February 2018

Arts & Letters

What happened to indie music

By Anwen Crawford

Neutral Milk Hotel. Photograph by Will Westbrook

From Neutral Milk Hotel to Justin Timberlake

Young white men with beards beyond their years put me in mind of a band from the ’90s, whose influence has long outlived their actual career. And it’s not just the prematurely hirsute but also farmers’ markets, recycled wood furniture, hand-set typefaces, decorative flour sacks … the whole panoply of antiquarian and artisanal branding, including self-branding, so common to contemporary capitalism: it all tends to remind me of Neutral Milk Hotel, an American band whose second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, was released 20 years ago this month.

I don’t hold Neutral Milk Hotel directly responsible for shops that try to sell me a vision of rough-hewn Arcadian bliss, not exactly. But the band’s afterlife has been illustrative. Neutral Milk Hotel’s record label, the independent Merge Records, anticipated selling around 7000 copies of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea at the time of its release. Since then it has sold closer to half a million copies – a modest number by the yardstick of pop superstardom, but unusual for a band that in 1998 hardly had a national fanbase, let alone an international one. And a band that has not, despite a reunion tour in 2013, subsequently released any new material.

Beyond sales, the wider significance of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is its encapsulation – its anticipation – of a pre-industrial, anti-modernist aesthetic that functions today as a signal of personal (or brand) authenticity. Take marquee pop star Justin Timberlake, not previously noted for his interest in the rustic, who in January released a promotional trailer for his new album, Man of the Woods, that was all campfire and facial hair and sheepskin coat. Watching this high-budget advertisement for the simple life, I wondered if it represented the popular eclipse of a prolonged phase in the history of independent – or indie – music.

But what is indie? Sometimes a set of principles, sometimes a business model, and sometimes a musical genre, indie’s meanings have not always, or even often, coincided.

As Richard King observes in his history of British indie labels, How Soon Is Now? (2012), independent record labels without ties to corporations have existed since the beginning of the music industry. But it’s only in the slipstream of punk, with its peculiar combination of anti-commercial music and entrepreneurial energy, that the notion of “indie” is born.

A reckless summary of indie’s first two-and-a-bit decades – don’t quote me on your exam – might go something like this: Manchester, 1977; Buzzcocks’ self-released Spiral Scratch EP is a eureka moment; Factory Records, Joy Division; Rough Trade, The Smiths; fanzines; a spirit of DIY; college radio in America; budget touring in a six-seater van; Nirvana disrupt it all; major label gold rush; independent label bankruptcies; reconsolidation; the internet; The Strokes; et cetera.

This is already to take a well-worn route through a maze-like history; if “indie” describes an independent business model, then there is no reason not to include in that description certain dance and hip-hop labels – or, as King points out, the bubblegum pop catalogue of Stock Aitken Waterman, the independent label that brought Kylie Minogue and Bananarama to fame. But here we run up against the codification of indie as a genre, which has been heavily skewed towards men who play electric guitars without visible sign of effort or expertise, and which has proved about as cosmopolitan in its make-up as a Coalition cabinet.

With the above in mind, then, let us proceed to the longueur of the mid to late ’90s, when the casualties of grunge – indie’s corporatisation – were still being counted, and out of which Neutral Milk Hotel emerged as a fully fledged band.

Led by singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel formed in Mangum’s hometown of Ruston, Louisiana, and released a debut album, On Avery Island, in 1996. By the time of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the group had relocated to Athens, Georgia – a college town with a productive independent music scene that had given America two of its definitive ’80s bands, R.E.M. and The B-52s. After early, solo experiments with home recording and tape collages, Mangum had shaped Neutral Milk Hotel into a type of indie-folk band, one that combined basic, chordal guitar parts with old-fangled instruments such as the banjo and musical saw. The group also numbered among a loosely affiliated set of bands and musicians known, collectively, as the Elephant 6 Recording Company, who shared an interest in ’60s pop and psychedelia: the studio in which In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was recorded was named Pet Sounds, after the Beach Boys’ landmark 1966 album.

Like Pet Sounds before it, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a sort-of concept album, driven by its primary songwriter’s fixations. Mangum had made a belated discovery of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and the songs he wrote out of his encounter with Frank’s chronicle were freighted with a heavy sense of anguish. “And will she remember me 50 years later?” he sang on the album’s central track, “Oh Comely”, “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine.” It would be overly literal, though, to describe In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as an album about the Holocaust, for Frank is only one of many phantasms to populate a set of looping, interlinked narratives that proceed with the closed logic of a dream or a religious vision.

As befitted a group from the American south, Neutral Milk Hotel conveyed an evangelical zeal. Mangum sang his lyrics, which were serpentine and allusive, in a voice that was urgent, nasal and untutored, prone to veering a little flat. Brass instruments – including trombone, flugelhorn and euphonium – added another kind of clamour, and the overall effect of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was, and remains, to snatch a listener up into an atmosphere part captivating and part threatening, like a tent revivalist’s meeting.

Popular music’s quasi-religious power is as old as the form itself, and in this respect Neutral Milk Hotel were up to nothing new, but In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is notable for repeatedly and consistently making converts of its listeners. It is an album about the possibility and the unlikelihood of salvation that some listeners have described as having saved them. As a work of obsession, it also encourages obsession, as if to hear it closely enough, or often enough, might reveal some ultimate, universal truth. Naturally, such an album attracts the young, the lonely and the fanatical.

Early intimations of this listenership were enough to spook Mangum, who, by the end of 1998, had effectively disappeared from sight. No new gigs or songs were forthcoming. Mangum’s silence did nothing to dispel the growing aura around In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. As writer Luke Winkie observed in a 2016 article for The A.V. Club, the album arrived “at the dawn of the Information Age”, and the vacuum left by Neutral Milk Hotel’s sudden hiatus was filled with the kind of speculation and over-analysis that thrives on the internet. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea began as a word-of-mouth phenomenon and became an online one, and early critical reaction to the album, which had been mixed, morphed over time into an adulatory consensus. Rolling Stone, for instance, had characterised the album upon its release in 1998 as the work of “naive transcendentalists”, but by 2011 the magazine had altered its assessment: now In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was “timeless transcendentalist pop”.

“Timeless” is a telling adjective: indicative, I think, of an anxiety that has beset music criticism since about 1998, when the internet began to seriously erode the cultural standing – and the profits – of a print-based music press. Behind “timeless”, or the oxymoronic “instant classic”, lurks a barely disguised fear that new music is anything but, that no one will remember it, or us, because there is no defining critical narrative anymore. A lot of contemporary pop music criticism has become trapped in a nostalgia loop, with critics yearning to recover the kind of influence that early rock magazines like Rolling Stone commanded back in the ’60s. Canon-building is commonplace, even if it’s an “alternative” or retrospective canon-building, the kind that will elevate In the Aeroplane Over the Sea to the No. 4 position in the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s (Pitchfork) or No. 16 in the Top 30 Albums of the Past 25 Years (Q).

The musical thumbprint of Neutral Milk Hotel can be found today in acts like Car Seat Headrest, who tour Australia this month and whose combination of fuzzy guitars, strident vocals and unhemmed personal revelation all recall the older band. Multi-platinum-selling, Grammy award-winning Canadian group Arcade Fire would quite possibly not exist without Neutral Milk Hotel’s feverish, brass-embellished precedent. (For their first few albums, Arcade Fire were also signed to the same independent label, Merge Records.) And while the veneration of Jeff Mangum as an isolated, Thoreau-like figure recalls, on the one hand, older myths about creativity – we always like to imagine that peculiar artistic visions are born out of solitariness rather than interdependence – it has also contributed to a back-to-the-woods impulse that has been prominent throughout the past 20 years of American independent music, even when no actual woods have been involved. Lo-fi production values and stumbling guitars and emotional trouble – God, it’s all so played out.

The stubborn redundancy of much contemporary indie as a genre must be offset against the potential renewal of indie as an idea, especially now, when the three remaining major-label conglomerates – Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group – dominate the market but demonstrate little long-term artistic vision. There is much to be reclaimed in the indie model of an oppositional, counter-hegemonic culture, including the desire to speak contemporarily rather than pursue a false timelessness. A willingness to confront the temporal confusion of our times, including its culpable nostalgia (why are all the woodsmen white?) also feels necessary.

I’m not certain that an album like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, with its vivid fantasies of time travel and time slippage, could be written today with the same kind of unstudied naivety. Not when 35 open browser tabs will give you another, equally vivid sense of time’s instability and of the ghostly proximity of the long dead. In this way, the album is very much a creation of its time. Of course, I would hardly know or care about it unless I, too, had once fallen under its spell. I was an indie kid (ask me about The Smiths’ B sides!), which feels like a confession of fault or inadequacy, so little has indie offered for so long. But the promise remains – and it’s sometimes enacted – of a popular music, regardless of genre, that is made without recourse to the market strictures of mass popularity. This is indie’s founding, energising paradox, and its truest legacy.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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