"What kind of music do you like?" is a question that I've always felt a little bit uncomfortable answering. I have an answer - several of them. But it has always struck me as a question that is awkward for me to answer. It is at once revealing, personal, difficult and over-analyzed.
Back in high school, I used to simply say, "Shitty." That is, shitty music. I like shitty music. That's not what I believed, of course, but it was an easy joke answer that would deflect the question. I have a friend who didn't like that answer. He asked me once, "How does that go over when you answer like that?" I had never thought about it in those terms, so I haven't really used it since.
In time, I began to begrudgingly answer, "indie" and sometimes I bolster it with "folk." Well, truthfully, I say it more like: "Indie...?" and let the word die off hoping they won't notice.
It's not about shame or embarrassment. Part of it is disliking labels and revealing a lot about myself in such a small answer. But most of it is about knowing the almost inevitable follow up question: "Like what, exactly?" That's the real question I don't like to answer. That's the one I try to avoid. To explain what I think "indie" means would take far too many sentences and generally be a staggering display of arrogance. But it's the label that best describes the sounds I like.
See, at it's core, "indie" is just short for independent. Therefore, I could simply say that it is any music on an independent label. But that's not entirely true. If Broken Social Scene signed onto Geffen or MCA, I would still be a huge fan. Xiu Xiu is on an indie label and their album remains on my iPod as a burning monument to where I draw the line. A label is just a distribution and marketing outlet. It has no effect on the genre or the sound of a band. To define indie by those basic terms gives no impression of what the music could sound like. That, and who the hell limits their music taste based on the type of label? If you know that guy, you probably shouldn't be friends with him.
Feist, who is probably a pillar of indie music now, was on The Colbert Report and she was asked to explain the concept. She said something along the lines of, "It's just so engrained into my DNA it's hard to identify." A swell answer for a four minute interview, but I don't think I would get away with that in everyday conversation.
So allow me to try and dive in the deep end here and figure this out. Music genres are always hard to define, and this one even moreso. Things like Rock, Folk, Electronica and Polka all have distinct characteristics. Indie, on the other hand, can be alt-country crooning like My Morning Jacket or electronic synth-based rock like The Faint. Everything from the name, sound, background and influence defines a band as indie. It is something you are simply conditioned to recognise. Every individual is their own judge and somehow many people come to the same decision.
For a lot of indie, the attempt to sound different, or at least non-mainstream, is a prevalent characteristic. It's not sounding different for the sake of sounding different. It's just that indie artists seem to have much more eccentric tastes and styles, which their music reflects. They sound new. But, at the same time, a lot of indie bands follow genre tropes but with these twists on it that are hard to define. Listen to Conor Oberst mimic country music on Cassadaga or I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, or on his latest self-titled album. He uses cliches like "Help me get my boots on help me get my boots on" but it sounds different coming out of his quivering voice. Listen to Broken Social Scene break out 90s guitar riffs. Listen to the genre borrowing of everyone.
Something that occured to me as I was delving into the genre and singing along is the almost complete lack of choruses. It was interesting - these were people who had enough song to support the whole 3 to 5 minutes, without having to fall back on the tired verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formula. There were exceptions, but they were few and far between, and almost always just single songs, not entire artists. For the most part, indie music is a song writing art form, breaking free from mainstream pop music structure.
Artistic integrity is something that I attribute to indie over, say, pop music, but that's just throwing another vague term to define a vague term. It is also unfair to pop music, because it assumes that there is less "integrity" on their end. In truth, I'm sure everyone loves music and everyone tries their best to make it better - but it just seems that indie artists are better at it than their mainstream counterparts. That's not objective and therefore can't be used to define the genre. But it's a gut feeling. Indie is music that knows music. Indie is music that does it only for the music.
Here's another thing - Indie vocalists do not have to have conventional "good voices." In fact, every band I listen to has an "unorthodox" voice in some way. I realized this seeing Modest Mouse do a truly awful job singing on SNL. You realize that a good vocalist, much like Bob Dylan, is not about hitting the high notes or having a smooth, silky voice. It's about the confidence and control in your singing. And good lyrics can cover that up. Indie songs rarely spotlight the vocal prowess of their lead singer. At best, they shout or they get loud. But they do not show off the range in the way a Mariah Carey would.
Indie is also more experimental. It likes weird as long as if it is good weird with a lot of craft to it. It is the difference between a Jackson Pollack splatter and that painting of a mountain in a forest over your mother's dining table. It likes the rampant stylings of Animal Collective and the icelandic giberrish of Sigur Ros. It likes new ways of making sounds like the droning of shoegaze or the bizarre fusion of genres.
In truth, Indie is just as vague and open to definition as the term Pop. It might be easy to think of Indie as the mirror of Pop. The yin and the yang and all that business. But then that makes Indie Pop some weird antipode that is even harder to make sense of.
It's this vague, intangible, nebulous blob. I think that's the answer I'm going to give from now on. Because it's not a culture - not in the way that Hip Hop is. It's more then a genre, since it is an umbrella term for vastly different bands like Andrew Bird and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It's somewhere in between that is hard to define, because by nature, indie music avoids or challenges formulas and established concepts. So how do you find a uniting rule in something that often tries to break rules? Just when you think you've got an answer, the question's changed.