When indie went mainstream

These days, it seems like you can’t take a step without tripping over a new independent band or a blockbuster independent film. Indeed, one could even say that today is the heyday of the indie style, seeing as how it’s so thoroughly permeated popular culture. Things like Buddy Holly glasses, dorky ill-fitting sweaters and bad athletic shoes, once trademarks of the geek worthy of post-gym-class harassment sessions, now firmly place the wearer in the “hip” category. You can even look on the internet to find out how to feign indie-rock “street cred.”

Indie, lo-fi and DIY have become music industry buzzwords, and new bands with the “indie sound” are being snapped up by major record labels left and right. Modest Mouse, once a small locally known group, have become mainstream icons and million-sellers. Same with Death Cab for Cutie. You can get their records at the mall, and hear their tracks on popular young-adult TV programs.

Many of the hit movies of 2005 were independent releases, giving Hollywood a run for their money. In fact, Hollywood studios now court filmmakers directly out of Sundance.

A perfect example is this year’s runaway hit “Brokeback Mountain.” The film won multitudinous awards, including four Golden Globes, and pulled in huge amounts at the box office. Distributed by independent Focus Features, the film gave Hollywood giants a run for their money. From the looks of things, the independent mindset and style has proved its vitality against its arch-nemesis, the watered-down, lowest common denominator entertainment offered by the mainstream. Or has it? Has the indie ethos become just another marketing tool, a way to reach markets that were previously inaccessible for major labels and studios? To fully understand this phenomenon, you have to take a trip back in time to 1991.

Nirvana broke into the mainstream and sent their second LP to the top of the charts with phenomenal speed. Suddenly, the average American was getting a glimpse of another world of music and art that had existed in parallel with the standardized, across-the-board entertainment that had previously been all that there was. The world of the underground was now open, and people were eager to explore this previously obscure, independent way of doing things. It didn’t hurt, either, that the ultimate fan boy Kurt Cobain used his highest of profiles to expose people to music that he loved.

For his band’s MTV Unplugged appearance, he invited the previously unknown Meat Puppets to perform with him, and indeed covered quite a few of their songs. In the following decade or so, watered-down copies of the so-called “alternative sound” flourished, saturating the eardrums of a generation. For every Kurt Cobain or Mark Arm, 10 Art Alexakises would rise to imitate them, with an eye to the underground for a pre-existing style guaranteed to make them the Next Big Thing. But, of course, this couldn’t last forever.

By the end of the century grunge was dead, the underground was under the radar a little bit more, and the charts were again, as in 1990, full of bad metal, albeit with a dose of the “alternative” sound added for good measure. The template was already there for the garage rock revival a couple years later, and the alterna-crap that preceded it in the late ’90s just made it stick. Which brings us to today. Now, you can’t leave your house, turn on the radio, or even watch television without seeing some manifestation of what was once independent being purveyed to you by a bunch of suits. What once was the realm of weirdoes and misfits is now the realm of the suburbanite and mall-denizen, and its trappings now decorate popular culture. In a sense, the underground has become too above ground to even exist anymore.

Although the degree to which indie has been co-opted can be disappointing, it does come with some clear bonuses. People have been turned on to independent music of the past, as they search for the groups that influenced tastemakers such as The Strokes or the White Stripes. Artists who would have previously been consigned to a career of obscurity have the opportunity to reach audiences much larger than ever before.

Even a look at the number of alternative acts that have reunited in the past couple of years indicates that something is up. The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Gang of Four and now perhaps the Smashing Pumpkins have all laid aside their differences and rejoined forces to play humongous, sold out concert tours and headline giant festivals. Music festivals are a prime example of the indie explosion, having in a few short years reached audiences that many of the bands involved would never have been able to reach in a normal tour. Even larger, corporate-sponsored package festivals were dominated by acts that either came from independent labels to majors or sounded like they did.

Lollapalooza and Coachella both featured rosters packed with indie rock heroes both old and new, and at Bumbershoot in Seattle the Decemberists, now signing to major Capitol Records, played for an audience of thousands. Popular music web site Pitchfork Media also organized their own music showcase, the Intonation Festival, in 2005, which was dominated by non-mainstream talent. By all accounts the low-priced festival was a success, and will return to Chicago this summer.

So, in a sense, it’s a tradeoff.

The fertile climate of an underground, where original and groundbreaking art can incubate away from the prying eyes of pop culture, is gone. In its place is a massive niche market where, for the first time, truly independent artists have a shot at exposing their art to the public at large. Was the tradeoff worthwhile? Now that the mainstream and anti-mainstream have kind of become the same thing, what’s going to happen to people that actually want an alternative to the “alternative?” Only time can tell, but if history is any indication, a new underground might be coming to basements and living rooms near you.

Just think back to the ’70s and the emergence of punk as a true alternative to the boring, overindulgent and pretentious fusion of the hippie generation’s sound and the corporate world’s excess. History’s tendency to repeat itself bodes well for a new alternative. Choice is a great thing, and the rise of a new creative underground inspired by the homogenization of current options spells choice aplenty. Will it come to pass? Here’s hoping that it does.