Punk’s not dead (or is it?): From Black Flag to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The term “indie rock” has unfortunately come to represent a rather bland and compact, though well-composed, style of music. The shining melodies of the Shins and the reserved vocals of the Walkmen are two in-favor examples of the genre’s characteristically moderately-retro pop. Gone is the cynicism, the aggression, the wildness and the trashiness that once characterized the American indie scene. Of course, these values are American punk values, values that have been thoroughly expunged from the indie rock paradigm with punks’ migration from the lower east side of NYC to the mega-mall.

By the end of 1991, when Nirvana’s “Nevermind” reached the top of the charts, the mainstream inevitably deprived punk of its message, its validity and its potential. But three years later, with the emergence of pop-punk bands like Green Day and the Offspring, the genre had become totally commodified and devoured, a process that paved the way for the infinitely worse mall-punk of Good Charlotte, A Simple Plan, and (gasp) Avril Lavigne.

Today’s indie bands have understandably shied away from punk, the very philosophy that historically has defined the genre, because of the obsolescence of “punk.” But the college kids who listen to “indie rock” are so disconnected from the music’s roots in 80s punk that they’re missing out on something intrinsic, essential and classic.

As author Michael Azzerad repeatedly suggests in his book “Our Band Could be Your Life,” 1980s hardcore punk paved the way for today’s indie rock as we know it by establishing an infrastructure of labels and venues that became the backbone of the scene. The preeminent indie label of the decade, SST, began as a vehicle for Greg Ginn to release his recordings with Black Flag, which no else at the time would touch because of their incendiary content. Unfortunately, today’s average indie rock fan would probably cast off Black Flag’s landmark album “Damaged” as angry, juvenile or “screamo.”

By the late 1980s, SST’s catalog was surprisingly diverse, ranging from the schizophrenic, funky, proletarian roots-rock of the Minutemen, to the neo-hippie-isms of the Meat Puppets, to the melodic punk of Husker Du. In fact, over the course of the label’s existence, they released albums by Sonic Youth, the Screaming Trees, Dinosaur Jr and Soundgarden — a testament to its prominence at the time.

Although the bands on the SST catalogue drew inspiration from a wide musical palette, they all shared an aesthetic of aggression, intensity and, generally speaking, a messed-up but sincere world-view, much in contrast to the detached, irony-drenched indie rock of today. Although SST is now defunct, the vestiges of the 1980s scene still remain: many of today’s most legendary alternative clubs — like the 9:30 club in Washington, D.C., 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga., the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. — all began as hole-in-the-wall venues made to provide a stage for the post-hardcore indie bands of the 1980s.

On the east coast, a similar situation led to the formation of DC’s Dischord label. In fact, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins grew up with Ian McKaye (who formed Dischord in addition to the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi).

Today, the hipsters have taken over. The recipe for success has become almost completely detached from the punk aesthetics that is the very definition of “indie.” Put on your blazer, pound out a danceable rhythm — and swear allegiance to Lou Reed, The Kinks, Televison, Joy Division and/or Pavement — and you’ve got a hit on MTV2.

It is profoundly unfortunate that today’s indie rock fans don’t like watching greasy Neanderthals rock out sufficiently. Those Neanderthals, of course, are their ancestors. “Indie” is now a specific sound rather than a mind-set and a spirit. Even the more interesting groups, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, appear to be detached, insincere and not-so-organic. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are neither here nor there — not rock, indie rock, punk, post punk, garage, or noise rock. Of course, they happily reference all these styles with a nod and a wink and are quickly labeled as any of them.

The indie rock heavyweights — like Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney and Interpol — at least all have their own sounds, albeit ones fabricated from a plethora of influences. But this is profoundly less satisfying and culturally relevant than the pure, rebellious, sincere, compelling music that was still possible before punk broke in 1991. For now, the best option for a true rock and roll fan is to head back to the 1980s underground, when punk — and rock — still had life, spirit, and potential.

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