indie-pop at nordstrom.
Play me a song to set me free.
– Belle & Sebastian, “Stars of Track and Field”
My tri-annual desperate trip to the mall for something resembling respectable clothing last weekend took me to the men’s clothing department at Nordstrom, where, piped out of the sound system, came the strains of Belle & Sebastian. One of the songs off of If You’re Feeling Sinister. Which brought me back to one of the Scottish band’s first U.S. gigs at Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City, in 1997.
Dude, I was there! I am authentic indie-rocker—hear me whimper! Okay, just kidding. Nonetheless, it was still something of a shock—a small one but it registered—that this music, at first celebrated by a select few for its obscurity, would travel from a mysterious show on the Lower East Side to the anonymous sales rack of a suburban Chicago mall.
And yet, of course, it’s no surprise at all. Is this not the fate of all tuneful indie-pop? Or at least of the stuff valued at first for its non-mainstream sound and style. Pure easy listening, settle down.
The homogenization and incorporation of this music is to be expected. What was more odd was that the song still carried something else besides its utter, merciless cooptation.
This muzak contained a message in a bottle. It was labeled and sold, but not entirely watered down.
Of course, perhaps this is exactly what it was meant to sell: the sound of not being in a mall in suburban Chicago, even as one was there; the sound of pretending not to be part of the problem even as one is part of the problem. Credit card whipped through their slots, clothes made in god-knows-what exploitative working conditions folded neatly in a bag and hidden away. Ohh! Get me away from here, I’m dying.
Yet there was something in hearing Belle & Sebastian among the natty manikins and Joseph Abbouds that defied even this clever bait-and-switch of hip consumerism. There was a desire that the song still carried despite its deployment to distract.
This struck me as something miraculous. The song communicated the musical traces of a moment preserved: the sound of people assembled in communal creativity and human connection; the excitement of making and hearing something that spoke to deeper urges for human connection even as it had been commodified and trivialized.
The song hand-signaled within its mass-distributed notes. It reminded me that even as music gets lost in the mall, it keeps something of its power. The ends of music’s production are not entirely vanquished by the means of its consumption.