Arts Pop Culture

What is Indie Fame and What Does it Mean?

Lindsey Jordan, also known as Snail Mail, almost scoffed at the question, hesitated, then wound up into a full, open-mouthed laugh. What did she think of being “indie famous?”

“Definitely overrated, everything is still trash,” she said in a recent Pitchfork interview. “It doesn’t really change anything about your actual life … because being indie famous, like, isn’t a thing. It’s not like I walk down the street and people are like, ‘Oh my god.’”

If the mark of celebrity in our culture is getting mobbed on the street, being forced to wear dark sunglasses, a hoodie and a downward gaze in public — in short, mass recognition and constant media attention — all things that are decidedly not applicable to indie stardom, then what manner of fame is indie fame, if it can be considered fame at all?

Recent advances in technology have given musicians more of an ability to record and promote their music. The concept of DIY (Do It Yourself) music has never been more applicable as it is for the current indie rock scene. And as a result, the unknown legends, the cult acts of rock ‘n’ roll, are no longer unknown.

In today’s decentralized music industry, where artists use twitter in place of traditional promotional campaigns and streaming listens are being factored into the Billboard charts, fame is often a predominantly digital phenomenon, particularly for indie acts. Jordan and her cohorts — other teen and twenty-something critical darlings, many of whom are women — make up the newly ascent generation of indie rockers, brought up on bandcamp and urged into the spotlight by critical hubbub online, streams and social media.

Of course, a women-led rock revolution didn’t spring out of nowhere. It has its roots in the feminist punk of the riot-grrrl movement and ‘90s and 2000s giants like Liz Phair, Kim Gordon and Sleater-Kinney. But coming off of a decade where indie rock was extremely dominated by white male four-pieces, the 2010s have seemed a stark contrast, with a constant stream of talented, diverse newcomers breaking onto the scene.

It’s about time that alternative music, which has always prided itself for being thoughtful, nuanced and relatable, came out of the minds of people with a wider range of experiences than dudes who grew up on the same block, started playing in their parents’ garage and now write songs about all that stuff.

In 2017, The New York Times highlighted the recent trend, proclaiming, “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled by Women.” In a roundtable discussion, eight women performers considered the validity of this narrative and how they felt they fit into it. Laetitia Tamko, otherwise known as Vagabon, said, “because I’m largely outnumbered, because I’m an anomaly in having a platform like this, it gets met with, “‘Well, this is what you’re about.’” Others also related ways in which their music has been excessively politicized and they themselves have been essentialized as “women in indie rock.” As is often the case with fame, artists begin to lose control of their identities.

Last year, the three-part supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus released an album called “Boygenius EP,” the title of which serves as a comment on gender-defined artistic categories that pigeonhole women artists and reinforce gendered assumptions that all musical geniuses are male. The rock establishment has always gravitated towards categories and genre tags that simplify the music, increase marketability and make it more easily consumed. It’s just that now, as the scene is diversifying, this practice has become even more glaring. All the indie rock institutions — venues, labels, producers and influential artists — are male-controlled, homosocial spaces and entities that continue to breed a culture of exclusivity that prides a very specific brand of detached, male coolness.

For those who find themselves indie famous — in what can seem like a puff of smoke and a sudden digital following — the scene that they are thrust into can be altogether unwelcoming, if not unsafe. While there has always been a perceived level of intimacy between fans and indie artists due to the deeply personal, confessional nature of the art, this perceived intimacy has become heightened now that social media platforms offer windows into an artist’s private life.

Indie fame, and the spaces artists have to occupy while playing and touring, can put young musicians in very vulnerable positions. Harassment is common, and many venues and recording studios are unsafe, male-controlled spaces. In early February, The New York Times reported that Ryan Adams, a highly successful songwriter who is well known for supporting young artists, has allegedly subjected several women musicians to emotional and verbal abuse and harassment, offering career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing them for sex. And in that same roundtable discussion where artists discussed how rock is “ruled by women,” many also brought up instances of harassment they had experienced while on tour.

So while there does seem to be a trend of more representation on stage, the major players in the game and the audience that comes to watch are still extremely male-dominated. And there aren’t any signs of things changing drastically anytime soon — the future of indie rock will most likely hold indie bros with Father John Misty tattoos and older rock snobs with beer guts poking out from under Sonic Youth t-shirts.

While the scene has opened up some for cis white women, it is still a very hostile place for them as well as artists of color, non-binary artists and other marginalized people. Which is why it is so important to not only talk about the dangers and oppressions that artists face, but also celebrate them for their music and for their boldness of expression. Artists like Blood Orange or serpentwithfeet are opening up sonic spaces where queer artists and artists of color can make themselves heard. Independent music should resist that which makes the mainstream exclusive or outmoded. The doors should be open and the stage should be lit for anyone with guile enough to climb up there, command an audience and stir up some noise.

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