When I say the word ‘indie,’ what images come to mind? Probably a white guy, long hair, quietly strumming an acoustic guitar and generally seeming sad. He is easily recognizable as a soft-spoken, artistic singer/songwriter reciting poetic verses in a gentle alto. This portrait of a quintessential indie performer is steeped in years of history; but how can such a laser-focused definition of an entire category of art exist? Let’s take a look at how one of the music scene’s most flippantly overused terms came to be.
What the hell does “indie” actually mean? Literally speaking, indie is used simply an abbreviation of the word ‘independent.’ This means that indie artists are those who produce music independently from a commercial record label. Naturally, this classification of indie includes artists of numerous genres and exists separately from the colloquial way in which indie is often used to describe acts such as Tame Impala and Mac Demarco. The latter refers to alternative rock, which has gradually merged with indie rock through extensive overlap (many indie rock artists can also be categorized as alternative rock, and vice versa). This has created a tremendous contradiction: many ‘independent rock’ artists do not work on independent labels.
This oxymoronic quality of indie music is a result of some exceptionally strong common musical threads between various artists throughout the years. The genre’s tendency towards introspective, depressed, and poetic frontmen can be traced back to a few key individuals. Prolific singer-songwriter and recent Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan offers perhaps the first example of this. Dylan’s ambling prose and rather whiny tone created the framework of indie music for generations of thoughtful artists.
Nick Drake, an English singer-songwriter who saw a minuscule fraction of the commercial success that Dylan did, gave indie music its characteristic dreariness. Sparse instrumentation gives his music a solitary, barren feeling, which invokes the depression Drake faced throughout his life that ultimately resulted in his untimely death.
Artists like Dylan and Drake exhibit qualities that shaped indie music during its formative years. Their demure dispositions and minimalist arrangements that may now seem cliche were first bold statements. Amidst the British Invasion and American rock movement, folk artists subverted the norm. This notion of controversy emanates from modern indie music.
These commonalities have come to define indie music in and of themselves more strongly than the term’s original definition. “Proto-indie” greats such as Dylan and Drake paved the way for droves of new musicians who stretched the genre to its absolute limits. Nirvana channeled the independence and unconventionality of indie music into their signature abrasive Grunge style. Elliott Smith created chilling depressive anthems before a tragic suicide a la Nick Drake. Even Mac Demarco, who has become the de facto favorite artist of every edgy teenager who can poorly roll a joint, creates folky poetry reminiscent of Dylan’s with warm and smooth instrumentation.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t make a damn difference whether or not your favorite artist is considered “indie,” other than in the context of semantic arguments with your friends. Music exists completely outside of the realm of language: when words fail to capture an emotion, music steps in. The power of music extends beyond what language can describe. However, understanding the historical context of today’s musicians gives us a deeper understanding of the songs we love so much.