilege is what allowed them to receive attention enough for the idea to proliferate. Obviously, some people already had the idea; art schools have existed for ages, and some people will always consign themselves to a life of barely surviving.

So now we're at a moment where there's a million musicians out there, or artists, or whatever you want to call it, this white noise chamber, where CDs are basically valueless and vinyl records are frequently in limited edition to appeal to their small niches, all influenced by Sonic Youth inspired ideas of record collecting culture.

What's interesting is the fact that, originally, the internet produced new mediating structures, music criticism websites based on a personal canon gaining parlance in the culture at large. I am largely talking about Pitchfork, but the fact that most other websites were viewed in relation to that one, which in itself didn't really have that much different from what all the free weeklies and skate magazines were interested in throughout the 1990s. The most interesting thing to me about that website is how, in its ascent to the top of the mass mind, it sort of consolidated its power structure in a way where it was essentially promoted to the place where it could do the least damage, while doing the same thing to its writers: Note the way Mark Richardson, once a champion of Keith Fullerton Whitman records, was given a head writer position where he is largely brought out to extol the virtues of reissues. The shit-talking dismissals of certain scenes which they gained notoriety for has evaporated, aware of the power they now hold and seeking to not do harm.

I sort of suspect that the whole idea of this independent sphere having a mediating agency has collapsed. The world's exploded into too many tiny spheres for the attempt to be possible in any efficient way, and most anyone producing work has said "fuck it" to the point where trying to find things of value beyond "this sounds pleasant enough" shouldn't even be attempted. Which, I guess, is where the narrative for the next decade, this decade, begins: With the triumph of Kanye West and celebrity, because that's the only thing large enough to be seen, and the only world with enough awareness of having an audience to try to make an impact. How funny is it that Altered Zones doesn't even credit its writers? (Altered Zones is a website I heard about in the context of it being the absolute worst, total style-over-substance in its choice of coverage, only to learn that it is a sort of "little sister" site of Pitchfork that I think largely finds out about things from blogs, home-recording projects e-mailing them) How funny is it that the world I am aware of, an "underground" where people are constantly touring and playing shows with their friends, somehow continues to elude coverage in a world where people are trying to stay on top of things?

Meanwhile, the last post I made featured a video by Riff Raff, a dude whose aesthetic is both understandable in its precedents and totally baffling in how that particular manifestation came into being. That stuff is a counter-narrative to all that I have discussed, some of it with more roots in Woodstock 1999 than others.

The other story I could tell involves Ladyfest, an outgrowth of the 1990s riot grrl movement that specifically reacts to the fact that multiple rapes occurred during Woodstock 1999. That's an important part of the "indie" framework as well: As apolitical as things might be, a place where you don't get raped is going to appeal to people. Although American Apparel remains more popular. But then, there's also the internet as a place where people don't get raped, and that increasingly becomes the world in which we all are living.

1 comment:

Benjamin Parrish said...

altered zones credits the contributing blog, but not the specific writer unless it's an interview or something. i know that some lady named emily was credited with the excepter interview in october.