In Defense of Indie Music
A little over a week ago, I read Paul O’Donnell’s post on Wilco with eagerness. I love the band, and I was excited to see a Commonweal writer engaging with popular music so enthusiastically. (The post reminded me of Eric Bugyis’s interesting thoughts on the Hold Steady.)
Then, however, I got to the comments. There I found an awful lot of doom and gloom being proclaimed. Young people and their music are embittered and whiny, I heard; they express no hope in humanity; all popular music (or at least all somewhat popular indie rock) is just so much rhythmic moping.
Of course, this isn’t a true assessment of young people or their cultural expressions. Speaking from my own area of expertise, I can tell you that the defining characteristic of fiction in the last fifteen or so years has been an increase in sincerity and hopefulness. People like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace have argued again and again that an ironic, embittered attitude towards the world isn’t enough, and that any art that reflexively resigns itself to this kind of attitude is necessarily impoverished. One of the major projects of post-post-modernism (or whatever you want to call our current moment) is the reclaiming of huge swathes of human experience—love, joy, commitment, sacrifice—as viable subjects for literary representation.
But, looking back to music, I want to point out one band that should disprove any sweeping claims about the self-indulgent despair of my generation: Fleet Foxes. The band hails from Seattle, and it shows in their predilection for flannel shirts, unkempt beards, and long hair. Their sound, however, is anything but grungy. The band’s 2008 self-entitled debut album was filled with sweet-sounding harmonizing and pleasing melodies. (And the band appeared unembarrassed to write and perform sweet, pleasing songs.) Displaying a variety of influences from Neil Young to gospel and sacred harp music, Fleet Foxes was really more a tone poem than anything else: singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold seemed less interested in telling a story than in creating a particular mood or feel. The title of the album’s most popular song, “White Winter Hymnal,” hints at this mood: light, mysterious, haunting, angelic. (Here is a lyrical sample: “I was following the pack, / All swallowed in their coats / With scarves of red tied ‘round their throats / To keep their little heads / From fallin’ in the snow.” Lest this sound overly precious, listen to the song, through Spotify.) Fleet Foxes was a tremendous debut. The songs were lush and moving, with Pecknold’s lyrics often beautifully blending into a kind of choral chanting.
The band’s most recent album, the 2011 Helplessness Blues, is even stronger. Pecknold’s lyrics have become clearer without losing their poetic suggestiveness. This time, Fleet Foxes has a particular, compelling story to tell: the story of a young man reaching adulthood and trying to figure out what kind of life he wants to lead. (Pecknold was born two years after me, so I share many of his concerns.) The album’s first song, “Montezuma,” introduces the album’s major theme: “So now I am older, / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter. / Now what does that say about me?” Much has been made of my generation’s delayed adolescence—the NY Times seems to run a story every other week about college graduates moving back in with their parents—and Pecknold here and throughout grapples with the need to grow up, to move beyond childish selfishness to a more mature selflessness. At one point he wonders, “How could I dream of / Such a selfless and true love? Could I wash my hands of / Just lookin’ out for me?” This is the album’s main concern: how to give of oneself so as to become more truly oneself.
The album’s title track, “Helplessness Blues,” opens with a description of our culture’s obsession with uniqueness: “I was raised up believin’ / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see.” This attitude, however, has left Pecknold unmoved: “Now, after some thinkin’ / I’d say I’d rather be / A functionin’ cog in some great machinery / Servin’ somethin’ beyond me.” He doesn’t yet know what this greater cause will be—it could be social, political, artistic, maybe even romantic— but the desire and hope for what Iris Murdoch calls “unselfing” is palpable. Again, the band’s lack of embarrassment is refreshing. They are unafraid to ask the largest of questions—what is a good life?—and they are unafraid to admit that they don’t yet know the answer.
Despite its title, the album is precisely an argument against helplessness and unthinking despair. By the end of the title track, Pecknold still hasn’t figured things out: maybe he should open an orchard, he thinks, and find happiness in working the land. (This pastoral dream is a recurring one for the band: in both “Bedouin Dress” and “The Shrine / An Argument,” there are allusions to Innisfree, the ideal pastoral landscape of W. B. Yeats.) For now, all he can do is marvel at, and hope to do justice to, the beauty that surrounds him:
If I know only one thing
It’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable
Often I barely can speak.
Yeah, I’m tongue-tied and dizzy
And I can’t keep it to myself.
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?
Turning wonder into song, and sharing this song with others: it’s a traditional move for folk music, and it’s something that Fleet Foxes does extremely well. And in pulling it off, they show that, in both popular music and in my generation broadly speaking, there is reason for hope.