Indie rock died in 2009, or 2004, or maybe it was 2000. Or was it the moment when Modest Mouse and Wilco – critically acclaimed major-label bands that embodied indie rock's cultural peak – became the kind of acts that soundtracked chill car commercials? Doubts of this nature are to be expected as indie rock meets a third decade and routinely shows up on the charts. But the key factor driving this concern isn’t, say, Spoon or Vampire Weekend crossing over to cultural ubiquity a few years ago – it’s crop after crop of lackluster records by younger bands who are supposed to be the genre’s future. Indie rock is still, by and large, a genre dominated by young white guys with guitars, who are now creating music for a public that's increasingly unsure what to make of it. At a time when pop music is at the vanguard of so many powerful ideas, identities, and sounds, it feels as if indie rock exists in an airless bubble. Why should we invest in the stagnant musical efforts of America's most privileged group?
Last month, the Brooklyn indie band DIIV released a forgettable second album, Is the Is Are. Four years after the band's meandering debut, the follow-up is filled with even more interchangeable reverb-soaked pop songs, would-be shoegaze anthems, and brief noise ditties. It's hard to find progress in music as woefully familiar as this: The vocals are still outmatched by the blurry guitars and sleepy chord changes. That dullness is amplified by a 17-song-deep tracklist that feels overcommitted to the band's shallow, one-trick aesthetic. There's an uptick in energy when lead singer Zachary Cole Smith cedes the microphone to a similarly disheveled peer, Sky Ferreira. “Blue Boredom (Sky’s Song)” gives the band a stronger identity, even if it’s as a late-'80s Sonic Youth cover band. But that all fades as soon as Smith wrests the mic back.
Another Brooklyn band, Porches, has placed its bets on the return of chillwave – a term coined by Hipster Runoff blogger Carles circa 2010 to describe a lo-fi, synth-soaked, slightly funky genre that sounds the way suburban boredom feels. Initially met with critical skepticism, chillwave has become a safe way for indie rock to try a little light dabbling in R&B, ambient, or even new age and make it seem like progress. Pool, Porches' first album for Domino Records, is sadly routine; the uninspired summer ennui of “Hour” is a taxing vibe, and two tracks later on the unfortunately Auto-Tuned “Pool” it’s downright unbearable. This replaces the band’s previously even-more-generic indie rock™ sound, as if Porches are admitting that their old sound was a dead end – and can you blame them? Yet the vague funk and joyless synths that have taken its place are just as unsatisfying. Pool is an album bled of energy and ideas, a weak petition for someone, anyone, to move their feet. In another era, a group this mild and insubstantial would have been a footnote, yet today they're greeted as a new hope.
For decades, indie rock bands such as Built to Spill, Pavement, and Sonic Youth won critical and fan praise with their clever lyrics and distorted guitars. Those bands and their peers moved into thrilling new styles throughout the 1990s; while indie rock’s sound had coalesced, it hadn’t yet codified. There were fewer established musical tropes to fall back on, and doing so would have been regressive. Bands like Porches and DIIV, plugging away in their grim comfort zones, are not the bands we will count on to replicate those highs.
If indie rock once stood against the bluster of the mainstream, by the 2000s many bands faced a new challenge: They were the mainstream. These young bands have inherited that challenge. One of the reasons to be excited about indie rock was that historically it didn't face the cookie-cutter constraints of radio or major labels. Factors like the transformative success of The O.C. as a soundtrack and cultural force, the collapse of the traditional music industry, and people forgoing the radio for iPods forced many bands toward a path of sync licenses (soundtracking TV and commercials), often necessitating odd corporate plays in order to have anything resembling a career. The bands that suited the palate of this mainstream were ones that could plausibly fit into inoffensive, accessible, cute, quirky spaces: Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, Death Cab for Cutie, Grizzly Bear. Their collective summit of Mt. Urban Outfitters created a pathway, which in turn created a code — if your band checked these boxes of poesy and generic indie rock sound, then you, too, could have it all. The result is a generation of bands that make music that could easily fade into the background if you don’t keep the volume high enough.
Some of today's indie acts have figured out how to write songs that neither feel like blandly pretty window dressing nor lifeless genre exercises. Recent records by Frankie Cosmos, Mothers, and Waxahatchee use straight-ahead indie rock and singer-songwriter styles to tackle the concerns of early adulthood in ways that feel bracingly direct instead of willfully distant. On "<," from Waxahatchee's 2015 LP Ivy Tripp, singer Katie Crutchfield sings the refrain “You’re less than me / I am nothing” in a clear tone, leaving no barrier between herself and the audience. You can hear something similar in the work of Frankie Cosmos, a sometime member of Porches with a much richer solo catalogue: The short songs on 2014's Zentropy and 2013's im sorry im hi lets go aren't afraid to laugh out loud and break into tears within the space of a tiny bedroom jam. That openness makes for music with a stronger emotional punch; it also counters the exhausting effect of a decade-plus of numb guitar rock.
For most of its history, indie rock has been largely driven by the travails of the dejected white bro. In 2016, when institutional racism and sexism are topics that even popular music is capable of tackling in profound ways, that an ostensibly progressive genre so often fails to engage with those broader themes — or simply have an idea — is frustrating. The conversation around indie rock is moving toward increased inclusiveness; now it's time for the music to evolve, too. You can hear that nagging sense of "what's next?" in albums that evoke past decades with half-hearted echoes and weak gestures. Bands like Porches and DIIV are in desperate need of somewhere new to go. The question is where.