The Dream Of The ’90s Is Alive In Indie Rock

There’s nothing new about artists yearning for a simpler time, but in 2022 a particular strain of revivalism seemed to crystallize. Though all totally different from each other in sonics, three of the year’s most acclaimed indie rock albums — Momma’s Household Name, Enumclaw’s Save The Baby and Horsegirl’s Versions Of Modern Performance — have something in common. These three bands embrace a vision of rock music that some would say can no longer exist; and as their songs bring ‘90s worship into fresh new places, maybe their philosophies can do the same.

Momma — formed in Calabasas, now Brooklyn-based — deal in grungy yet polished anthems in the vein of the Smashing Pumpkins or Veruca Salt. Their album’s title, Household Name, is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it speaks to the album’s central theme; the mythologized ideal of the rockstar, and the very real swagger and sensuality that come with it. “I’ve got what you want, now you’re singing along to my song,” they brag on album opener “Rip Off.”

Meanwhile, hailing from Tacoma, Washington, Enumclaw make murky, moody tunes that recall Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr, and in their Twitter bio they proclaim themselves “the best band since Oasis.” In their interviews and public presence, Enumclaw make it clear that they don’t just want to be indie famous; they want to be famous famous. Frontman Aramis Johnson has said that he thinks the band can be “the next Jack Harlow,” and that he wants Save The Baby to have the impact of Is This It or Definitely Maybe.

Finally, Chicago’s Horsegirl make slacker-tinged noise-rock à la Sonic Youth and Pavement. Though they’re a Gen Z band (Versions Of Modern Performance was recorded between finishing high school and leaving for college), the trio are vocal about the need for a physical youth community outside of social media. “All of our experiences as friends and as a band [have been] of the excitement that happens in real life,” drummer Gigi Reece has said. They often link up with fellow young artists to make zines and music videos and play shows together, in what they describe as a “mini-rock underground.”

This is more than nostalgia; these are bands that want to truly live the lifestyle that alternative rock once promised, whether that’s mega-stardom or just creating genuine creative community with like-minded people. The problem is that that dream has long been dwindling; cultural, societal, and technological shifts have changed everything in music, but rarely in a way as dispiriting as how they’ve changed underground rock. Young music lovers can still aim to be pop or rap stars, but making it big as a genuine grassroots alt-rock band is starting to look like a pipe dream.

There are exceptions, of course. Beabadoobee and Phoebe Bridgers are going to be opening for Taylor Swift on her Eras stadium tour next year. Mitski is a viral superstar, and already made the stadium rounds supporting Harry Styles. Thanks to TikTok, there are probably more young people being exposed to indie rock than there have been in a long time. But even with swelling fanbases, these artists aren’t making radio hits. They’re not cultural phenomenons in their own right, the way Nirvana, Oasis, or the Smashing Pumpkins once were.

The biggest and most obvious barrier here is financial. Earlier this year, indie band Wednesday kickstarted some much-needed conversation when they made their “devastating” tour finances public on Twitter. Streaming doesn’t pay well, and touring isn’t much better, particularly given the enormous dent that COVID made and continues to make. “We’re worried about going into debt every time we tour, and that’s shitty. […] Are we gonna consistently plummet? On top of that, it’s worrying about rent and shit,” Momma co-leader Etta Friedman told MTV News.

Enumclaw frontman Aramis Johnson named Oasis the last successful working-class rock band in the press bio for Save The Baby. For a modern working-class band like Enumclaw to aim to those heights is discouraging, and the fact that they do functions as a kind of protest. The other option is to focus on the underground community as Horsegirl do; but when all-ages music spaces struggle because rents are high, disposable incomes are low and gentrification is ravaging cities, that becomes equally difficult.

Meanwhile, the availability of online communities de-emphasizes physical spaces, discouraging local scenes from blossoming, which in turn maroons creatives from each other and removes a sense of inspiration and communality. If Kurt Cobain hadn’t taken influence from the creative energy already buzzing in Seattle, or the Gallaghers in Manchester, alt-rock history would look very different. There are notable pluses to social media’s impact on music communities; increased access for people with disabilities, increased awareness of unacceptable behavior, better platforms for traditionally marginalised people. These can’t be counted out, but there’s a lack of balance between the online and the hands-on that spells trouble.

As Momma’s approach suggests, maybe the idea of a rockstar is one less bound to concrete, pedestrian circumstances and one that exists as a kind of spirit, an idea. Yet even that idea has less ground in modern culture. When promoting oneself on social media is the only viable route to success, and when the nature of that promotion demands familiarity and transparency towards one’s fans (particularly from young women), there’s little room for mystique. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it also means there’s less room for harmful or plain dickhead behavior from the rockstars we admire, and plus, it’s most likely a boon for these artists’ mental health that fans are encouraged to view them as vulnerable humans and not untouchable god-geniuses. But it’s still hard not to feel like there’s something missing when artists have to trade mystery and personality for self-marketing.

That these three bands who try to break through those limitations have made such waves in 2022 is interesting. It does feel like all of the contributing problems — music’s financial unsustainability, social media’s chokehold on us, gentrification and cost of living outside of music — have reached a head this year, and have provoked more discussion than ever. What, then, do the likes of Momma, Enumclaw, and Horsegirl mean for music amidst all of it? They’re not complaining or waxing nostalgic; they’re trying to lay their own frameworks to rebuild what has been lost. Half the battle in making a wave in culture is just showing that it can be done. If more young bands start believing that alt-rock can become not just what it was before but something better, then maybe hope isn’t lost.