When I heard early last year that “Where the Wild Things Are” was being adapted into a film, I didn’t really care. When I saw the first few clips in the preview, I still didn’t really care. When “Wake Up” by the Arcade Fire started to play, though, I cared.
I wanted not to care. Over-hyped indie-inspired flick meets over-hyped indie-inspired rock. No surprises here. I wanted to be flippant; I wanted that hipster-esque ennui; I wanted the, “who cares about the state of indie,” response. But, I did care. From the start, it was clear that this film, and everything associated with it, would be a direct reflection on the cultural implications of indie, as it is perceived in 2009. Therein lies the conundrum: what does indie even mean to us these days?
Indie developed first as an economic response to corporate music. Acts that wouldn’t be signed to, or succeed in gaining press on, major labels sought outlets for their creation. An alternative to Capital and Columbia, smaller set-ups like Sub Pop and Saddle Creek offered a less industrial, more artist-centric model that appealed to less mainstream acts. As more and more indie labels sprung up, so too did a unique culture. Bands, albums, clothes and even lifestyle choices were “indie” by ethos, rather than by economics. The community developed, creating a unique identity, and in many ways, contradicting the aims indie initially espoused. The commercialism and conformity the scene first condemned, it gradually — and paradoxically — manifested. But this narrative is tired and played-out. The whole non-conformists conforming bit is more likely to be found in a 9th-grade English paper about “Lord of the Flies” than on the mind of any cultural critic. With the advent of the Internet and the progression of indie as a pop-cultural norm (most readers of scene are probably just as familiar with Stars as they are with Hollywood stars), it’s hard to define indie in 2009.
The soundtrack to “Where the Wild Things Are,” however, provides one possible answer. Karen O (front-woman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) takes the lead, enlisting other notable indie royalty along with a group of children to form the aptly titled group, “Karen O and the Kids.”
The lineup has very high, albeit archetypal, potential. Ask your friends — if they listen to anything found on Pitchfork now, they probably listened to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at some point. And for good reason: the YYYs are a universally formative band in any indie kids’ rep. With just the right combination of accessibility and attitude, Karen O is our generation’s Kim Gordon.
Even with such a sound lineup, creating this soundtrack must have been a steep challenge. Historically, mainstream “indie” movie soundtracks have been, unlike all other movie soundtracks, pretty culturally relevant. The “Garden State” soundtrack won Zach Braff a grammy; the “Juno” soundtrack skyrocketed Kimya Dawson from anti-folk obscurity to obnoxious scenester fame. Karen O and the gang take the challenge head-on, carving out a personal niche in the history of indie soundtracks.
The album succeeds in creating a soundscape evocative of the book for which the movie created. Childhood is the pervasive theme, and although employing children to sing the hooks on most of the songs seems like a cheap trick rather than artistic ingenuity, the tracks tastefully address the topic. Karen’s personal energy plays well in the world of the wild things. Implicit in her writing is a childlike tenor: life is simple. Happy, sad, angry — she succeeds in conveying these emotions without being patronizing or extending feelings beyond the emotional capacity of an 8-year-old. The song titles, such as “All is Love,” “Animal,” and “Rumpus,” convey this message well.
Although the songwriting is clearly geared toward the action of the film, it isn’t too extraordinary a stretch to say that parts of this album could easily be released as a B-Sides Yeah Yeah Yeahs compilation. With a little less production and more reverb, “Hidaway” and “Worried Shoes” could have unblinkingly been released on the latest YYYs album. The purely instrumental tracks are exceedingly well produced, with my only personal gripe being the overuse of humming and “ooo”-ing.
Regardless, the tracks on this album hit the target with precision and accuracy. There are a litany of typically indie characteristics (children signing, humming, bright and poppy hooks) that could have left the protagonist, Max, sailing into the realm of ew-ville or barf-istan. However, the map laid out by Karen O leads, with a few jibs and tacks (sailing terms, yo), toward indie bliss.
So, how does this album reflect the state of indie? I guess the conclusion is, it really doesn’t. Indie is an empty term. A film produced by a Spike Jonze, an album released by Interscope — if this is what indie has become, why does indie exist? Classifications aside, this soundtrack is worth a listen, especially during midterm season. Dream-like escapism, regression, childhood — rock me to sleep, Karen.