New Music Seminar

datapanik in the year 2010.

Rereading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life this week for a class I am teaching left me thinking about indie rock now.

ourbandyourlife-581x436Our Band Could Be Your Life 10th Anniversary Concert poster.


With all the end-of-the-decade retrospectives (see here and here, for instance), it seems like American indie rock has at once traveled far and wide, yet gone nowhere since grunge. A strange kind of spinning of the wheels for middle-class kids who have explored many a nook and cranny of American and global musical forms, yet never quite formulated a movement with the energy to alter the larger mass culture industry. Sure, there’s been amazing, ear-startling sounds. And fascinating explorations, reimaginings, and adventures. But nothing has acquiesced into a movement. Lots of stirrings, but no coherent, centripetal musical forces breaking apart and reassembling the machine of pop.

Maybe, as many have pointed out, this is good. Maybe it’s poptimistic instead of rockist. Maybe it’s the end of American cultural empire. Maybe it’s the new, fragmented, post-Fordist reality of mass culture segmented into niches and slices and taste groups. Power is diffused. There is no more mass in mass culture. The conquest of cool has been completed and resistance is futile (since resistance itself is a particular niche market now).

Of course, the mass culture industry of pop music itself is dying. Maybe the lack of a “grunge” breakthrough/breakdown is a sign of how much the changing nature of muscial distribution and marketing affects music’s cultural significance and power. We can’t go back to a world unflooded by information and knowledge, of centralized taste-making and control over mass communications technologies (much as the RIAA and other industry groups are trying).

Moreover, even within the music industry, we’re going on decades now of pastiche, irony, retro-fittings, referentiality, and pop self-consciousness. We’ve got not one, but two museums of rock and pop music now (The Rockhall in Cleveland and Experience Music Project in Seattle, not to mention the Motown museum, Stax museum, and other public halls of pop-music memory. And sometimes even the performance of incredible sincerity and deep emotional commitment feels oddly like a retread of a retread of a retread.

This is what rereading Azerrad’s book (published in 2001) at the end of the decade left me thinking (and it’s a strange thought for a historian to have): perhaps the weight of history has accrued so much—the Internet not only keeping so much alive, referenced, documented, but also fundamentally diffusing the modes of musical distribution, marketing, and community-making—that the only path toward something with momentum and crystallization and clarify requires forgetting. I never thought I would write this since I spend most of my time thinking about the past, but it does seem like musicians might need to forget a little these days, throw off pop knowledge, get a little lost, and start anew: to declare year zero without consciousness of datapanik in year zero.

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