In Nitsuh Abebe‘s 2009 article for Pitchfork titled “The Decade in Indie,” he detailed the two popular camps of indie music throughout the 2000s: “The snappy guitar bands extroverted enough to shoot for excitement and fans — Interpol, Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party” and new electro in the likes of Daft Punk and M.I.A. He chalked up the end of the 2000s indie scene to a feeling of something coming, “another big shuffle of who stands where under indie’s umbrella, and where indie’s umbrella stands in the first place.”
So, what happened? Roots rock saw a healthy resurgence thanks to The Black Keys and Alabama Shakes, alternative electronic broke new ground with The XX, CHVRCHES, and Florence and the Machine, and Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend spread like wildfire. Chillwave came and went, the manufactured trend indulged on a faded retro-pop sound that made it all the way to Wall Street Journal, but ultimately acts like Mac Demarco, Tame Impala, King Krule, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Beach House can all be sourced as the primary influences for indie’s current direction.
2010 to 2017 was rich with music from these trailblazers. Mac Demarco, declared the prince of indie by Charlie Rose, spoke to a whole generation of kids that just want to chill, enjoy some good music, and not take anything too seriously. Tame Impala gave us instant nostalgic chills with Beatles-esque vocals and an innocuous catchiness disguised through psychedelic pop. King Krule unearthed an emotional edginess out of his jazz-rock-turned-electronic weldings. Unknown Mortal Orchestra proved that you can do some weird ass shit as long as the music is really good, and Beach House figured out how to make you feel like you can float without being scared that you’ve been off the ground for too long. All of these artists have left an undeniable imprint on the current generation of indie, a sentiment supported by the artists themselves.
Now it’s 2018 and becoming the next SoundCloud rap superstar is as easy as getting your inaugural face tat and having “lil” in your name. In response, indie music is having an unprecedented moment right now thanks to artists like Clairo, Cuco, Rex Orange County, Gus Dapperton, Boy Pablo, and Steve Lacy. Within the last year, each of these artists has exploded onto the scene through racking millions of views on their music videos, crushing the festival circuit, coming home with Grammy Awards, and holy shit, NONE of them are above the age of 21. They’ve effectively ushered in the new generation of indie by doubling down on individuality and probing our emotional palette of nostalgia with their lyrical moodiness and laidback tonalities. Not to say that indie is without its stylistic pitfalls; for years, hipsters were the inescapable face of indie music, but this generation seems to have dialed it in a little more in the way of expressing their individuality.
Take Clairo, who’s thriving on her casual authenticity. In her video for “Pretty Girl” she expressed, “It’s okay to have flaws and it’s okay to embrace them and it’s okay to be silly and stupid. You all might already know this, but I’m happy that I know this now.” There was no budget, no set or makeup team — it was just her in her bedroom singing her song webcam style. This clearly resonated with people as the video has amassed 16 million views.
Gus Dapperton is also placing a strong emphasis on his stay-true-to-himself aesthetic. With his signature glasses and bowl cut, the 21-year-old is instantly recognizable. His confidence in his idiosyncrasies has provided a home for kids who don’t necessarily fit in and now, in an almost cult-like fashion, people are rolling up to his shows rocking their own bowl cuts. In an interview with Vogue, he states, “I wear a lot of ’90s Swinger revival shirts. I’ve also always really liked flood pants, where you can see your socks and shoes, so that’s the fit I look for. And I wear a lot of old ’90s Hypebeast stuff like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger.”
Boy Pablo, a Norwegian band fronted by the 18-year-old Nicolas Pablo Muñoz, looks like they just got released out of middle school recess. Sporting old FILA, pants that cut before the ankle, and Umbro sweatshirts, the group is retro to a T. Indie’s new cast of characters are so ripe in personality that it feels as if they’re caricatures of themselves, publicly bleeding out their unique attitudes for any audience to soak up, but the truly interesting part is how they are all delivering their message.
Ah yes, chorused guitar. The staple of anything nostalgic and the entryway into indie. All the artists in this article are familiar with the now-borderline cliché, but there’s no doubting its pleasantries (the usage of which was pioneered in the ’60s with the shoegaze genre, one that refers to artists having to stare at their pedal boards during shows because they had so many effects to keep track of) but if you are not sure what the chorus effect sounds like, just think of the intro underwater guitar in Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”
Steve Lacy, the youngest member of The Internet, heavily dips his guitar in the chorus bucket on tracks “Ryd” and “Dark Red,” giving off that smooth, shimmering effect often labeled as “dreamy.” These tonal choices funnel into the Grammy award-winning artist’s mellowness as every sound is frictionless, a comparison Steve points to the pattern plaid since “there is a lot going on but it doesn’t clash at all.”
Rex Orange County, who’s shared collaborations with Tyler the Creator, Chance the Rapper, and Randy Newman, also utilizes the sonic vibes that couldn’t get mellower. On “Loving Is Easy,” a warm upright piano transports you into a classic ’70s singer-songwriter throwback. Sonically, this generation avoids anything piercing or confrontational like distortion guitar that would sink their song dreamworlds into any sort of reality. Their tonalities are soothing and generally make the songs “easy on the ears” – a technique combined with some lyrical moodiness that completes indie’s recipe for nostalgia.
Cuco’s lyrics in “Sunnyside” are the epitome of sadness. The first-generation Mexican-American’s spiraling and woozy synth melody rides along the lackadaisical vocal, “Every time I look for you / You’re nowhere near, it makes me blue / I swear I need you by my side right now / Forever, baby,” you can’t help but feel his angst. Cuco is very upfront about his approach stating, “It’s cool to be in your feelings and it’s cool to be sad and it’s cool to feel all of these things. If you want to be expressive about something, do it. If you want to keep something to yourself, keep it to yourself. I have my own ways, people have theirs.”
Boy Pablo shares similar lyrical moodiness in his latest song “Losing You.” He asks, “How would you feel if I walked up to you one day / And ripped your heart out? / How would you feel if I said to you / That’s how I feel you’re treating me.” Pretty brutal, so why would you want to listen to something so sad? Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, who study music and the brain at the Free University of Berlin, surveyed 722 people and found that “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but (it) also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.” They noted that people reported nostalgia as the most common emotion evoked by sad music.
So… why are people latching on? I think the personalities that indie music presents right now are personable to the nth degree. None of the artists appear as a polished version of who they want to be, but rather indulge in their “flaws” and quirks as a gateway to being relatable. This is a breath of fresh air within music’s visual landscape as the shock and awe of the face-tattooed SoundCloud rapper has flatlined. But that is just half the equation. The other half is rooted in their successful songwriting and nostalgia-inducing sonics. They’ve been able to incorporate catchy pop structures and melodies while simultaneously transporting listeners into a dreamworld of chorus filled with lyrical sadness.
Whether this vibe is needed because of the rampant political turmoil or the strides towards legalization of pot mellowing everyone out, these artists have figured out how to serve our emotional need for nostalgia while looking as cool as a cucumber. I think this sound and the open book personality mantra will have longevity — it will be adopted by many and go through numerous iterations. But if we learned anything in high school physics, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it will be interesting to see who sticks around at the turn of another decade.