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Thursday, August 24, 2006
It's hard to think of a better encapsulation of the differences between 90s indie and 00s indie than the Go! Team covering "Bull in the Heather."[1] The most obvious thing, of course, is the vocals: instead of one woman cooing at you in a voice that alternates between lifelessly detached and sounding like something is pounding into her nether regions every time she lets out a line (and she is enjoying it, in a detached and beautiful way), you have a bunch of girls (even though it is probably only one) yelling at you, turning the fucking into a cheer, a rousing chorus of pep. The 90s version is intimate, with maybe a confused mariachi band playing in the closet, but very one-on-one, very whispery--and very adult. The 00s version sounds like it's in a gym, with a steaming hurdy-gurdy lurching along under the basketball hoop while a troupe of teens pom-pom it up while you sit in the bleachers, so oddly enough, it ends up being more detached than the Sonic Youth version, though in a different way. Now you are not being whispered to, you are part of a crowd, all feeling the same thing. It's depersonalized. But so is indie.

There are more subtle differences, too. In SY's version, Steve Shelly is trying to play something close to a breakbeat, but you can hear the clatter in the room, even with Butch smoothing things out. But the Go! Team literalize that breakbeat and mechanize it, and it flows smooth as a monorail. The guitar harmonics that serve as the hook (imagine!) that were very present and organic are now sequenced and chopped-up, sounding less like explorations and more like little bombs of intentionality. Also, there are handclaps, which I'm almost certain there weren't before.

Partially all this is related to Carl Wilson's point about indie kid sexuality, and the lack thereof. But I think it's interestingly related to the overall direction this sort of music has taken recently. I wrote a review yesterday of Ice Cream Socialists (who are alternately great and cringe-inducing) I talked about the differences between golden-age twee (K Records) and silver-age twee (Decembrists, Athsmatic Kitty). Used to be, twee was more or less explicitly 20-somethings self-consciously pretending to be children; now, it's people actually acting like nerdy middle schoolers, and the one good thing that got lost in this equation is the creepy sexuality that Calvin Johnson was so ickily good at.[2] Interestingly--and confusingly--this seems to have been lost overall, as the twee aesthetic is diluted and thus spread throughout indiedom. And I think the reasoning (albeit unconscious reasoning) works a little like this:

"We are tired of all this dour music. We want to have happy fun dancy music again! But ingrained in our souls is the idea that dour music is mature and happy music is childish. So we will be childish!"

Indie has cleaned up its act and is now wholly suitable for children, and while I do like this, I also like fucking; it's notable that the acts Carl cites as exceptions to the no-fucking rule in his post ("KoTV, the Hidden Cameras, Spank Rock, Xiu Xiu") have almost all gotten a lot of flack for this sexuality, although I guess in fairness Xiu Xiu's sexuality would get some flack regardless of the era, one hopes. But that, too, is indicative: the acts with sexuality take it really far so it's almost cartoonish, which is, again, kind of childish.

So is it possible to be fun/dancy/yay, sexual, and, um, good? You wouldn't think it would be too hard, but it seems to be.

[1] aka "The song that got me into Sonic Youth," I must admit.
[2] Those former nerdy middle schoolers in my reading audience--which I'm sure is a minute portion of you--may recall those years as not being particularly sexual, especially compared to the rumored antics of their peers.

ADDENDUM: I am reminded (via my referrer log) of a post I wrote two years ago in which I discussed how the currently disreputable electroclash boom directly presaged/influenced a lot of the music we see today. It's interesting that electroclash was highly sexual (and also, actually, very unskilled--how twee!), although arguably it was a specifically gay or cartoonish sexuality. There's probably an interesting connection in there somewhere. Current indie as taking electroclash's spirit but totally changing the content (i.e. fucking + amateurism + artificiality)? Hmm.