I was raised on a musical landscape that agonized over whether it was a betrayal to still buy REM records once they signed to Warners (and made one of their masterpieces, what a shame it would have been to miss it) and the band felt such a burden that they painfully trotted out the scene they had left behind as opening acts, for an arena tour only the headliner was equipped for. Bands like The Pixies and Throwing Muses needed to be signed to UK indies and covered in v23 sleeve designs before we could embrace their return to our shores, courtesy of Seymour Stein and Sire. It was the era that the five-dollar all-ages policy was laid into cement by Fugazi and bands like The Minutemen turned living econo into a badge of honor. All that mattered was that you did your best not to compromise your music.
Once grunge exploded, pulling punk behind it like a personal indie albatross laid across Kurt Cobain’s checkbook, the conversations about our musical ethics took on a hyper focus. We were willing to give in to the perfect culmination of our record collection that was “Nevermind,” and sure, Sonic Youth deserved to finally get paid – as long as we heard those words “creative control” in the contract. But we still had our standards and some things were off limits. The majors began to relax and stopped hiding their “fake” indie labels they had set up to cover the true farm team nature of such arrangements. Plus Sonic Youth, like REM before them, were using the increase in funds and exposure to make some of the best music of their lives. It was starting to smell like a win/win.
Then, someone that couldn’t possibly benefit, financially or creatively, stepped into the argument, in a way that they surely could have never imagined during their brief lifetime. Nick Drake’s beloved (by tens of thousands at best mind you) iconic “Pink Moon” found it’s way into a Volkswagen commercial. Drake had been a tightly held secret amongst the indie circles. Someone only shared once you were deemed worthy of all that his recordings had to offer. I tried to get everyone I could find to fall in love with American Music Club, but Nick, well… Nick was just for me.
Somehow the ad didn’t bother me all that much though. I was older, and in a way, I felt like I (and others like me) had held on to “Pink Moon” for long enough. Besides, I was soon surprised to find myself falling so hard for a little record my friend had done the design for, some mix of all the shambling pop strummers of scenes past and sounding like every sweet note in the Flying Nun handbook called The Shins. When their pitchy doo-da-doos were suddenly emanating from my television, I couldn’t believe it. When I saw it was for a McDonald’s commercial – I knew a sacred cow had been slaughtered (and eaten.)
Like everyone around me, I could see that the business model for selling records was rapidly changing, and even though I didn’t know I would be talking about “syncs” right and left today, I did know that the rules of the game were forever altered. I decided that it was a good thing that The Shins were able to find a way to make enough money to turn this into their full-time job and invest in some additional equipment to get them where they were going quicker, and on their own terms. Not to mention actually getting paid, as opposed to ripped off like the long line of Tom Waits impersonators of the past. I hated to put it this way – but I “forgave” them for selling out, as it were.
Who knew all of this indie “guilt” would just melt away? Hearing that commercial, and gauging the reaction to it, seemed like an alternate universe from the one where I actually considered whether wearing my beloved REM Green tour t-shirt (from their show at the Capital Centre) was going to get me a load of shit at a high school field party (I wore it anyway – had to rest my Wire “Kidney Bingos” tee.) There seemed to be only one travesty left that you could commit – selling out by changing your sound.
It was strange enough to see that indie/punk was a marketable avenue to this degree anyway – pushing millions of records by the suddenly fashionable thrash of the likes of Green Day (who still haven’t really changed their root sound) or bands like The Strokes, or Interpol, taking the past decades of cool and turning it into something I love – but my Mom might buy at Starbucks as well. There was money to be made here.
Now, even the hard liners have always accepted that bands have to mature over the years, and progress their sound, and the loss of members is likely to send them into a new direction (Jonathon Fire Eater to The Walkmen raising no more eyebrows than The Minutemen to fIREHOSE) but it had to happen organically. You couldn’t suddenly go “disco” as so many rock artists had done to terrible effect in the 70s.
Or could you?
In the past, the move was to do something like Kara’s Flowers putting out a crap record only to re-emerge as the slick and silky Maroon 5. No cred there, and in truth, none needed. A brazen grab at the brass ring of Top 40 stardom and screaming little girls and late night trysts with Jessica Simpson, where no one expects your t-shirt to sell anywhere other than Hot Topic.
But the past few years have seen a sudden change, where a band like The Drums can rise from the ashes of the likes of Goat Explosion and Elkland, after their major label mishaps, and name check The Wake and get a pass. I love The Wake and I am glad to hear that sort of influence in anyone’s music – and to be honest any Wake is good Wake. It didn’t take long for me to notice that they were cribbing heavily from the oldies channel, either with their doo-wop melodies or classic structures, and when I heard one of their strongest lines from another source – kid’s balladeer Laurie Berkner no less – I had to wonder where they both lifted it from. Oddly, I didn’t much care about all of that in the end because they made an exhilarating EP of odes to summer and careless days and nights that hit me in so many good spots that I could no longer resist. I just liked it.
The final bridge to cross, for all of us aging music snobs, eventually reared its shaggy head on our radios/TVs/computers recently, dripping with… well… with sincerity (and a long ass name.)
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes seemed like the typical hippy neo-psych SoCal-country collective that we have come to embrace, along the lines of Devendra Barnhart and his famous girlfriends. Only this time, it had a Sheryl Crow polish on it that should have set off an alarm or two.
You see, the band is fronted by Alex Ebert “playing” the messiah that is Edward Sharpe – no biggie – except just a few years earlier he was fronting one of the most horrible brass/ass grabbing bands of all-time in Ima Robot. The scary part about Ima Robot is that they already appeared manufactured, and a little past their prime, with Ebert doing a sincere presentation of the figure Russell Brand would lampoon to riotous world wide success. Just looking at his horrific hair and v-neck tees makes me wretch. Ima Robot was everything wrong with the music industry. I mean this.
So when he gathered some LA musos, and bragged about his rehab, and boarded an aging school bus to tour the country – well… it is safe to say that we were skeptical as to his intentions. That he did so by hiding his former credits, and given name for that matter, certainly didn’t dispel our suspicions -nor did his ready for soccer moms ballads and annoying as hell website.
Soon, the band was skyrocketing from small clubs to selling out the 930 Club and, as with everything that becomes popular so quickly, a lot of eyebrows were raised. That the music was suddenly linked to every product on TV, and a scathing Pitchfork review revealed the ruse to hipsters all over the web, seemed to be the nail in the coffin. Finally, I thought, the issue of “cred” would be back on the table.
But you know what? No one cared.
You didn’t see the blogosphere picking up on Pitchfork’s indignant post. You only started to hear their music in more places, until it was all consuming and unavoidable, and not a single whistleblower was heard. Even I had to admit “Janglin” was no worse than the other beard bands, even with its forced “check check” at the beginning. Certainly it had as much right to help sell shit as anyone else. Not to mention that “Home” was the finest slice of tragic romance delivered in call and response form since The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sometimes Always.” I found that I wasn’t offended in the least and I sorta liked what they were doing.
And more than anything:
I no longer cared why they were doing it.