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The Decade In Music: '00s

What's In An Indie?

Indie isn't a genre any more than alternative was, but it denotes something important about the music in its tent -- where it came from, where it might go. () iStockPhoto hide caption

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Indie isn't a genre any more than alternative was, but it denotes something important about the music in its tent -- where it came from, where it might go. ()

iStockPhoto

In a sense, the word "indie" crept up on the '00s. It didn't stage a hostile takeover on American rock fans the way its kissing cousin, "alternative," did in the '90s. There was no one moment you could point to — such as 1991, when Lollapalooza and Nirvana ushered in scruffy guitar bands as a legitimate pop phenomenon — where it staked a claim. Indie was simply always there as a term, as an idea, as an ideal, however nebulous. As the decade churned on, it became even more so.

That's partly because the word it trumped became so heavily identified with its time that it couldn't escape. When you hear "alternative rock," or even "modern rock," you think of the '90s, right? By the '00s, the aesthetic center of modern-rock radio, the format that pushed the post-Lollapalooza sensibility outside of college-radio circles, had slid from Nirvana and Soundgarden all the way down to Creed and Staind. For that reason alone, there's little wonder that those terms eventually exhausted their relevance: More and more, alternative denoted lumbering self-importance, without even tunes to compensate. Indie, by contrast, offers something conceptually fleeter and more flexible, and a lot less prone to macho overproduction, even if a whole lot of it is just as boring.

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The term still has hurdles to clear for anyone to take it literally, of course. Indie is short, after all, for independent, as in the labels that nurtured (and continue to nurture) post-punk rock. In the '80s, it was often used in the contraction "Amerindie," to distinguish earthier U.S. bands like The Replacements and R.E.M. from artier Brits such as The Smiths and The Jesus and Mary Chain. But as the '90s progressed, U.K. music writers used indie as shorthand for scruffy guitar bands signed to whomever. And some bands on British independents were signed to majors in America — The Smiths (Rough Trade U.K. vs. Warner Bros.-owned Sire U.S.) and Oasis (Creation U.K. vs. Columbia U.S.), for example.

If there's a hidden thread through American music in the '00s, it's in the way it has adopted British methodology. Our primary pop starmaker is American Idol, a gloss on the U.K.'s Pop Idol; one of the decade's two defining music publications, Blender, was a cross between Maxim and Q. So it makes sense that "indie" in the British sense would also trickle into American pop fans' terminology, regardless of label affiliation. It hasn't hurt that the decade's other major music publication is Pitchfork, whose sensibility is a bellwether for "indie" — a word the site throws around plenty; alternative, not so much, unless it refers to the music of, yep, the '90s.

If you still have reservations about indie, I understand completely. I've railed against it myself: At one point, I offered a modest proposal trying to reclaim alternative for Vampire Weekend fans, who uniformly responded, "No thanks."

But music has always evolved past its own terminology: You can't dance to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II, an album you will always find in the "dance" section of what remains of your local record stores, but that doesn't mean it's misfiled. There's little in the way of blues in most of the stuff calling itself R&B these days — that's short for "rhythm and blues," lest we forget — but the category still stands.

Indie isn't a genre any more than alternative was, but it denotes something important about the music in its tent — where it came from, where it might go. The term will likely flip again soon, especially as the major-label system skids ever harder. Maybe alternative will come back into fashion the way the mullet did — slathered in irony, delivered with a wink. Whatever happens, context still drives how we think about music, however much we enjoy putting it all on shuffle, and the story of how it got from there to here will always make it sound even richer than it does on its own.

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