Don’t O.D. on ‘Indie’

‘Hey, have you checked out this new indie alternative band?’ ‘Did you see that indie film?’ While I was discussing indie bands with my friend, I realized that we were categorizing many different things under the ‘indie’ umbrella. The word took on an identity that meant more than just ‘things that are independent,’ such as bands on independently-owned record labels and films financed by small, non-major studios. As I continued to use the word to describe the way a band sounded or even how someone could ‘look indie’ with a unique dress, I wondered, ‘What does ‘indie’ really mean?’
‘Indie’ is entering the stage of overuse, just like its predecessor, ’emo.’ That term seemed meaningless from the get-go. Isn’t music supposed be emotional? Suddenly, bands that screamed about their feelings or wore dark clothing and rocked out with their hair covering half of their faces were called emo, giving birth to subgenres such as ’emocore’ and ‘screamo.’ At some point, though, these terms entered a phase wherein they became too all-encompassing and lost their meanings, assuming that they ever had meanings in the first place. And to a significant extent, ‘indie’ appears to be heading in that same direction.
Last year, British music magazine NME published a list of the 50 greatest indie anthems as voted by individuals. Expecting to see a list of songs that were mostly unknown to me, I was shocked to see Oasis’s ‘Live Forever’ and Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at numbers one and two, respectively. Although Oasis’s massive popularity exceeds that of most major label bands, they were signed to the independent label Creation Records when they recorded ‘Live Forever’ before they jumped ship and signed to a major label. However, Nirvana, released its first record on the Seattle-based independent label Sub Pop but signed to a major label when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was released on the album ‘Nevermind.’ Other songs on the list that weren’t released by indie record companies included ‘Creep’ by Radiohead (EMI) and ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers (Island Records). So why were these songs included on an indie anthem list?
‘Indie’ doesn’t have much to do with whether the company that distributes the material is independent. Rather, the focus appears to be the aesthetics of an art form. Sometimes, people judge a band’s ‘indie cred’ by the way they look or act, insisting that bands with a more apparent DIY ethic are more indie. ‘Indie’ is also used to describe music, film and other media that aren’t perceived as mainstream or commercial.
Some types of music and film are less mainstream and more underground, but what does that have to do with being independent? Commercial bands can be just as, if not more, independent than underground bands; the fact that a movie like ‘300’ is intended for the mainstream doesn’t mean that it can’t be independent in reference to how it was made. Yes, independent labels and distributors might be more common outlets for less mainstream art forms, but that shouldn’t preclude the usage and labeling of indie.
I also wonder how indie sounds. For instance, a fan on a forum commented that he preferred the Arctic Monkeys’ first album over their second album because it ‘sounded more indie.’ The styles of the albums aren’t dramatically different, but that’s beside the point. The band still has jagged, spiky guitars, upbeat rhythms and raw energy. Where is the distinction between indie-sounding music and non-indie-sounding music? It seems strange how many bands are deemed indie simply because they do something different. In fact, popular bands such as Coldplay can be just as independent with their original blend of pop and rock.
The indie label also translates to appearance. Some kids are occasionally called indie because they have tight jeans, high tops, coke-bottle glasses and shoulder-strap bags littered with buttons. Independence could include a fashion sense that differs from everyone else, but it shouldn’t be restricted to a certain style. The aforementioned style seems to be a stereotype of people that might be part of the ‘indie crowd.’ At the end of the day, though, indie can describe anyone with a unique fashion sense, individuals who wear what they want to wear without worrying about what others will think.
When all is said and done, ‘indie’ simply means ‘independent,’ whether it is a movie financed independently or someone who acts and thinks for himself. It doesn’t mean that a person is cooler or that a band or film is more cutting-edge and progressive. If ‘indie’ is overused, it will become another one of those words that gradually lose their true meanings and fall out of favor with those who recognize their diminishing significance.

Ara Demirjian is a third-year business economics major. He can be reached at ademirji@uci.edu.