WHEN DID INDIE POP BECOME A BAD WORD?
I love music of all kinds and generally dislike attempts at pigeon-holing. But of course, when you are trying to write about music it often becomes impossible to talk about ‘genres’. Since 80s “indie pop” has been treated as the artistic superior of pop-rock (which originated in the 70s and included the likes of Styx, ELO and REO Speedwagon – all of which were detested by the snobbish indie pop pundits) with its pioneers including bands like Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, Felt, early Primal Scream and of course, The Smiths. By the late 80s, it was fairly agreed that the defining conventions of “indie pop” was jangling guitars, a love of ’60s pop, and melodic power pop song structures” and pop historian Jon Savage traced the origins back to the 60s (of course!) and to the eponymous third album of The Velvet Underground.
Released in 1969, The Velvet Underground was the first VU album without John Cale (Doug Yule replaced the enigmatic Welshman) and with Cale’s departure, VU lost much of its experimental, avant garde edge, to be replaced by a slightly more straight-forward pop style. Amusingly enough, when the album was released, most critics described the music as “folk rock”, which I supposed aesthetically isn’t too far off the mark when you listen to songs like “Beginning to See the Light”, “I’m Set Free” and “That’s the Story of My Life”. However, in essence Lou Reed and company were stripping down 60s pop to its basics – with songs like “Candy Says”, “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” austerely produced dirges to highlight and emphasize Reed’s lyrical concepts over technical prowess and competent performances.
In that sense, one is able to understand Savage’s assertion as many of the 80s indie pop bands would take the approach into what John Peel called “shambling” – a self-consciously primitive approach marked by deliberate underachievement. American critics would have their own term for this new music – “twee” – which was often not a compliment, by any means. So no surprise that none of the “shambling” bands of the 80s were able to make any impact on the US pop market – just as their godfathers The Velvet Underground had failed twenty years earlier.
Better late than never, I guess, as contemporary indie pop bands now have the commercial sheen previously denied their forebears. Just look at the lineups for the big indie pop festivals in Singapore viz. Camp Symmetry and Laneway Festival where bands like The Drums, Yeasayer, Ra Ra Riot, Best Coast, San Cisco and Cults command rabid tween allegiance, the like of which would be unheard of in the 80s and 90s. And for major outfits like Imagine Dragons and The Lumineers, even mainstream success is attainable.
Sadly, with popularity comes with it a decline in artistic merit and quality as major labels and mercenary bands see the opportunity to exploit a hitherto ‘independent’ music scene to produce pre-fabricated indie pop bands with all the artistic integrity of a boyband or American Idol participant! Which makes you wonder how something as obtuse and uncommercial as The Velvet Underground would inadvertently be responsible for the next teen sensation… truth is stranger than fiction, my friends.
… still there’s more …