Are you indie or independent?

Categories: Columns
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As I've mentioned once or twice in this blog, I occasionally DJ around town, under a pseudonym. I use a pseudonym because I want to make it clear that Eryc Eyl, the DJ, operates in a musical universe that is completely different from the one inhabited by Eryc Eyl, the music critic. We are, in some ways, separate individuals. My deejaying has very little to do with my writing. It's an outlet for a completely different relationship with music. I rarely play the hippest, hottest underground releases, break new artists or balance on the bleeding edge of indie obscurity. My sets lean heavily on mash-ups, covers, '80s cheese, dirty raps and whatever else it takes to get people in a bar to dance, laugh or smile. I might have been listening to obscure death metal or kiwi pop all day, but when I set up my humble rig, the first track out is more likely to be Too Short or one of Mad Mix Mustang's absurd mashes than it is to be Phoenix or any other Pitchfork favorite. When I DJ, I pander. I placate. I wallow in the muck of pop culture. I wink at people a lot, which is probably a little creepy.

Recently, I was caught completely off-guard when someone who knows me as a music critic looked at my playlist and accused me of not being "indie" enough. At first, I felt defensive, like I'd just been accused of not being Jewish enough or Catholic enough or tall enough -- as if some intrinsic part of my identity had been called into question. This was immediately followed by a rush of indignation and a momentary impulse to defend my indie-ness.

And then I realized -- wait a second. That's really silly. The epithet "indie" -- like its cousin, "alternative," in the '90s -- is so freely bandied about and abused in music lover circles these days that it has lost all meaning. And you know what? That's a good thing. In the '90s, many of us responded to the "alternative" label by asking, "Alternative to what?" Todd Snider then nailed the goofiness and hypocrisy of it with his sardonic "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues." The same thing is happening with "indie." It was originally short for "independent," but that association is all but gone. After all, in an age when the music industry is fragmented, decentralized and destabilized (thank the tetragrammaton for that blessing!), one might reasonably ask, "Independent from what?"

But independence is, in fact, the point.

This week, we'll celebrate our country's independence and sovereignty by drinking heavily, burning meats and lighting things on fire. It's like a GG Allin show, without the poo. When we choose the music we want to listen to (or it chooses us), we declare our independence all over again. It isn't about being indie, or being metal, or being country, or any other label we might necessarily and conveniently affix to the various genres that turn our proverbial cranks. It's about that ineffable and intensely personal connection that we make with a song, a sound or the silence between the notes. 

Whether it's the roller skate synths of Michael Jackson's "Rock with You," the crushing guitars of Saviours, or the crackle of "Candy Says" on the turntable as night fades into dawn's early light, it's that moment of engagement between us and the music that makes us and the music truly real. It's not about labels, scenes, t-shirts and haircuts. It's the instantiation and realization of an entirely different "indie" that is often obscured by the rockets' red glare and the smoke on the water. It's individuality -- and sometimes, it's all we have.


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