Five years ago, Jack Shafer wrote an essay in these pages asking a mischievous question: How will we know when baby boomers have lost control of American popular culture? "Sooner or later," Shafer predicted, "the post-boomers will give them the necessary nudge, push, and shove to sweep their rotting culture from the scene, and references to Beatles tracks will become as irrelevant as references to Mills Brothers songs." The question was, when? "What post-boomer reference in a mass-media headline or TV commercial will signal the cultural coup?"
Well, how about this one? "Greatest. Indie-est. Band. Ever." The headline belongs to the latest issue of GQ, with apologies to The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy. ("The Simpsonsshould produce a heap of references in headlines, movies, music, and ads," Shafer foretold.) The band in question is Pavement—"the finest rock band of the '90s," according to the dean of American rock critics, Robert Christgau—who are reuniting this month for the first time since their 1999 breakup. GQ had the sensible idea of sending go-to generational representative Chuck Klosterman out to Portland, Ore., to ask Stephen Malkmus, the band's famously unforthcoming front man, a basic and essential question: why? Malkmus stops and starts a couple times, and then answers in the way that anyone who followed Pavement in the '90s knew he would. "Will it be fun for us? Will the people in the audience have fun? Who knows?" Malkmus told the reporter who was there, ostensibly, to help him promote the band's high-stakes reunion tour. "It's not like I'm gagging to get out there and play those songs."
This isn't what you'd expect to hear from an older band like the Rolling Stones, embarking on their umpteenth stadium-based cash bonanza. But from Malkmus this is about right. Pavement's indifference to fame, fortune, and fidelity (of both the sonic and interpersonal varieties; just ask Malkmus' band mates about the latter) is the thing for which they were most loved during their initial run. Malkmus, surveying the cultural landscape a decade later, can be sure that his unchanged attitude won't be lost on the ticket-buying public. Indeed, demand for the reunion was so strong that the first four shows the band announced for New York City sold out a full year in advance. It's a Pavement kind of world now.
To wit: In January, the politely spoken New York indie-rock band Vampire Weekend debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling 124,000 copies of their sophomore record Contra and beating out everyone from the pop star Ke$ha to the boomer-goddess Susan Boyle to become, momentarily anyway, the most popular act in the country. Two weeks later, while echt-boomer act the Who got the Super Bowl XLIV halftime nod, the estimated 153 million people who tuned in to watch the game were also treated to repeated doses of "Wake Up," the yelpy 2004 anthem from Canadian indie darlings the Arcade Fire, which the NFL had licensed for the evening. (The band, in true indie fashion, donated the money to Haiti.) Volkswagen followed the NFL's lead, paying old-school music icon Stevie Wonder to act in the premiere of their minute-long "Punch Dub" spot, even as they handed over the soundtrack to the Brooklyn indie artists Grizzly Bear. All of these relatively new artists can claim a pretty direct lineage back to Pavement, and the music they make tends to appeal to teenagers from not just this past decade, but the aging ones from the prior two decades as well. The scale and reach may be new, but the sound is not, particularly.
Nor, of course, is the phenomena of indie-rock showing up in commercials, or on screens in general. Cadillac has used the in-demand sounds of both the electro house duo Justice and the peppy French band Phoenix in advertisements over the last couple years. Indie acts like Matt & Kim and the Dodos have helped shill for various beer and liquor companies. The recent films Where the Wild Things Are, Juno, and (500) Days of Summer—to name just a few—all employed indie songs to help convey a certain kind of emotional vulnerability and shyness; Juno went so far as to make New York proto-indie duo the Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else but You" a minor plot point. Even the tween-targeted Twilight: New Moon looked to the indie world—as opposed to, say, the Jonas Brothers—for soundtrack help last year.
What is new, however, is the breadth of post-boomer music knowledge advertisers, network executives, and other cultural apparatchiks seem to be increasingly confident they can expect from a 2010 audience. Last month, for instance, Saturday Night Live broadcast a skit involving the supposed reunion at a wedding reception of an '80s hard-core band named Crisis of Conformity.
Nearly all the comic details of the sketch, from the name of the wedding party—"Cadena–Norton," an homage to two hard-core stalwarts, Black Flag's Dez Cadena and Hüsker Dü's Greg Norton—to the year the band had supposedly broken up (that'd be 1983, the same year Minor Threat disbanded) were inside jokes about a type of music that, until very recently, SNL couldn't have counted on its audience to know much about. Not anymore. In a world in which the underappreciated '90s alt-rock band Jawbox can reunite to widespread acclaim on national television, courtesy of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, cultural phenomena that were once beloved only by the young and hip are now being treated in the media more or less like culture, period. It's impossible to imagine a network taking a chance on Jimmy Fallon's house band, the Philadelphia-based and fiercely independent rap group the Roots, even five years ago; today, they're the most critically beloved band on late night.
Which is to say that these days, indie rock looks a lot like rock music, without the modifier. There are very few successful young bands today that don't play some variant or descendent of indie rock. And the alternative musical culture that spent most of the '80s and '90s as the exclusive property of college students, critics, and independent labels is now a fairly uncontroversial, major component of pop music in general. As Scott Plagenhoef, editor of the tastemaker Web site Pitchfork Media recently wrote in response to charges that his site's 2009 year-end list had a disproportionate indie bias, "This is what rock music made by and for adults looks and sounds like now." Pitchfork itself, once a punch line about the insularity and wonky isolation of indie-rock fans, is now among the most influential music publications on the planet. It's a measure of the newfound clout of both entities that one of Pavement's reunion tour stops will be the Web site's annual festival in Chicago this summer.
"It's such an icky boomer-like exercise, obsessing over your own demise," a pal told Shafer back in 2005, when he surveyed some of his younger friends about the potential signs of a coming cultural rebellion. True. And boomer self-satisfaction is such that we will probably have to pry the mic stand out of Mick Jagger's sinewy, scarf-draped hands before passing it to a younger generation. That is, if we even want to—because if the signature move of the baby boomer is obsessing over his own demise, then the signature move of the post-boomer is the capacity to be puzzled at our own success. The slacker indifference to accomplishment for which Pavement were beloved, and after which countless successor bands (and fans) modeled themselves, does not make for easy triumphalism. Winning, in this equation, can often look a lot like losing. Hence the generational agony of an article like the one that covered the proudly indie Paste in February: "Is Indie Dead?"
Well, yes, probably, in the sense that the music featured in commercials and in gaudy, months-long reunion tours isn't recognizably the same as what it began life as. (Neither, of course, is "Satisfaction.") But indie-rock fans shouldn't act so surprised that their music is in ascendance. People who were into punk rock in 1980 or Pavement in 1993 are all old enough to be pushing the cultural buttons now—working at newspapers, writing for TV, booking musical guests, A&Ring at labels, and, ahem, writing pieces like this one for national magazines. We were bound to knock boomers and their culture off at some point. Why not right now?
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