Has 'Indie' Become 'Adult Contemporary'? : The Record Dad rock, 'NPR Muzak' and the phenomenon of knee-jerk reactions to a genre growing up (or old?).

Has 'Indie' Become 'Adult Contemporary'?

A displeased-looking Jeff Tweedy, onstage in 2009.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

A displeased-looking Jeff Tweedy, onstage in 2009.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images

On Sunday night New York magazine published a piece by its music critic, Nitsuh Abebe, in which he says Wilco's leader, Jeff Tweedy, accurately predicted the general reaction to his group's recent album, The Whole Love, back in April: "I have no doubt that the second this record becomes available there's somebody sitting in a basement at their computer with the word 'meh' already typed up, waiting to post a review."

Abebe concurs with that assessment and goes on to explain it as a result of two things: first, the maturation of a certain type of indie music. Of musicians like Wilco, Feist, and Radiohead he writes, "These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they've taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple."

The second reason he says very few people are up in arms about the evolution of a style of music (and musicians) once beloved for its outsider ethos and "authenticity" into something that has been characterized as, variously, "dad rock," "for sale next to the register at Starbucks" or, even, as Abebe does, "NPR Muzak," (not that we're sensitive or anything) is our current oversupply of alternatives. If we're not into it, he says, we no longer have to throw a fit, because we're already on to the next one.

But some people will throw a fit, because some people like the feeling they get when they're in the middle of throwing a fit. Abebe's piece this week addresses these people, or, as he says, the "phenomenon" of people whose knee-jerk reaction to "adult contemporary" is to run screaming in the other direction — maybe even without listening first.

We at The Record think the debates music fans have — about what we listen to and why (to be "challenged"? to be soothed?), about defining ourselves through our taste, about what it means for the industry and listeners when major labels begin to exploit the idea of "indie" — are straight up fascinating. We reveal the way we see the world, and how we wish it would look, during these barstool throwdowns, these vehement Gchats, critical pile-ons and late-night Twitter beef.

Abebe is clearly paying attention to these conversations, too — he's written about what might constitute an indie version of adult contemporary before, back in 2003 in a review of The Delgados' album Hate -- and so I sent him a few questions to keep this one going.

Q: What's different about the 2011 version of this music compared to the 2003 version? Why the name "adult contemporary"?

A: That piece was written for Pitchfork, for a smaller audience with a certain kind of taste — so in that case, I was mostly teasing/marveling about the fact that there was such a robust pocket of bands making this classicist music, and doing well with it. I really don't think of this as an actual "genre," and my use of that word back then was a mild joke, or a question posed for that audience; I was seriously curious whether readers back then would one day wind up with kids in the back seat saying "God, Mom, do we have to listen to Wilco *again*?"

But at that point the music was still pretty stylized. Now, eight years later, more and more music coming from that direction has reached a place where, say, I might be asked to write about it for a general-audience magazine like New York; it seems to be familiar and comfortable to many more people. Some of it has become much less stylized, too, which is totally fine — lots of it is still beautiful, well-made, full of ideas, entirely worth listening to. Some of it is genuinely challenging!

I guess there are just two things that fascinate me. One is that a lot of listeners seem actively sick of these sounds, or have a slight knee-jerk about this *type* of act; you can really feel this contingent that has an urge to roll its eyes and run in the opposite direction. That's the phenomenon I was writing about in this article, because I think it's a pretty interesting one. The other thing is that a surprising number of people get *angered* if you point out that an act like Wilco makes fairly classicist American pop-rock music, something that seems to me to be a self-evident fact.

Q: In your piece for New York you say Feist was pegged as "a maker of middlebrow background listening, of NPR Muzak" after she put out The Reminder. What makes the name NPR a useful descriptor for this music?

A: I suppose you'd have to ask the people who really take pride in using that as a slur — they tend to use it more as a social-class insult, or a knock on the perceived audience, then as a descriptor for the music. But I think the insult they're shooting for is pretty well understood, mostly because there were a few years when NPR really *was* an effective avenue for certain types of indie musicians to get across to a big audience. (I am well aware that various programs on various stations cover a lot of different types of music, so I put the word "Muzak" in that sentence to absorb the slur a bit. You're welcome?)

Q: What do you think fans of music solidly in that genre are getting from their experience of it?

A: Well, it's pleasant, thoughtful, generally really well-made music. It has an approach that's pretty earnestly artistic, so it's not afraid of interesting ideas — but it tends not to get too out-there or challenging in a way that's going to bother anyone, which I would say is fundamentally generous. It's extremely good at being sedate and pleasant but still carrying some deeper emotions — and that might sound like a backhanded compliment, but there really *aren't* that many pockets of music that are good at low-key subtleties in that way, good at feeling ... reflective. (A lot of music is overbearing; a lot of the stuff that isn't overbearing is either cloying or emotion-free.) I am not remotely surprised or exasperated that people like this music — as a category, it's pretty reliably full of great stuff! And it's pretty. Prettiness is always an important and generally underrated force.

Q: How are the majors grooming and marketing acts for the adult contemporary space?

A: I'm not sure how to give a non-dorky answer to this, but I can say that I didn't have "the adult contemporary space" in mind when I wrote that. I was referring more to the way that there's this huge space of press, blogs, media, etc. that we think of as an "indie" channel, and it tends to lean toward covering that kind of music — and it *seems*, at least, like major labels have really identified that as an opportunity.

In the old days, someone could spend a lot of money trying to market a new act in some top-down, nationwide way, which involved immediately trying to convince everyone this was a Big Star; these days, it's surely more cost-effective to try and bubble them up through online buzz, which involves making them seem like just a great little niche band you happened to discover.

Q: What do the musicians in the genre get out of being labeled as such, whether they embrace it or not?

A: I don't know that anyone's really trying to label anyone, or officially corral them into little groups. What you *do* see is a lot of fans who are constantly making personal decisions about which ones they find challenging, which ones they find pleasant and which ones they find a bit tame or dull — and then arguing with one another, at length, about those estimations, sometimes deploying various predictable insults involving NPR, the middle class, the musical taste of America's fathers, or whatever else. And honestly, that's the part that's most interesting to me.

These musicians will surely just go on making the best music they can, and lots of it will be good or bad, depending. But whether people are interested in listening to it will often have less to do with whether it's "objectively" good or bad, and more to do with what those fans are looking for — whether they're
*inclined* to sit down with this cozy Wilco album, or this (actually quite dramatic) Feist album, or whether they're in a mood of eye-rolling and looking for something that works a different kind of way entirely.

Personally, I am not remotely interested in arguing readers in any given direction on that question — I just think it's fascinating to watch which directions people go, and who's getting sick of which sounds, and which sounds they suspect might be more satisfying, and all the various churnings of those politics.

Q: When you wrote about this genre in Pitchfork you said while you found the music "perfectly lovely," you thought "something else" would be "more rewarding." What is the something else you tried out?

A: I will answer that honestly, at the expense of sounding a bit ridiculous: Around 2003 I would probably have been into really over-the-top electro acts. (I might even have tried to convince you that a disc called Resuscitation, by a group called Adult., was the best thing in forever.) The R&B and hip-hop on the radio was also doing some amazing things — those were the years of every new Missy Elliott single feeling like a mind-blowing event. And I was enjoying a lot of European dance music: German techno, Dutch electro, etc.

Those are just my personal answers, though! I'm not sure I care if these things were "better" than the other options — they're just the places I happened to look to when the things I'd been listening to before felt like they were settling into a rut.

Q: Was it more rewarding? How so?

A: Learning new things is always rewarding! I'm probably most glad about the R&B part, because there were some years in the early 2000s where it felt like a genuine free-for-all of ideas — which is precisely the quality that got me into indie music as a teenager. There were times when driving around listening to pop radio gave me the same feelings I'd once gotten from tuning in to the local college station when I was 14. And I still get a lot from R&B.