Indira Holzer discusses sentimental conflict in today’s popular Indie music.
Millennials are melodramatic. Our generation wears an aura of melancholy; we are indecisive, and overwhelmed by the complexity of modern life. The musical atmosphere of the Y-Generation is cloudy – just like Monday mornings, when we try to shake off the weekend and get back to work. We plug in our headphones and, for just five minutes, drift away into the emotional valleys of our favorite songs. Genre-playlists on Spotify suggest ‘Deep Dark Indie’ with artists like Bon Iver, Alt-J, Mumford and Sons and Florence and the Machine. These kings and queens of the so called ‘Indie-Rock’ work with images that continually float between sentimental comfort and discomfort. Today’s mid-twenty year olds seem to share this general mood of world-weariness, sharing personal troubles about love and vocation but with little drive or direction.
Today, many young musicians and multitudes of fans come under the umbrella of ‘indie’, and much music in this category is characterised by dark musical themes. Why are people in their twenties (the best years of our lives?) so fascinated by despondency and musical darkness? The decoy might be the ambiguity itself: deep dark Indie-Rock has become so popular in urban culture, and the phenomenon of this melancholic hype is the best example of clever marketing in music: we can all identify somehow with emotional ups and downs and an anxious state of in-between. The artistic transposition of this grey zone resonates with young people, who are looking for their place in modern society, still unsure where they belong. Tense musical compositions, harmonic sounds with disharmonic stories, reflect this never-ending quest. Nonetheless, people tend to listen to these kinds of songs in moments of privacy. No one would ever dare drop a Chet Baker song at a lively party. Those musicians are our private heroes and friends.
Damien Rice is one of them too. In ‘My Favorite Faded Fantasy’ he hums, ‘What it all / What it all could be / with(out) you’. We are not quite sure if he wants to say ‘with’, or‘without you’. He whispers the last line and leaves it to the audience to hear it or not. In fact, Rice sings ‘What it all / What it all could be / with you’. The uncertainty surrounding what Rice is actually singing highlights charm of momentary artistic articulation, which might leave some things undiscovered. However, Damien Rice shows us how vague lyrics are made. We either hear a man who is missing his lover, or – an albeit less romantic – man who is missing his independence, wishing his lover away. But it is more about this in-between state than about what Rice is saying. This ambiguity places the audience in a position of power: we can choose what a song means, and that meaning shifts from person to person.
Professionals themselves have a much more technical way of approaching that phenomenon. A friend, the Spanish singer-songwriter David García argues that Alt-J and Co. produce songs which have a more technically refined and personally loaded sound compared to bands like The Strokes and their artistic brothers. Although the latter are ‘indie’ too, they are more commercial and have a simpler compositional canon. Bon Iver’s opus, for example, has more complexity and refinement in its tonal composition. Listening to Bon Iver’s melancholic chords accompanied by his soft voice puts people in a trance-like state. It is a style born from listeners connecting with the artist’s personal experience, much of which is painful. When García was younger, he played in an Indie band, which aimed to imitate the style of the Arctic Monkeys. It went well, but it did not give him the same satisfaction as composing more worked up and more emotional songs. Those are more adult songs made by people who have things to tell.
In ‘Cosmic love’ Florence and the Machine tell a story about how the limitedness of relationships and the eternity of love are paradoxically interlinked. The song twirls away on the harp and as soon as Florence starts to sing she drags us into a sentimental darkness with her. It is tempting to sing along, literally and figuratively – we seek to mould the song to our own experiences in love. But it is not only the attraction to darkness which draws us in: it is also the hope of not being alone with that feeling. Florence sings ‘No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight’ and the harp play sinks from an intense peak, to a calming jingle like at the beginning. It can appear as a vicious never-ending cycle but is also open to other connotations. Like a therapy, these songs let their listeners dive into the beautiful pain of reminiscence and move on, together; they act as a form of catharsis.
Much songwriting centres on the composer’s desire to create a personal story, one which wraps a part of themselves into an atmospheric sonic expression. Ultimately, everything depends on the listener’s ability to identify with these stories set to a sad sound. It is the sonic as well as the sentimental tension of comfort and discomfort that excites and moves us all.
Featured image courtesy of ppcorn.com