What contemporary indie could learn from the post-punk movement

Daniel Walker 

dawalker@ursinus.edu 

For many of us, the primary function of music is escapism: music offers us an opportunity to shut out the stressors and problems that plague us in our waking lives and be in our own heads with the sounds we enjoy, if only for minutes at a time. But over the course of the past few years, the biggest musical acts have dispiritingly leaned towards emulating if not outright hijacking the aesthetics, both visual and sonic, of the past. From a pop music perspective, this makes sense: nothing produces a quicker or more satisfying dopamine rush than being reminded of that thing which you were once alive to witness -or were not actually alive for because you were born in 1997, but wouldn’t it be cool if you were? But in a twist as ironic as a Spice Girls shirt on a Brooklyn record store clerk, indie music is just as guilty of plundering and pillaging the past in lieu of creating new and interesting musical movements. 

Consider some of the most popular indie acts of the past few years. The Prettyboys in the 1975 went from making clean and accessible indie pop to putting out an album that blended the sounds of 80s-style Spandau Ballet sophisti-pop with the sounds of twelve clogged toilets regurgitating their wares at once. It’s a bad album, is what I’m trying to say. Even Vampire Weekend, a band who initially made their name with catchy melodies and idiosyncratic songwriting, have been dropping a series of singles inspired by 90s-era adult contemporary coffeehouse rock. More like Vampire Weak Tea, amirite – c’mon Ezra, people didn’t even like that stuff in the 90s! And then there’s the case of the most popular indie group of the past year or so: Greta Van Fleet, a couple of brothers from Nowheresville, Michigan who made a splash among the “I-was-born-in-the- wrong-generation” crow by copying the song stylings of Led Zeppelin riff-for-riff and vocal-phrasing-for-vocal- phrasing. $50 jackets emulating thrift store aesthetics, $50 vinyl copies of albums you could’ve bought for $15 on CD, and VHS filters thrown over everything; indie may front like it’s in op- position to pop, but in one regard – the commodification of the past – they’re closer bedfellows than they might seem. Also, both genres are mostly dominated by white people with rich parents. But that’s another opinion piece. 

If indie musicians weren’t so concerned with snatching the aesthetics of the past to gain Instagram clout, they might actually pay attention to just what makes this “retro” music so special. An exemplar of this is the post-punk movement of the late 1970s and early 80s, which started in Britain and Europe before spreading worldwide and gradually fermenting into what we would call “New Wave.” Sometime after the release of the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks,” independent musicians found themselves inspired by the anarchic spirit of punk, but dismayed by its aesthetic uniformity. Independent groups like the Desperate Bicycles and Joy Division laid the groundwork for a new kind of music, one that blended the aggressiveness of punk rock with elements of avant-garde, funk, psychedelia, dub reggae, and a burgeoning new genre called “synth pop.” 

Even Johnny Rotten, front- man of the Sex Pistols, got in on the act with his experimental group Public Image Ltd. The polyglot spirit of post-punk carried on through the 1980s, and newer acts found themselves integrating even newer sounds like synth-funk, industrial rock, and even some prototypical hip-hop. The movement stayed strong but died off somewhat with the rise of MTV in the mid- 1980s: now that artists like the Cure, the Talking Heads, Devo et al. occupied center stage in the video-centric cultural economy, the principles of post-punk found themselves slowly fading away before splitting into a hundred different micro-genres. 

I think that contemporary musicians who aim to offer something different than whatever they consider “pop” should consider the example of post- punk: it’s not about bringing people back to a time when things were cooler, it’s about taking the sounds that inspire you and melding them together to create something unique, original, and – above all – futuristic. In today’s world, where the “alternative” charts are dominated by industry plants and actual independent artists like Glaswegian avant-pop composer SOPHIE are taking more and more of an interest in playing around with the sounds of the mainstream pop hemisphere, the dichotomy between so called “pop” and so-called “indie” is growing fainter and fainter – and good for that, say I. 

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