The Complicatist: From Animal Collective to Bobby Conn

Indie rock is for wimps, and we’re OK about that

by Gordon Campbell

According to legend, it was the bland, conservative nature of mainstream culture during the 1950s that made rock’n’roll’s response ( loud, angry, out of control etc ) the right one…Okay then, so what form should that response take when it is mainstream culture itself that is loud, angry and out of control ? That’s the question asked by Michael Azzerad in the recent end of year Village Voice music poll, and a hat tip to Carl Wilson on Zoilus for bringing Azzerad’s comments to the fore.

One can quibble. As Wilson points out, a lot of people in earlier mainstreams have been angry and out of control too – like Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and the members of Nixon’s Silent Majority. Still, Azzerad’s point remains valid enough. He was actually using this tone reversal in mainstream culture to justify what a lot of people find wimpish about a lot of modern indie rock. In his view, a controlled formalism should be seen not as wimphood – but as a sane reaction to a mainstream that shows every sign of having gone barking mad. What he’s saying is that it may no longer be useful to expect rock music to function in the way it used to, as a form of hedonistic escape from a buttoned up culture – maybe now, as Azzerad argues, it serves best as an oasis of sanity. Formalism is freedom.

I think Azzerad is onto something, even if I still hate Fleet Foxes and their audience. The problem is, his essay came out at exactly the same time as Animal Collective had just been anointed as the other crucial band-of-the decade besides Radiohead, who owned the first half of the 2000s just as surely as Animal Collective have owned the second half. Yet speaking as someone who loves AC and Merriweather Post Pavilion – and the Feels album as well – this band has never offered much that anyone would call a quiet oasis of reassurance. Half the world hate this band, and want you to turn that annoying, trebly shit off. Some people might well think of AC as wimps – Panda Bear drives up the wimp response, while Avey Tare rachets up the annoyance response – but they’re certainly not indie formalists in any way. They make a joyful racket, in their own very cerebral, pre-sexual kind of way.

I think Carl Wilson himself came up with a better rationale for the prevailing spirit and style of so called ‘indie” music – whatever that now means – in his landmark 2007 essay “The Trouble With Indie Rock” on Slate.

Even the kind of people who lament the death of the monoculture ( when everyone knew the Beatles, even people who didn’t like them ) can recognize what Wilson is talking about here. It was the rise of cultural authenticity imperatives, he argues, that caused punk and hip hop to polarize, and inadvertedly mirror the politics of cultural separatism that defined the Reagan era. As Wilson says, it wasn’t as if Dre and Snoop Dogg were any better than Coltrane, Hendrix, Muddy Waters and a zillion other black artists that white musicians were happy to imitate for decades, It was more that from the mid 1980s onwards, the act of imitation came to be seen as a capital cultural crime. Thus, the music branched off – at least the folkier part of indie rock did – and post-Pavement in particular, it has evolved into the White Citadel of the thirty-ish eternal student that we know and love/hate today. Wilson, again :

Ultimately, though, the “trouble with indie rock” may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that’s the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It’s a cliché to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off “hipsters” busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, this particular kind of indie rock….is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded “creative” college towns such as Portland, Oregon, this is the music of young “knowledge workers” in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it’s seldom their main point.)

This doesn’t make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it’s also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor.

And according to Michael Azzerad, we should be proud of it, Because the alternative – rock as rebellious noise – is a cliché that is now completely played out, and is currently owned by the foam flecked ‘rebels’ lined up wall to wall on Fox News.

Bradford Cox, cultural avatar

One final thing about ‘end of year’ lists. Most of them tragically try to impose an order – MY tastes, man, RULE – on a brutal and uncaring world. That’s why my favourite ‘best of’ recommendation this time around was provided by Bradford Cox of Deerhunter. In his other guise as Atlas Sound, Cox also made the single “Walkabout” with Panda Bear, one of the great songs of 2009, but that’s another story. During 2009, Cox emerged as an emotionally transparent fixture on the cultural landscape. This interview shot for Fader TV last November for instance, could easily qualify as the most awkward interview of the decade, no problem.

Like, while the interviewer is terrible, Bradford doesn’t turn a hair, even during the long and painful interlude when nothing, but absolutely nothing is happening on either side of the microphone. It’s a funny, revealing interview despite itself.

On his Deerhunter blog, Cox also regularly compiles a series of mixes – we’re up to Micromix 24 or so by now – that provide free downloads of some amazing discoveries and genre segues. The cover for the latest Micromix even features a colour drawing of the Moomins by Tove Jansson and month by month, the contents will typically include ….a range of doowop, 50s pop, Elizabeth Cotton, the Alan Parsons Project, Bill Fay, Ligeti, Moondog, old gospel field music, some guys playing thumb piano…I can’t recommend these mixes too highly. Cox’s own choice of album of the decade was the Bobby Conn album The Golden Age. For him anyway, the choice was partly to do with issues of sexual identity.

If you’ve never heard of Bobby Conn before, he’s a real one-off – a hilarious, disturbing mixture of avant garde musician and performance artist. His parody/enactments are sharper than The Flight of the Conchords, and came out ten years ahead of them. This 1997/98 Jackson 5-ish clip called ‘Never Get Ahead’ for instance, is one of the strangest, most loveable things on the Net. You can check it out here. Don’t miss the guy in the sportscoat, Conn’s friend Emily in the blue dress, or the guy dancing with his baby. On his Myspace blog a couple of years ago, Conn explained just how the clip came to be made, in this link here.

There are lots and lots of Conn videos on the web, but I recommend the one called “Passover in Puppet-town” which tells the Bible story of Moses and the Passover, as it might have been done on some alternative universe version of Sesame Street. Conn turns up to sing a pretty funny song – “ Angel of Death ! Passover ! ” – at about the five minute mark. Finally, in a head to head Conchords smackdown, try Conn’s 2007 Bowie-ish parody, called ‘King for a Day’

All of which just goes to show that this “Best of the Decade” stuff does have its rewards. Mainly, it offers me the opportunity to impose Bobby Conn on a brutal and uncaring world.