In Kyle Ryan's inaugural Vinyl Retentive blog from earlier this week, an A.V. Club commenter (whose sick parents cursed him with the unfortunate name Boombox) asked, and I quote, "What is it that makes people 'grow out' of punk and ska and almost always into indie rock? Musically, they are nearly polar opposites. My theory is, punk and ska stop being cool, and the people who never really cared about the music move onto something else underground enough to make them feel good about themselves."
This very worthy question–one I've pondered many times myself–was addressed to me directly, since I was being nosy and hogging Kyle's comment thread. So I'll answer this reader just as directly: Dear Boombox, I hope you know that it's just plain wrong to make such sweeping, condescending statements about your fellow human beings. Each man, woman, and child on this planet walks his or her own path, and can't be so easily labeled and dismissed by such gross generalizations. In fact, it's fairly messed up and even fundamentally misanthropic to view people in such a polarizing, prejudiced way.
That said, my friend, I'm about to do exactly the same thing. Why? Simple: Because I'm a juvenile, petty-minded, mean-spirited, contradictory, indie-rock-hating punker.
Okay, so I'm employing a bit of rhetorical bullshit here, but I think you get the idea. To clarify a bit: I do sincerely believe that an individual's musical preference, despite popular wisdom, is NOT just a matter of taste. I think specific kinds of people–and there are specific kinds of people, despite our most strenuous Procrustean efforts and liberal whitewashing–are drawn to specific kinds of music. There's no surefire formula or equation to this, of course, but on the average it's pretty obvious: You've got to be just a little bit troubled, imbalanced, and uneasy with yourself and the world around you to subscribe to punk rock. On the other hand, you've got to be pretty damned tranquilized to swallow the load of crap that passes for most indie-rock today.
Again, I'm generalizing just to be jerk here. In fact, there's plenty of current indie-rock that I love, and lots of my friends regularly ingest bland indie-rock without it having a noticeable effect on their sexual potency or Zune-purchasing habits. But few of us can argue the fact that as we get older, our tolerance for crazier, noisier, dumber, meaner music drops as precipitously as our hormone levels. Of course, years of beating our heads fruitlessly against the rest of society wears us down a bit, too–even if your major act of youthful rebellion was just wearing a dumb hat and slurring like a bum.
Remedial sociology aside, there's another important point brought up by Boombox in his/her original question: the whole "punk and indie-rock being polar opposites" idea. Nowadays, yes, there is a clear distinction between the two, even if it's not as Boolean as Boombox sees it. But it wasn't always that way. Michael Azerrad is just one writer who has detailed just how differently indie-rock was performed and perceived during its formative years in the mid-to-late '80s, back when the music (and its listeners) were much more spastic, sloppy, ramshackle, and iconoclastic. But sometime in the early '90s–yes, right around the time that Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life leaves off–indie-rock as a genre became acutely self-aware. Case in point: Archers Of Loaf's 1994 classic "Plumb Line" with its facetious yet anthemic refrain of "She's an indie-rocker / and nothing's gonna stop her."
When I watch this Archers Of Loaf clip, I see a punk band. A lot of groups play the exact same style of indie-rock today, but there's a recklessness, an oddness, a desperation–in short, a punkness–missing from Band Of goddamn Horses or whatever. But name-checking one's own style of music in one's own song is the first step toward artistic decadence (even though Archers Of Loaf leader Eric Bachmann thankfully escaped his own trap and still makes great music today). And decadence–its smugness, its complacency, its bloat–is what indie-rock circa 2008 undeniably suffers from.
Sebadoh's 1991 single "Gimme Indie Rock," the song in the video at the top of this page, is probably the first example of indie-rock solipsism, but it's also a telling little story unto itself. As Lou Barlow recounts in the lyrics (and does in more detail in Our Band Could Be Your Life), he and fellow Dinosaur Jr. founder J Mascis started out playing in a cruddy hardcore band–scratch that, an awesome fucking cruddy hardcore band–called Deep Wound. Barlow hazily recalls the profound reason he ditched punk explosion in favor of Folk Implosion: In a nutshell, he started smoking pot. At the end of a Mascis solo show in his hometown in 2004, however, he and Barlow did a surprise Deep Wound reunion (that's J in the back on drums):
Don't get me wrong: I love Sebadoh as much as the next guy. But the fact remains: Whether they wanted to or not, Barlow and his ilk were instrumental in wet-nursing all the Rogue Waves and M. Wards of the world. They helped make weird, quirky, semi-ironic rock safe enough for frat parties and Hummer ads. In all fairness–and blatantly disregarding the fact that, you know, it's a different world now than it was in the '80s–Lou Barlow's hardcore training wheels are probably what helped keep most of his later work grounded, interesting, and often even exhilarating. I'm sorry if this doesn't come anywhere close to answering Boombox's question, but I will say this: Indie-rock as a whole would be a hell of a lot better if more bands today had a Deep Wound rattling around in their closets instead of a stack of Modest Mouse CDs.