The Null Device

First as tragedy, then as Yorkie bar

The BBC has a new documentary series about the history of indie music, specifically in the UK; titled Music For Misfits, it follows the phenomenon, from the explosion of do-it-yourself creativity unleashed in the wake of punk, running throughout the 1980s like a subterranean river, largely out of sight of the high-gloss mainstream of Stock/Aitken/Waterman, Simply Red and Thatcherite wine-bar sophistipop, channelled through a shadow infrastructure of photocopied zines, mail-order labels selling small-run 7"s and reviews in NME and Melody Maker (which, it must be remembered, had countercultural credibility back then, and were run by people whose business cards didn't read "youth marketing professional"), surfacing in the 1990s into the new mainstream of Britpop (much in the way that its American counterpart, alternative music, had become a few years earlier with the grunge phenomenon), before finally coalescing into a low-energy state in the new millennium as the marketing phenomenon known as Indie, a hyper-stylised, conservatively retro-referential guitar rock sponsored by lager brands. Though by the third episode of this series (the 1990s one), the BBC seems to succumb to this very revisionism of the term "indie", and, as Emma Jackson of Kenickie points out, retroactively edits almost all women out of the story, presumably because otherwise it wouldn't jibe as neatly with what modern audiences understand "indie" to mean:
It wasn’t just the lack of voices but the choice of stories that were included. No mention was made of the Riot Grrrl movement. Including the story of Riot Grrrl would have easily linked up with the previous programme’s section on fanzines and C86. Riot Grrrl also complicates the idea that British indie was in a stand off with US music. Rather in this scene bodies, music and fanzines travelled across the Atlantic and influenced each other. Also, while in indie music ‘white is the norm’ as Sarah Sahim recently argued, the Riot Grrrl moment in the UK also included bands lead by people of colour such as The Voodoo Queens and Cornershop (who had a number one on the independent Wiija in 1997).
Some major players were also missing. You have to go some lengths to tell the story of Britpop and not mention Elastica, but that’s what happened in the programme. There was a very short clip of them that flashed by. Or Sleeper. They were huge. Or PJ Harvey. Or Lush. Or Echobelly. Or Shampoo.
Perhaps this is all a clever meta-narrative device, highlighting the issue of the blokeification of the term "indie" that is concomitant with it having ceased to be a structural descriptor ("indie" as in independent, from the major labels, from commercially manufactured pop music, the materialistic cultural currents/right-wing politics of Reaganism/Thatcherism, or what have you), and having become a stylistic descriptor (you know, guitars/skinny jeans/Doc Martens/Fred Perry/Converse/reverent references to an agreed-upon canon of "cool" bands from the previous half-century), and soon after that, a signifier of Cool British Masculinity, in the way that, say, Michael Caine, James Bond movies and various East End gangsters of old used to be. Perhaps it's a monumental oversight, inexplicable in hindsight, an oh-shit moment as the programme goes out. Or perhaps the original outline for the programme had sections on Bratmobile and Lush and Dubstar, which ended up on the cutting room floor after some risk-averse executive ruled that putting them in would weaken the narrative, confuse the audience or induce the Daily Mail to scream about "political correctness".

The equation of indie with retro probably didn't help. The seeds were sown in the underground 1980s, along with the rejection of the glossy commercial pop of the decade (which was partly a practical matter, with the kinds of high-tech studios the Pete Watermans of this world used to craft their chart-toppers costing millions, while electric guitars and Boss pedals were cheap), though became codified in the Britpop era, when journalist after lazy journalist equated the bold new age of British Guitar Rock with that last imperial phase of UK pop culture, the Swinging Sixties. Soon this became a self-fulfilling prophecy; things which didn't fit the narrative were pushed to the side, vintage Lambretta scooters and Mod roundels started showing up everywhere, and the Gallagher brothers, gazing down red-eyed from the heights of Snow Mountain, announced themselves to be the second coming of John Lennon, returned to bring proper rock'n'roll back to the people. Somewhere along the way, this retro rockism absorbed some of the retro sexism of the post-ironic lad mags of the time, marinated in the reactionary miasma inherent in the idea of a lost "golden age" (one before all this modern nonsense, when music came on vinyl and dollybirds knew their place was hanging on a geezer's arm, and so on), and so was born the New Lad Rock, whose name, in time, was lazily shortened just to "indie"; in its moribund terminal state, the Yorkie bar of music, right down to the "Not For Girls" label on it.

(Of course, the problem with looking backwards is often also the fact that those inclined to look backwards tend to fixate on forms rather than the processes that they emerged from (as the forms are the obvious thing to grasp, especially if one is not analytically inclined) and draw reactionary conclusions. For example, the fetishisation of the two-stroke motorscooter, a symbol of teenage freedom in the 1960s (it's probably no exaggeration to say that the Vespa was the MySpace Facebook Snapchat of its age), but a dirty, cranky, inefficient antique these days. Or, indeed, the actual careers of the cultural heroes. So, while the Beatles experimented with musique concrète and Mick Jagger subverted (to an extent) the meaning of masculinity, none of this is evident in the plodding, workmanlike homages to "proper rock" of their self-announced modern-day followers.)

The equation of stylised "indie" rock with a retrograde "lad"/"geezer" masculinity seems to be firmly embedded in the culture of this day; only recently the radio station Xfm, which originated back in the day with an indie-music format, was rebranded, explicitly, as a blokey-guitar-rock station, without too much loss of cultural continuity. The next logical step would be would be to introduce a musical segment into the upcoming reboot of men-and-motors TV show Top Gear (which, of course, is already to be fronted by a Britpop-era radio DJ), where, between the high-octane stunts, a band of lads with guitars and Mod haircuts take to the screen and play something that sounds like a stodgily conservative take on the Beatles/Kinks/Clash/Pistols/Stone Roses.

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