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The life and death of the indie-rock heyday

Twenty years ago marked the beginning of the end of Peak Indie.

Elliott Smith performs, circa 1998.
Gie Knaeps via Getty Images

Given the way audiences and tastes have shifted since, there will probably never again be a musical year as iconic — recognizable to everyone for a handful of undeniable reference points — as the Summer of Love (1967) or the year punk broke (1977). But to many enthusiasts of indie rock, 1997, two decades ago exactly, established a kind of high-water mark.

A web comic called Questionable Content — set in the hipsterville of Northampton, Massachusetts — captured the feeling unambiguously. Two still-young music lovers stand in a kitchen, Mercury Rev poster on the wall, recalling some of the great albums that dropped that year. “THAT’S why 1997 was the best year for music,” girlfriend says to boyfriend while she grabs what is probably a soy latte.

And it really is stunning to see what a single 12-month period produced: Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and numerous others. To those who lived through the period, it seemed like it would last forever.

But youth, like cultural history, rarely signals when it is about to disappear. For a series of reasons that would have been hard to discern at the time, 1997 stands as both Peak Indie and the beginning of the end for the style’s heyday.

Ascending Peak Indie: the birth of a heyday

Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards
Kurt Cobain performs with Nirvana at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
Jeff Kravitz

Indie, of course, was not born in the 1990s. (And the term, new to most Americans back then, is still more commonly used in the UK, where it is more explicitly tied to independent record labels.) But indie does have a real, verifiable history.

Soon after punk hit, intense, speed-driven hardcore bands formed in California and New York and DC, and their fans built an infrastructure — a coast-to-coast network of clubs, mimeographed fanzines, college radio stations, record shops, and small record labels that would make indie possible. Some of them (Camper Van Beethoven, Pixies) sounded like the indie that would come after; some of them (Black Flag) didn’t. But the movement — whether called alternative rock, modern rock, college radio, or whatever — was now grounded.

In my book Culture Crash, I date the birth of indie at 1982, when the Smiths began recording and R.E.M. released its debut EP, Chronic Town. The US side of the story is forcefully told in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life; Britain's followed similar contours, with indie ideology locking in early and fiercely, as sales charts tracked what was selling at independent record stores.

But just as the ’60s really began with the emergence of the Beatles, the indie ’90s effectively started a few months after the September 1991 release of Nirvana’s second record. “We won,” West Coast rock critic Gina Arnold wrote when Nevermind, driven by the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of Billboard’s album chart: A scrappy, neurotic punk band from Nowheresville (the indie ethos often pits isolated American college towns or British industrial cities against huge finance-driven capitals) had toppled a corporate-rock warhorse considered to be way past his prime. The simultaneous emergence of R.E.M., a longtime alt-rock favorite, with the single “Losing My Religion” and its Out of Time LP, didn’t hurt indie’s momentum, either.

What followed was a bidding frenzy in which big corporations began courting cult bands on tiny labels in increasingly remote music scenes. Could one of these be the New Nirvana? A scruffy member of the anti-folk crowd who called himself Beck went from playing country-folk tunes on LA buses and busking on New York’s Lower East Side to recording for the David Geffen Company (known in its day as DGC) and Interscope, and subsequently into Wal-Marts across America; around the time of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, boutique indie Matador — who would release work by Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Cat Power — began a distribution deal with the mighty Atlantic Records. Elliott Smith would move from Kill Rock Stars to DreamWorks.

Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide, tragic as it was for fans and Gen X-ers in general, didn’t cause the musical establishment to give up on indie rock; the search was still on for the Next Nirvana, and money continued to flow. The music industry, flush with cash as consumers replaced their vinyl with expensive CDs, went looking for the next “edgy” band or tattooed troubadour. And in many parts of America, indie artists like Hoboken distortionists Yo La Tengo or grumpy Bob Mould (who’d once helmed Hüsker Dü) were selling out clubs and attracting mainstream audiences to their shows at increasingly large venues.

The best work of that indie heyday — and 1997 alone offered Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, Stereolab’s Dots and Loops, Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, and Teenage Fanclub’s Songs From Northern Britain — compares well to any year. And while every band was different, the world that had been opened up by Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and the Smiths meant an ocean of succinct, structured songs complicated by feedback, overdrive, odd guitar tunings, feminism, Gen X irony, and intense emotion that would never have suited the macho “classic rock” paradigm of Album Oriented Radio. Behind it was an anti-commercial ethos that made an unsteady peace with commerce.

Bands built whole careers on oddball, not terribly commercial niches, with the Apples in Stereo crossing Pet Sounds with the Silver Apples, Velvet Crush splicing power pop with introvert Byrd Gene Clark, and Luna finding the hidden possibilities in the Velvet Underground’s poorly selling self-titled LP. There was a “beautiful losers” ideology to indie, but in a parallel to what was occurring with American independent cinema, some of this was happening on big corporate labels or quasi-indie imprints; Matador, Elektra, SubPop, and 550 Music all had ties to either Warner Bros. or Sony.

So art and money came together: Never again, it seemed, would routine blues progressions, hair metal, or corporate pap rule the charts.

The bottom falls out: a one-two populist punch

’N Sync appears on MTV’s Total Request Live
NSYNC appears on MTV’s Total Request Live
Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

But something else was happening in 1997: Most of these bands’ recordings were not selling all that well. Albums in the broad “alternative rock” category moved okay in the aggregate, but besides Nirvana and a few others like Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette, record sales did not compare to mainstream pop, bedroom R&B, hip-hop, or big-hat country.

While much journalistic and industry chatter in 1997 was about where Wilco or Alejandro Escovedo or the electronica genre might go next, the biggest sellers were the Spice Girls (5.3 million sold) followed by Jewel, Puff Daddy, Garth Brooks, and Hanson. Trends like Christian rock — the band Creed eventually peddled more than 6 million copies of 1997’s My Own Prison — were about to break out. And frat-rock band Hootie and the Blowfish, whose debut sold almost 10 million in the ’90s, left everything indie in the shade.

But you had to look further down the charts to find what would eventually deal Peak Indie a coup de grace. In 1997, a Mississippi teenager and Mickey Mouse Club veteran named Britney Spears signed to Jive Records — known to indie types as the home of hip-hop hipsters A Tribe Called Quest — and the world would never be the same.

That year, and in the months preceding, Orlando’s Backstreet Boys would release two LPs that would eventually sell 28 million copies. Jive labelmates NSYNC, whose recordings began to appear in ’97, would go on to sell nearly 10 million copies of No Strings Attached in 12 months’ time. Spears would move, over the years, more than 150 million albums around the world. Her 1999 debut ...One More Time — not even her best-selling record — sold more than 1.3 million copies in the US in a single week.

By contrast, Sleater-Kinney’s breakthrough LP, 1997’s Dig Me Out, has sold a hair over 140,000 copies across two decades, according to Nielsen Music. The most accessible album by the most critically acclaimed ’90s band — Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain — did not even break into Billboard’s top 100. It would have been hard to tell in 1997, but we were at the foot of what UCLA music historian Robert Fink calls Britney Mountain: After that, the slope became harder to ignore. Whatever intangibles indie was going to deliver, whatever it symbolized, it was not — it turns out — really going to be about money and sales.

Needless to say, record companies, magazine and newspaper editors, television producers, radio programmers, and venue owners took note. MTV marginalized and then canceled its alternative-centric 120 Minutes. Indie bands and grownup singer-songwriters got dropped by their labels, or found their recording budgets and tour support cut. But starting in 1998, you could see Hanson and Korn and the Backstreet boys on Total Request Live, and soon they were everywhere.

In a nasty piece of timing, 1999 also saw the arrival of Napster and the explosion of file-sharing and music piracy. Industry revenues, which had been climbing, would stall and then plummet. As Rolling Stone journalist Steve Knopper recounts in the recently reissued chronicle Appetite for Self-Destruction, rock — and indie — fans would be among the first to bail on physical albums.

“Napster affected rock CD sales disproportionately when it first came out in the late ’90s,” Knopper explained to me via email, “because rock was what a lot of college students were listening to, and they were early MP3 adopters (and early pirates.) They figured out quickly how to download MP3s for free, so rock sales were the first to decline. It would take a while before piracy/the Internet/MP3s/downloads would cut into other genres, because it took old people a long time to figure out the Internet.” Everyone would suffer, but those artists and labels would feel it first and worst.

After all the good times, this one-two punch at the turn of the millennium left indie — and rock music in general — reeling.

The aftermath: a subculture once more

Sleater-Kinney perform during the 2015 Sasquatch Music Festival.
Sleater-Kinney perform during the 2015 Sasquatch Music Festival.
Mat Hayward/FilmMagic

So a lot of this was bad. Alternative or modern or college or indie rock was supposed to save rock music itself — the white-guy-with-guitar genre that had seemed so indomitable for decades. But then indie started to erode, and rock began to fade alongside it.

But some of what happened in 1997 or just after, was fruitful — or at least established a way forward.

One decisive album that just marked its 20th anniversary with an extensive reissue, Radiohead’s OK Computer, would become such a resounding popular and critical success that it would essentially destroy an important subgenre — the Britpop of Oasis, Blur, and Suede — with the force of its implication: Three-minute songs about drunken nights or critiques of the English suburbs now seemed unspeakably tiny, and American grunge sounded noisy and antique.

On this and the albums that followed, the Oxford, UK, quintet would take previous trends of the indie era — the guitar dissonance of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, a touch of grunge, the ugly beauty of Sonic Youth, a bit of Chicago post-rock — and put it all together into a complex, alienated, weirdly intimate style that electrified audiences and the music press. (It probably didn’t hurt the album’s critical reception that the advance mailed to the press came in a Walkman — that’s a personal cassette player for you young’uns — that could not be pried open, so needed to be listened to over headphones.)

Like Radiohead, Built to Spill’s expansive and profound 1997 album Perfect From Now On would draw from ’70s progressive rock, which had served, for most indie types, as the very definition of uncool. Belle & Sebastian, an eccentric Scottish group rooted in folk rock but with a love for the dance floor, would emerge and go on to two decades of melancholic glory. The late ’90s saw Wilco blossoming in unexpected ways that would carry the group into the next millennium.

But the ’90s band-most-likely-to — Pavement — never put out another great record, and sputtered to a close a few years later. Sleater-Kinney never got better (or better-selling) than Dig Me Out.

Good new work would arrive and good bands — including groups like the Strokes and the White Stripes that sounded to some like ’90s retreads — would form in the shadow of Peak Indie. But the lively and innovative movement that followed punk and seemed to offer endless possibilities and critiques of corporate capitalism was starting to repeat itself and ebb away.

Record labels began to bank on something called “electronica” to provide the intellectual and critical heft that guitar bands with cool haircuts had once promised. Two weeks into 1998, a French group called Air released Moon Safari, which seduced indie types with spacey, low-key grooves; other “downtempo” hits would follow. UK indie hero Damon Albarn of Blur got into African music and launched the animated “virtual band” Gorillaz.

Over the next few years, “alt-country”— an Austin-rooted hybrid that blended Hank Williams with Dylan and, often, punk rock — finally found its voice. Longtime critical darling Lucinda Williams hit with her 1998 LP, the unstable but brilliant Ryan Adams released a heartfelt debut the year after, and Gillian Welch and others contributed to the bestselling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Neko Case, of Vancouver pop-rockers The New Pornographers, would begin a fruitful solo career. In all of these cases, the indie spirit, which had seen itself as anti-traditional and sonically inventive, lived on in uncompromising artists, often on genuinely small labels — Bloodshot, Acony, Lost Highway — playing music with roots in the Appalachian brother bands of the 1920s.

But what was left of the music industry, and the media attention that surrounded it, now focused its energy on bubblegum pop, R&B and hip-hop, and, later, electronic dance music.

Indie, of course, would continue to live, through festivals like Glastonbury in the UK and Coachella in California., largely run and read by people who’d spent the indie heyday in diapers, continues to showcase reissues of indie classics, and its accompanying Chicago-based festival frequently features ’90s bands who helped define the indie era. Last year, Sleater-Kinney reformed not just for a tour but for a very strong new album, No Cities Left To Love, its first in a decade. Neutral Milk Hotel could fill the Hollywood Bowl playing its cryptic cult LP In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

But like the vinyl reprints that became totems to Gen X-ers, all of this cultural action was retrospective: There were good things happening everywhere, but a certain story was now over, or being celebrated for its historical role, like the British craze for Dixieland jazz.

Indie had begun as a subculture — and a subgenre — and it became one, once again. The spotlight moved on, and in a world of Kanye and Kim and Taylor, indie seemed backward-looking, retro, private and small.

The Columbia University philosopher Arthur Danto used to talk about visual art reaching the end of its history — the conclusion of a master narrative that began with Renaissance painting. The dream of indie rock, that it could somehow become the vanguard and the mainstream at the same time, is now as dead as Caravaggio. But in the hearts, minds, and record collections of more than one generation, the reality of indie lives on, noisy and sublime.

Understanding is critical

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