The ‘rock is dead’ argument continues to be as irrepressible and vivacious as the genre it seeks to prematurely bury.
The argument has long been common among aging fans and aging stars alike, out to say that the genre they love isn’t as good as when they discovered it or were actively participating in it. Typically, you had to wait until these geezers were giving interviews on 30th anniversary re-releases of their classic albums. But now — with the rapid quickening of the cultural cycle spurred on by the internet — we’re seeing formerly relevant acts start the “rock is dying” talk before they’re even out of their 30s.
Case in point, David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors. The frontman of the late ’00s buzz band — a group that has an indie rock album coming out later this month — took to Instagram to discuss the failed state of indie rock. Longstreth, for his part, doesn’t say that rock is dying outright. He merely stated on his Instagram that he thinks indie rock has stagnated, becoming a series of signifiers that are stuck worshiping the past rather than creating the future. Also, he crafted the whole argument around Migos’ “Bad and Boujee.”
“is it me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24½th century both bad and boujee? bad in the basic sense of like, musically underwhelming — mostly miming a codified set of sounds & practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now — and also bad like sartrian bad faith, outwardly obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense (i.e. ‘independent’ music at a time of global chains of manufacturing, distribution, label services etc render the term aggressively meaningless, and when much larger, more democratic & independent communities than the founders could have anticipated exist online in digital space) and boujee in the word’s negative sense: refined and effete, well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience?”
Let’s leave aside the fact that he’s citing a song with a guest feature from a rapper who has more than a little bit of pop-punk and indie rock in his blood. This is an ancient argument dressed up in a lot of high-falutin’, buzzy speak. It doesn’t come out and use the word “dead,” but it does state that indie rock has stalled out and stopped changing. If Leonard Sweet taught us anything — while talking about the trouble with 21st century culture, no less — it’s that stagnation and death are the exact same thing. This is an old-school “rock is dead” argument delivered via a new-school medium with a slight twist. What we’re witnessing is Old Man Yells At The Cloud.
It’s also completely inaccurate on its own terms. If Longstreth listens to Mitski, Preoccupations or White Lung and doesn’t hear something fresh, he’s being willfully obtuse. If Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo’s pained shout of “You have no right to be depressed!” doesn’t count as “the raindrops and drop tops of lived earned experience,” then what does?
Luckily, Longstreth’s fellow aging indie-rockers aren’t willing to fully accept his argument. Fleet Foxes‘ Robin Pecknold jumped into the fray to argue that there’s plenty of real emotion still kicking around — citing Mount Eerie’s gut-punch rumination on loss “Real Death” — and that codifying is the fate of all genres, with incremental change coming from there.
“I think music is as codified as emotions are codified. Sometimes I just want to listen to Townes Van Zandt, sometimes Debussy, sometimes Kendrick, sometimes you, sometimes Solange, sometimes Television… there’s this universe of potential feeling, the music that best exemplifies a given mood (or even creates a new mood entirely, like how newly coined words enable the existence of certain states of mind) is what finds an audience. I get bogged down in thinking there is a “right” music to make at a given cultural moment, thinking influenced by retroactive-revisionist teleologies of art / music history, but to me there is a always a vast expanse of feeling being explored by everyone engaged in music and it’s all valid in that it defines a feeling or creates a new one, for whatever group or groups have their ears turned on that music. Like the newest Phil Elverum song *creates* a feeling that didn’t exist before, even if it’s musically not innovative, by virtue of it being a direct expression of his life experience that feels honest, and that one can either relate to or recognize as true, in the same way that the spoken word and voice manipulation on ‘Keep Your Name’ conjures something fresh, suggests and depicts a personal experience in a novel way. Like they are worlds apart musically but I’d respond to both as a listener b/c they invent a new feeling and let me feel it by proxy.”
Pecknold then sort of loses the plot and bends toward Longstreth’s argument that there’s not a lot of musical progression in the indie rock world “without devolving into Yes-ish largesse.” Translated that means, “these artists aren’t being progressive (once I remove the ones who are doing so in a way that I don’t think is valid).” To his credit, Pecknold realizes that he might just be getting old.
“if I were myself as a disempowered 16 y.o. rn, when $5 house shows, 7 inches and zines were my means of social empowerment, I’d probably feel more kinship w/ the term independent than I do as a bipedal 30 year old, who feels silly and too old at warehouse shows now, but maybe the world is sort of a static constellation of states that we just move through as we get older and it can seem like the world is changing when really it’s just us?”
And Longstreth did relent a bit, confessing that human emotions remain pretty well constant and music is going to reflect this by covering the same areas.
“love this, novelty / newness is exciting and useful to reflect a changing world, but it seems like human experience/nature has a way of staying constant: for this, we don’t need music that changes all the time; for this, tradition is valuable.”
So, it looks like the duo might have straightened themselves out. Even if they started from a position that is as wrong today as it’s always been.