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How indie became pop – and pop became indie – in the 2010s

This is an interpretative translation of the article “How Indie Went Pop—and Pop Went Indie—in the 2010s”, by Jayson Greene, to the portal Pitchfork.

Ten years ago, a collaboration between an indie act and a pop artist was something to marvel at. Now, that's the way it is.

In August 2009, JAY-Z and Beyoncé attended a Grizzly Bear concert in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Solange took them along to see the indie rock band, whose third album Veckatimest, released that spring, blasted its sound loud enough to carry into the outdoor space. Amazed and confused spectators secretly filmed the superstar couple as they chatted and casually observed the crowd. Jay shook his head a little, waved his hand from side to side, took a sip of beer.

Soon, JAY-Z started showing up – looking confused but intrigued – at all kinds of rock shows. Here he is wearing a train conductor's hat and trying to ignore his phone, pointed in his face while watching a Coachella performance by dream-pop duo Baltimore Beach House in 2010. And here he is again, perhaps most famously, wearing his glasses and looking like he lost his keys at a Coldplay concert. With the trademark overenthusiasm of an older person introduced to a new band by a younger person, Jay enthused, publicly and at length: “What the indie-rock movement is doing now is very inspiring,” he declared. him – to say that he sincerely hoped groups like Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors would “pressure” rappers to “make better music.”

Jay's intense and sudden interest in indie-rock was not an isolated event; Something bigger was happening, and the early 2010s were full of these strange rumors. Shakira covered “Islands”, by the introverted British trio The xx's, at the huge Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom. Rising stars The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar sampled Beach House, who in turn covered Gucci Mane in concert. In 2015, a handful of inspiring indie names, including Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Dirty Projectors frontman David Longstreth, spent time working with Kanye West.

None of these scenarios would have been imaginable for the indie-rock bands of previous generations. Of all the upheavals in music over the past 10 years, perhaps none has been broader or more permanent than the complete dismantling of the boundaries around “indie music.” The financial and ideological barriers that separated these two words began to crumble, brick by brick.

Where there had once been a policed border, there was now a constant flow: Father John Misty was writing songs with Lady Gaga; Caroline Polachek of synth-pop group Chairlift co-wrote Beyoncé's 2014 track “No Angel”; Alex G, who in another era would have spent his career releasing sweet lo-fi songs on tiny independent labels, played guitar for Frank Ocean; James Blake collaborated with Travis Scott; Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig co-wrote Beyoncé's “Hold Up,” borrowing a line from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' “Maps,” a standard 2000s indie song that never had any connection to Bey.

Like most moments of transition, this frenetic mix seemed to herald all sorts of revolutionary perspectives, before finally revealing itself in complicated and sometimes disappointing ways. Like so many other stories this decade, the story of indie music becoming pop is equal parts thoughtful consolidation on the part of record companies and a genuine aesthetic shift at the basis of what music would be. mainstream: In the late 2010s, a handful of lucky artists found themselves breathing rarefied air, while nearly everyone else faced tight budgets as they struggled to make a career.

The scenario for indie’s shift towards mainstream it was set up by the industry's collapse in the 2000s, driven by a disastrous transition to digital. At the beginning of the new decade, this collapse began to resemble a free fall, and by 2011, sales were so bad that albums were routinely breaking records for reaching the top of the charts with the fewest units ever sold in the history of music. music.

But one artist's crisis is often another's opportunity, which means these were also the years when albums by Vampire Weekend (Contra), Arcade Fire (The Suburbs), and even Portland literary group the Decemberists (aptly named The King Is Dead) went top 1. In 2011, Arcade Fire won a Grammy for Album of the Year, leading to the “Who the hell is Arcade Fire?” meme. (The same thing happened to Bon Iver a year later.)

There was a bit of an “anything goes” panic at the time, and the chaos had some beneficial effects, one of which was that people alternated between indie and mainstream with so much violence that there was no longer any need to pretend that they were taking sides for some musical genre. At the beginning of the decade, Grimes confessed his love for Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber, while being a musician underground confessing your love for Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber was a disconcerting thing to do. When Grimes DJed the Boiler Room party in 2013, with a set that included songs by upbeat dance-pop band Vengaboys and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee, the online reaction was horrendous. Grimes felt it necessary to respond publicly, clarifying that she liked these songs.

Grimes was concerned with iconography in her performances and music videos in a way that few independent artists of the 2000s would have done — from her line of “vagina rings” to her self-directed video for the song “Genesis,” which was inspired by a painting 16th century church and featured flaming swords, a mace (medieval weapon) and rap icon/Tumblr performance artist named Brooke Candy. Grimes transformed her image into that of a star. Around 2013, she signed a management deal with JAY-Z's Roc Nation, but kept the recording of her music in the hands of the independent label that broke up Cocteau Twins, 4AD. Before Grimes, this kind of divided loyalty was almost unheard of.

Another artist who showed us what the dissolving boundaries of indie would look like in practice was Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. He started out as the personification of the Rustic Hipster (typical hipster style): beards, flannels, male disgust, seclusion. He was, without a doubt, a folk artist, making music with just his falsetto and a strummed guitar in the comfort of his small record label. He was something we'd seen before, and then he quickly became something we'd never seen before.

In 2010, Vernon was invited to Kanye West's compound in Hawaii during the recording sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye's fifth studio album). He ended up recording vocals on at least 10 songs, lamenting about letting God decide on “Monster” and singing angelically on “Lost in the World,” which samples a 2009 Bon Iver song. “I was literally in the back room.” rolling a joint with Rick Ross, talking about what to do in the next part of a song. It was surprising,” Vernon marveled that summer.

Admirably, Vernon was able to maximize the opportunities this visibility brought, without losing sight of his roots. He started a music festival in his hometown and launched a custom streaming service. He became a partner in a boutique hotel. He rehabilitated the creative reputation of one of his favorite artists, Bruce Hornsby, and invited him to collaborate on stage and in the studio. These were CEO moves, creative director moves, out of proportion to the modest indie careers of old. At that time, the desired end point for the success of the crossover indie was that it felt like something like Built to Spill or Flaming Lips – a cozy deal with a major label that would give you some extra money to live on and the freedom to make your records and then leave you alone. In the 2010s, these limitations disappeared.

Widespread industry instability has also caused traffic across music genre boundaries to run in the opposite direction, with artists mainstream entering the indie realm. The 2010s were an exceptionally good decade for edgy pop artists that major record labels didn't know how to market. In previous decades, being ignored by your major record label meant purgatory – perhaps, if you were lucky, VH1 would do a special investigation to see if you still existed, or a reality show would make you live in a house with Andy Dick. But this decade, as the ceiling for indie careers opened and the floor for pop careers fell, a secret path to success emerged and a handful of decade-defining artists looked into the possibilities there.

Sky Ferreira was one of them. She endured the torturous entry into the music industry common to teen pop victims; signed to Capitol Records at age 15, she tried to score a few singles that didn't chart, and her album was promptly shelved. At any other time, she likely would have been consigned to oblivion, ending up like promising 2000s teen star JoJo, whose record label issues became so intense that her career never recovered.

Instead, Sky released an EP with a single called “Everything Is Embarrassing,” which seemed to bottle up all the possibilities characteristic of indie-pop's unlikely moment: Produced and written with Blood Orange's Dev Hynes, it was a dance-like song. effervescent pop that felt too personal and shy to be a “real” dance-pop hit – the lyrics were overcome with anxiety, and the chorus revolved around a confession: “Maybe if you tried, I wouldn’t bother.” It was the kind of music you danced to when you were sure no one else would dance with you. “Everything Is Embarrassing” was so good it suggested many more songs like it were possible, and helped write the blueprint for a decade of pop downbeat and emotionally complex.

After scoring some captivating chart hits, omnivorous singer-songwriter Charli record companies could have blanched sooner. She has had big hits herself (“Boom Clap”) and written them for others (“I Love It” by Icona Pop, “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea). She's also made corrosively strange songs like “Track 10” that feel like they're eating themselves right in front of you. Charli's songs have their own gloriously cloudy fun, full of the heat of sex, the rush of passion, and the nervous twitches of an individual human consciousness. She was the best backdrop for the explosion of the old boundaries of pop and indie; working with avant-garde pop producer SOPHIE or rocking out in the rain and lights in the music video for her single “Gone,” she’s a blissful vision of freedom.

Charli and Sky were twin figures of a small but thriving scene, one with its own big names and its own behind-the-scenes producers, people like Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes, who loved the liberating power of pop songwriting. Robyn, who survived the teen pop booms of the '90s and '00s, has emerged as something of a patron saint of the scene. In 2005, she left her record label, Jive, to start Konichiwa Records, pursuing the unbridled creativity she craved. She quickly began releasing danceable, introspective singles like “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend,” which normally would have been dragged into the anonymity required for the wide rotation of artists into stardom, but instead the songs exploded. , partly thanks to the presence of these songs in important TV programs, such as the series “Girls”.

Looking back here, these Robyn songs were clearly pivotal: without them, it's hard to imagine Charli, or Sky, or, for that matter, Carly Rae Jepsen, who moved away from the ubiquity of “Call Me Maybe” and hired Hynes to co- writing ballads like Prince, and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij to writing mid-tempo electro-pop songs.

All of these artists seemed to promise a future in which “indie” would be something more fleeting – it would be an attitude, a cologne or perfume that would give pop careers some of the lively energy that the old careers launched on major labels did not allow. Stadium tours might not be involved, but there would certainly be brand partnerships and advertising dollars to keep things afloat, and the music could bend in whatever weird direction its creators wanted.

It's worth considering what was lost in this entire transition, however. What does it mean when independent artists openly aspire to pop stardom?

Take George Lewis Jr., a square-jawed Los Angeles guy who had a hit on the 4AD record label at the start of the decade with a little synth-pop record called Forget, under the name Twin Shadow. Lewis ambitiously scaled success on his 2012 song Confess, setting himself up for pop star status with all the booming drum machines and leather jacket cover shots that entailed. He tried to reinvent himself as a behind-the-scenes contractor in pop music, sending material to Chris Brown and writing a chorus for an Eminem song.

When Lewis actually tried to make a big pop album, he created 2015's Eclipse, a collection of songs too ridiculous to be taken seriously and not catchy enough to dispel any disbelief that they were bad. “I hate it when people who are definitely in the indie world set themselves up as pop stars when they lack the ambition, practice and skill of someone who is at the top of their own game in pop,” he ranted on that album's release.

His quote is telling: the ardent admiration for the art of pop songwriting, which used to be an abomination for small-time indie artists seeking to embrace the strange, the homely, the amateur. Now the game to play was the pop star, and the song that traveled the furthest and fastest would be made under one person's name, even if there were dozens of other names hidden in the songwriting credits. Independent artists, like the pop stars before them, became corporations, not cooperatives.

Dozens of factors contributed to the shift from the collective to the singular: the advent of social media, for example, with its one-by-one profiles and personal brand “voice.” Technology, which made more and more tasks possible without other humans to complete them, worked alongside deepening inequality in American cities, where rising rent and housing costs made things like practice spaces and shared housing financially unsustainable. The ever-deepening influence of hip-hop, with an emphasis on the individual. And, of course, why not – the continued lack of remorse of Western capitalist society, which cuts ties with others and forces us to be more or less alone in the face of our successes and failures.

But the effects were clear: As the decade wore on, indie-rock bands turned their music to their communities, once again making them local activist concerns. “What happened to all the bands?” asked Rostam Batmanglij in 2016, a few weeks before he officially split from Vampire Weekend to pursue his own career as a solo artist and pop star collaborator. “Are bands tacky now?”

Another important factor in the disappearance of the lines between indie and pop was the streaming. In the last 10 years, listening to music has completely and finally distanced itself from Earth. Recorded music simply materializes around us whenever we need it. At least as a consumer experience, it is now as close to the feeling of telepathy – think of music, any music, make it appear in the air around you – as it always has been. Technology is constantly turning unexpected things into humdrum everyday realities, and 10 years from now, observations about the newness of streaming will sound as fresh as the old laments about the end of the Walkman. But now, we're learning what happens to music when it begins to respond to the dictates of unconscious thought in real time.

Your unconscious mind, it seems, doesn't care what label a piece of music is released under. It also doesn't care much about the artistic ethics behind it. Which means that the artists who have the most fun in this new playground, at least creatively speaking, are those like Charli and Vernon – those who make the most of the possibilities for collaboration and don't ask anyone listening to make distinctions about where their influences came from. This may sound shockingly utopian for a predominantly dystopian time, but if there's one thing we still want from pop music, even if the lyrics are butchered, it's a sense of possibility, of infinite horizons.

As with any frenzy that accompanies changing borders, the excitement slowly subsided and gave way to familiar grumblings: this is not what I was promised, this is not how I imagined it, the dream is over. In 2017, after writing songs with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, Father John Misty, holding the magic beans he thought would take him to heaven, complained: “Let me tell you, as someone who has taken a grotesque journey in this world – because I too have been subjected to this music my entire life and I wanted to know how the sausage was made just out of morbid curiosity – there’s nothing that isn’t fully tested and calculated by the audience in this fucking song.” He went to the table, he ate pop's food and he came back to tell us that it was spoiled.

His speech that followed – that major record stars were trapped people crying out for help, that the corporate pop system was corrupt at its core and was built around a culture of exploitation and profit, and that the basic truth was that people don’t write their own songs – it could have come from the mouth of Steve Albini, the indie curmudgeon of the alt-rock era in the 90s. “I don’t believe in that system, so I have no petulant desire to toy with it or antagonize it.” lo,” Misty added, almost washing her hands of the pop world.

However, finalizing the divorce proved complicated. Before long, Misty's real name, Josh Tillman, appeared in the credits of another big star's work, in the song “Myself”, by Post Malone. The song finds the agnostic dirty-pop auteur with face tattoos croaking: “This whole American Dream / Everybody's tired of believing / Oh, let's not give a fuck until / Not caring is meaningless anymore.” Posty's delivery is pure Instagram caption, but the sentiment—shallow, acidic, self-destructive, funny—is 100 percent Misty. Perhaps these lyrics are the sound of Tillman shaking his fist from inside the machine. Or maybe it's something more complicated than that. Maybe this is what life sounds like post-indie – a little flexible and a little rebellious; a criticism and a surrender at the same time.