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Stupid and Contagious

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Gimmie Indie Rock V. 1

(K-tel)

By Seth Sanders

Greatest-hits collections are sleazy enough as entertainment, but they're even worse as history. The whole 20th century washed up recently as an example: those TV retrospectives on the eve of the so-called millennium that compressed the rise of Henry Ford, the invention of the atom bomb, and the fall of Saigon into a mind-numbing blur. Hey, is that Jimi Hendrix setting fire to Leo DiCaprio on the deck of the sinking Titanic? Who cares. What makes K-tel's new two-disc collection Gimme Indie Rock perversely fun is that it's a greatest-hits package of stuff that didn't hit and was never really meant to. Assembled by a big corporation best known for anonymous summaries of whole decades, it actually functions as a workable history of the culture of white urban hipsters' teens and 20s.

As more and more subcultures get named, made into graspable, thinkable, salable objects, more and more people get the queasy pleasure of recognizing themselves as natives, of being spied on and having the pictures sold. More often than not, the natives are selling them to each other, a situation exemplified by Christopher Wilcha's The Target Shoots First, a much-decorated independent documentary by and about a fan who becomes the "grunge consultant" to Columbia House. He's a wage slave, selling icons of freedom to a sonic puppy mill, but he records the experience to maintain some kind of productive distance on his own co-optation. Gimme Indie Rock was compiled in part by Scott Becker, who founded Option magazine, which used to be a decent place to learn about music you couldn't read about anywhere else. Thanks to his cooperation, here are the secret songs I discovered to resist the 80s, now as accessible as the Flashdance sound track I was trying to escape in the first place.

But one difference between Columbia House and K-tel is significant. Columbia House was trying to jump on a moving bandwagon. K-tel's exclusive province is to scavenge bandwagons that've been overturned, and they're pretty good at it. Their early-house compilation, released only in the UK, The Hits of House Are Here, featuring Coldcut's signal "7 Minutes of Madness" remix of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full," has been hailed by hard-core techno fans as fantastic. And while Gimme Indie Rock is predictably distorted in favor of American bands and big indies like Homestead and SST, it's not a bad picture of what kids at college radio stations and young adults in clubs like the late Lounge Ax found important.

Really, to dig up obscurer artists would be to miss the point. Though in reality some of these bands went on to do good work regardless of economics--killer indie art rockers Death of Samantha turned into creepy, inspired indie glam rockers Cobra Verde; the chaotic underground Flaming Lips became the chaotic pop Flaming Lips--this music is remembered as being brilliant and impassioned because "there was no money in it" and you did it "just because you wanted to." Which makes Gimme Indie Rock an enlightening visit to the land of "before they sold out." For lots of influential young white intellectuals, these songs represent some vanishing point of authenticity and credibility in art. Even those now reveling in their fame can point back to it. Courtney Love covering her bloated ass with her indie pedigree is the most glaring example, but a recent antiapology by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers for his relentless career building and not-so-hard-won success (you can suffer through the whole thing at www.aphrodigitaliac.com/mm/archive/ 2000/05/15) is more insidious: He compares himself to the Lips: not only were they authentic "back in the day," when they were presumably sleeping on floors and living in a van, but since they're now self-conscious about their success, why, they're just as authentic as ever, and therefore so am I! If it came up from the bongwater-drenched carpet, it will always come from the heart.

So how does the wind from la-la land actually feel blowing through your hair? The first track on Gimme Indie Rock pretty well dispels the fog of profound significance surrounding the era: Husker Du's "Pink Turns to Blue," admittedly one of the worst tracks off their powerful and varied Zen Arcade, is a treacly 60s-style paean to a free-spirited chick who's "standing up for me and like a tree for what she believed" during daily trips to score drugs. Tinny drums and monotone guitar buzz underscore her tragicomic OD; angels place roses around her head as she dies. Anything this embarrassing takes guts, but melodies that sounded less like the theme to Mary Tyler Moore would have made a better epitaph.

Many of the selections seem intended to capture the point at which a band from the hardcore scene "matured," and the next track nails it. Dinosaur Jr started as Deep Wound, a worse, sillier, more violent, and occasionally much better band. Their "Little Fury Things" (the title on the packaging, "Little Furry Things," is a misprint) is either about irreparable loss and alienation, bunnies, or both. Huge melodic bass lines echo J. Mascis's cracked vocals, which squirm so much that he actually develops a twang in the chorus. The guitar rushes in a blast, gets wrung out with a wah-wah pedal, then evaporates back off the melody. In the end it sounds like New Order, with that ridiculously sexy mechanical lilt. It's a portrait of emotional self-indulgence in a million shades of gray that succeeds by weaving a cocoon of power and bullshit around feelings the singer isn't sure he's allowed to have. On You're Living All Over Me, the CD the song came from, Dinosaur Jr also covered Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way," a touching, stupid song that sold approximately a million billion albums in the 70s and was recognized as worthless almost immediately thereafter. This near simultaneous intensity and irreverence pretty much sum up the indie-rock impulse.

The collection flows like a good mix tape, a junk sculpture of neat ideas, wacko juxtapositions, and a thrillingly broad range of sounds and feelings--it's easy to get the sense that a lot of rock since 1990 has just been a retreat from the frontiers these bands bumped into. Wedding Present singer David Gedge's exquisite sensitivity to his own pain on "My Favourite Dress" is redeemed by a compulsive, ringing guitar line and a shockingly big oom-pah bass line--it sounds like the marching band outside the window is celebrating his girlfriend's infidelity. On "Slipping Into Something," the Feelies build something taut, driving, and calmly ecstatic out of such cool, slight rhythms that you wonder why no one else has managed to do it since; Yo La Tengo's astonishing "Barnaby, Hardly Working" isn't so much a song as a series of spectacularly beautiful clouds drifting past, gradual fade-ins and fade-outs building a huge, warm universe out of wispy riffs. The clipped punch of the Melvins' kick drum on "Creepy Smell" feels like a pounding on some giant tympanic membrane, just behind the wall, always about to break through, and when the guitar kicks in, it's heavy metal melted into a liquid and splashed around in a horribly irresponsible manner. The Lips' "Everything's Exploding" starts with the band bequeathing the song to you and is about being so loud that everyone, living and dead, wakes up.

The closest thing to a hit on Gimme Indie Rock is Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick," which helped spark the craze for the Seattle independent label Sub Pop (whose oddly joyless self-parody included pre-Beck T-shirts that said "Loser" and was nicely summed up in a German comp of Sub Pop singles called Fuck Me I'm Rich). Opening with a choppy guitar lick and a constipated grunt and driven forward by stuttering drum fills, it crawls down your throat and demands your attention. The bursts of clatter have an underlying pulse but don't always link up, and that hot friction is one of the reasons it rocks. It's got the kind of stupid, hypnotic garage groove that makes people sprain stuff dancing, but the singer's energy comes from a hysterical desire to ruin the whole goddamn party. Love and sex are social blackmail: "If you don't come you'll die alone," he growls, the implication being that it doesn't matter if you do--wuss.

In concert footage of Mudhoney from this time period, this animosity regularly bursts to the surface. Audiences wanted to hear their "hits," but Mudhoney seemed to despise the obviousness of that, and showed their disdain with sneering one-minute covers of Stooges songs or aborted versions of "Touch Me." I knew where they were coming from, because part of indie rock's power came from its drive to defeat expectations, and doing that requires a naked resentment of easy solutions--like playing the hits. But success requires finding some way to give the people what they want, something that terrified Mudhoney and later and bigger Sub Pop stars Nirvana. Nirvana eventually managed the trick of satisfying the audience with the singer's own terror: billions rocked out to the lines "I feel stupid / And contagious / Here we are now / Entertain us."

The choice of the Vaselines' playfully feeble "Molly's Lips," which Nirvana famously covered (and whose bike horn is enough to make you want to chuck the whole set out the window), to close the compilation suggests that the cultural significance of indie rock is that it turned into pop: that it "led to" Nirvana like Dave Eggers's earlier, ostensibly cutting-edge writing led to his current place on the best-seller list. But worrying about the ultimate fate of indie rock (as if it has one, or only one) is the work of ideologues. It's the wistfulness of cultural gatekeepers who thought they saw their intellectual property stolen from under their noses in the short-lived sellout debates of the early 90s. Really, once the majors realized they couldn't make money on bands like this, once indie rockers' strategic importance to the mainstream was on the wane, indie rockers stopped identifying themselves as such--asserting your nativeness seems more important when there's somebody out there that wants to colonize you.

Weirdly, K-tel's blatant commodification could be the best thing that's happened to indie rock in a long time. Now that the din of the indie authenticity debate has died down, we get to hear the people the critics and record companies were clamoring to speak for. Separated from its original context and tossed onto the already heaping pile of late-20th-century cultural crap, the music makes its own case--in voices that are luminously brilliant, touchingly retarded, and a bunch of things in between.

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