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Whiny Indie Rock

As Andy linked on the sidebar earlier, a Cornell professor, Jefferson Cowie, has written a rather stimulating thought piece on the listening habits of today's college students over at Inside HigherEd. He asserts:

At the same time, white indie rock has been devoid of soul and blues influences — drained of the alchemical lifeblood created in the synthesis of white and black musical traditions. Indie is left with a whiny, trebly, irresolute sound that seems to fit the dull green glow of a computer screen in darkened suburban bedrooms. Music today is just another part of the price of America’s re-segregation.

My own kids’ strange connection to Dylan and the Clash at the tender ages of 7 and 10 suggest that I may be well on my way toward being part of the problem. Am I screwing them up by not adequately screwing them up, softly indoctrinating them into the glory days of rock and roll over family brunch on Sunday? Will they learn about the backbeat of power and rebellion at the displays of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of the more illicit places they ought to be receiving such education?

Jeff Cowie happened to be a professor of mine for a semester, and was one of the most thoughtful, stimulating, and worthwhile professors I had during my time on East Hill. He was the type of professor that made the cost of tuition worth it (and I was only paying in-state contract college prices!). Coincidentally, he was recently named dean of one of the new residential houses on West Campus, and I know he will be outstanding in this position.

But I wanted to discuss Cowie's ideas a little bit more...

In general, I find the thesis to be correct and to reflect my own experiences at Cornell. The majority of students from white, privileged backgrounds have inherited their parent’s taste in music and combined it with the de facto influences from current popular culture. Led Zepplin, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, or even Bob Dylan wouldn’t elicit anything other than happy or fond memories of their childhood/parents because they never needed to emote this music into their lives. Their parents emoted to this stuff during their struggles (on college campuses, of course) of the 60s and 70s, but now they have established a level of affluence and comfort for their children that leaves this type of music unnecessary (except, that is, for the long car rides to Cape Cod). So instead of worrying about the war draft and listening to Bob Dylan, the bulk of kids these days are worried about their inter-personal relationships and listening to Jack Johnson’s and Coldplay’s tenuous songs of love and lust.

It’s really an offshoot of David Brooks’s Organization Kid theory.

So this of course is where I will take issue with the characterization of “whiny indie rock” as a “trebly, irresolute sound that seems to fit the dull green glow of a computer screen in darkened suburban bedrooms.” But this retort is only expected, I suppose, as it’s the music I came of age to, got drunk in college on, and forged so many strong friendships with. It was also, coincidentally, the music that distanced a large subset of the Cornell student body from the masses. Why? Because it was the music that a lot the ‘differentiated’ kids could identify with – they were middle class through and through, but they didn’t take family minivan trips to Cape Cod, or they were mixed-race, or what have you, and they felt something was missing.

I won’t begin to argue about the relative merits of such relative obscurities as The National or The Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens or Stephen Malkamus. But needless to say, a lot of kids strongly identify with this music, and it may not deserve to be cast aside with a few throw-away adjectives, simply because its such emotive music for us. I regularly cried myself to sleep to the sounds of the Arcade Fire back in 2004, and when they played on Cornell’s campus to 250 other kids in a hot, sweaty cafeteria, I broke down to their music as I finally started to realize the implications of my still-young life.

Now granted, this music doesn’t tap the working-class roots Cowie may desire, but it is protest music of an educated, nuanced sort, gleaming that something is wrong, empathizing in our collective disillusionment, and considering the opportunity for change. And being educated, intelligent music (only bright college kids listen to this stuff after all), it sources all sorts of different styles and roots: e.g. choral, African rhythm, Eastern European folk songs, and good ol’ fashioned rock and roll. And it falls under the auspices of many different things: freak folk, alternative country, post-punk, among others, but we all know it as indie rock. And it connects a lot of us to something bigger.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 24, 2007 (#)

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