As Titus Andronicus might say: “This is a war we can win.”
Ever since the riotous success of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” there has been an increasingly loud debate about whether there is potential for indie to actually defeat the mainstream. The music world has had a constant stream of indie artists blow up from Sonic Youth to Nirvana to Death Cab For Cutie. There have also been a fair number of mainstream-to-indie defectors with Radiohead and (kind of) Justin Timberlake among them.
But in the last week of May, something strange happened. Nestled among the big market releases like soundtracks to “Glee” and “Iron Man 2” were indie gems like LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening and The Black Keys’ Brothers. This was among a smattering of other noteworthy artists, totaling eight indie artists in the Billboard Top 20. Eight! That’s almost half!
And if it weren’t for “Glee” or The Rolling Stones’ cash-grubbery after the re-release of Exile on Main St., The Black Keys (who sold 73,000 copies of their new album) would have been No. 1. The Black Keys’ roots rock is certainly something to be admired, but never a phenomenon worthy of challenging second-rate ABC musical extravaganzas. Also of note, Nas and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives, which debuted at No. 5, is the best chart position of Marley’s career.
What gives? Is indie actually winning the war against mainstream?
The short answer: No. The fact is that The Black Keys still would have been crushed by the (ugh) Miley Cyruses, the (ugh-ugh) Daughtrys or the (ugh-ugh-UGH) 3Oh!3s of the industry any other day. This speaks to the fact that indie probably caught mainstream sleeping on the job going into Memorial Day.
Rather, what this highly indie-fied Billboard chart reveals is that taste-makers in this industry are beginning to change. Where radio and “Total Request Live” were once the ugly king and queen of populist dirt, musical power is slowly beginning to shift to places like Apple, Pitchfork Media and the blogosphere ever at large. And while the same idiots who almost ran popular music into the ground eight years ago are still around and tweeting their drivel, there is much more than a silent majority of plugged-in youngsters who are actively scouring the web for more interesting acts than Katy Perry.
LCD Soundsystem might be the biggest example of a taste-maker power shift. Given a golden opportunity to hawk his ‘breakout’ single “Losing My Edge” on “The OC” years ago, James Murphy’s band never broke. LCD remained in the back reaches of the Internet’s dark musical corners.
And in theory This is Happening should not be the album that charts the band this far up. It’s a sprawling, massive thing incapable of slowing itself down or calling an editor, which are two keys to pop success. But the chart says all. Murphy and company debuted at No. 10, selling 31,000 copies. Was it Pitchfork’s glowing review? Or maybe the first single “Drunk Girls” flooding across Last.fm charts? For the first time ever, the answer is maybe.
But as heartening as Murphy’s success can be – as well as that of the seven other bands on the chart – their good fortune raises a more important question that simply can’t be answered. If indie is making (admittedly small) steps to defeating the tyranny of the mainstream, is it really ‘indie’ anymore? And if the answer is no, then is it a bad thing to be calling LCD Soundsystem mainstream?
A record as fun as This is Happening shouldn’t raise questions this meta, but if the trend continues we may have to abridge the aforementioned lyrics to something more appropriate. Instead of seizing opportunity to take back popular music, indie kids should be asking themselves “Is this a war we want to win?” Because the minute the majority starts liking “Dance Yrself Clean,” that’s when the minority starts gaining back credibility it may have never had.
Hipsters, you’ve been warned.