Ask the indie professor: why do Americans think they invented indie?
For years, Americans never used the term ‘indie’, preferring to label the likes of Bush ‘alternative’. But things changed …
Why do so many Americans think they invented indie?
There has never been an authoritative definition of indie in the United States. The term only came into popular usage in America in the 2000s. The indie nomenclature was initially co-opted and embraced by video gamers, then in cinema discourse, and finally by the American music community.
There are dramatic differences between the way indie evolved Stateside and its development in the UK. In the UK, indie was a formally recognised genre with its own chart and rules for inclusion and exclusion. The British rule, steeped in controversy, was independent distribution, not independent label. As independent labels primarily used independent distribution, this definition presented a convenient loophole for major labels to exploit.
In the US, however, the independent sector was nurtured and fostered by college radio. Initially, this less conventional music was called college rock. It had its own chart and magazine, College Music Journal (CMJ). It was a college music chart that would be included in Rolling Stone and the other media outlets as the alternative to Billboard’s comprehensive chart. College rock was a playlist-based classification, a radio format constituted by the varied and erratic tastes of a network of college radio music directors. College radio stations were free to choose their songs. They were just as likely to play Neneh Cherry, Camper Van Beethovenor the Gin Blossoms as the Replacements, Black Flag or Jane’s Addiction. The nature of label ownership had nothing to do with it. Many of the college music directors making these decisions became members of the American corporate music industry.
As college rock became more successful it started to be called alternative, modern rock or, occasionally, underground. Grunge was its most successful public face. Alternative was the category recognised by official industry bodies. In 1991, the Grammys added alternative as an award category. Its definition was: “Recordings of a non-traditional form that exist (at least initially) outside of the mainstream music consciousness.”
In the 80s and 90s indie was not a recognised category in the US outside of internationally touring musicians, industry professionals or the small segment of anglophiles who read imported copies of NME and Melody Maker. In the 90s, when I told people I was studying indie music culture, I was either asked if I was talking about music from India or told it didn’t exist. The people who refuted indie’s existence included American and Canadian music scholars, North American music journalists and radio DJs. In autumn 2000, when I asked if anyone on my course of 350 students aged 18-22 knew what indie music was, only one student raised his hand. This lack of official recognition continued at least through 2004 as American classifications in the Gracenote CDDB database still referred to bands as “alternative”, while in the UK the same music or ringtone would be classified as indie.
When I insisted indie existed, I would be told it was the same thing as alternative, just with a different name. So were alternative and indie coterminous? You might suggest a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but that forsakes the connotative power of language. It makes a difference that “punk” meant a worthless hoodlum, or that the names of punk bands and labels were meant to offend: Rough Trade, Epitaph, Stiff, and Slash. Hip-hop labels or imprints such as Def Jam and Ruthless, Death Row and Cash Money often use neologisms reflecting the phonetics and morphology of African-American vernacular English as well as names that suggest where the artists are coming from or where they are going.
Dance and electronica labels and artists use terminology that suggests the future and science. The letter X is used extensively in electronica’s alternative spellings (XL, Triple XXX, Astralwerks, Future Groove, Wax Trax). X is used in product branding to suggest science and cutting-edge advancements. This all suggests we find meaning in our labels and nomenclature. Or, as Nabokov would assert, Dolores is not the same thing as Lolita. The alternative American scene and its labels were the subterranean descendants of punk proclivities: Sympathy for the Record Industry, Dischord, Alternative Tentacles, Sub Pop and Matador. Indie, on the other hand, was the modest scion of the post-punk landscape. Indie is the diminutive of independent and often has names that are self-conscious, small and innocent: Sarah, Heavenly, Postcard, Fierce Panda, Mute or How Does it Feel to Be Loved?
Yet it wasn’t just at the level of language that the two genres showed differences – bands that composed American alternative and British indie were radically different, too. The alternative underground is the land of Michael Azerrad and his eminently readable book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, the male-heavy account of the American post-punk landscape that features Big Black, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, and Butthole Surfers. Underground alternative was aggressive and heartily masculinist. It ignored the British and Irish bands that were the heartland of indie. When women played alternative, they were grrrls having to conform to the aggressive rules of a guys’ playground.
While the British indie scene included these American bands under its umbrella, it also included British bands, many of which had a more harmonic aesthetic, were more comfortably feminine and sexually egalitarian. Bands including Pulp, Ride, Curve, Orange Juice, Blur, Suede, the Divine Comedy, the Beta Band, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, the Wedding Present and Primal Scream were simply ignored in the States outside of a small but loyal anglophile fanbase. In 1995, the only British band getting any play during the alternative revolution was Bush.
The sea change for indie in the US was the wave of turn-of-the-century bands that used British indie music as their inspiration, and the international democratisation of music discourse due to the internet. Now people did not have to wait for a monthly or a weekly paper to get music news. The British press, with its quicker nationalised weekly publishing rate, was usually the first to cover new bands, and now that information could be immediately consumed and synthesised by a worldwide audience. Online media outlets such as Pitchfork could publish even faster. Indie, in popular use in the UK from the late-80s, became the label of choice for Americans – and an even greater worldwide audience – to talk about modern rock and pop music. It appealed to a youthful demographic governed by sensibilities and ethical concerns similar to those that informed the British indie scene. Alternative as a genre was swept under the carpet, and many of the arguments about the definition of indie (label, genre, attitude, artistic control) that have existed in Britain and Europe for the better part of 25 years, Americans have credited to themselves. After all, if Sebadoh wrote Gimme Indie Rock, Americans must have invented it.