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What is indie rock?

This article defines the music category "indie rock" not just as an aesthetic genre, but as a method of social differentiation as well as a marketing tool. Using Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital," it draws a parallel between indie rock and high art, both of which depend upon a lack of popularity for their value, and require specialized knowledge to be fully appreciated. In its attempt to locate indie rock at the intersection of various artistic, social, and commercial phenomena, the article engages in detailed analysis of particular artists, songs, lyrics, websites, and reviews, from which it concludes that this relatively new genre is part of an old and familiar social structure.


Rock music in recent years has seen itself parceled into countless categories, subject to a process of endless generation and definition that complicates the mainstream/ alternative binary to the extent of inverting its logic. Punk, alternative, grunge, college rock, emo, goth, indie pop, lo-fi, dream pop, industrial, post-rock, ambience, techno, britpop, hardcore, slowcore: one needn't spend much time skimming reviews or shopping online to experience the dizzying circulation and generally flippant use of such tags. Is it conceivable that each of these corresponds directly to a unique "type" of sound, to a genre that can be defined and limited within a rapidly diversifying field? Perhaps. But such a list begins to make evident a certain makeshift quality--one that allows for a facility in naming, in mixing and matching, more than it provides accurate representation of sounds. Although these terms refer vaguely (not insignificantly) to notions of social class, industry politics, and aesthetics, they are operative at least as much as they are responsive, providing an occasion for distinction valuable on both ends of commercial and artistic exchange. Like atomic particles, they exist in a paradoxical state of antagonism and interdependence, and allow for varying degrees of separation from and within an implicit whole.

Rather than attempt to provide a stable and decisive definition of indie rock, I want to examine its significance both as a category and within this process of categorizing--of endless differentiation--that characterizes the music industry and its consumers. The term, and others like it, positioned as they are at the intersection of various aesthetic, social, and commercial phenomena, occasion a unique glance into the complexities of cultural production. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have us know, judgments and definitions of art have as much to do with social and economic power as with "taste," which functions to naturalize and legitimize such power; while indie rock (independent rock music) marks the awareness of a new aesthetic, it also satisfies among audiences a desire for social differentiation and supplies music providers with a tool for exploiting that desire.

In order to preserve something of this complexity, I have divided the present study into four parts. The introductory section will explain Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital and its relevance to indie rock, then provide a brief history and sociolinguistic analysis of the term itself. The second section will examine two aesthetic movements associated with the genre: first, that of Lou Barlow, whose "lo-fi" home recordings bear perhaps a tighter relationship with the name indie than those of any other artist; then, a group of bands, including Sigur Ros and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, whose music is now frequently referred to as post-rock, and whose orchestral, slowly developed compositions stand in marked contrast to Barlow's. In juxtaposing these two aesthetics, it is my intention to show both indie rock's dynamic nature, and, persevering within that, its logic of authenticity and otherness. The final two sections take into account the Internet as a medium for the dissemination of indie culture. Specifically, they will examine the rhetoric of two sites:, whose advice on how to "fake being an indie rock expert" exposes indie rock as social discourse, or a complex circulation of signs employed in negotiations of social status; and, a site now at the heart of record distribution that implements as a marketing strategy an elaborate system of classification, producing in their appeal to social distinction not only endless categories of music, but listeners.

To seek an "other" category of music and name it is to transform it into what Bourdieu refers to as "cultural capital," or that concerning "forms of cultural knowledge, competences or dispositions" (Johnson 7). As Randal Johnson neatly explains, cultural capital is "a form of knowledge, an internalized code or a cognitive acquisition which equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts" (7). It is the internalization of this code, gathered from one's family, social relations, and formal or institutional education, that makes particular works of art meaningful. Possession of cultural capital can contribute in turn to symbolic capital, or a "degree of accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honour ... founded on a dialectic of knowledge ... and recognition" (7). It is worth noting that, while both of these are related to economic capital, neither is reducible to it; one does not have to be rich in order to exercise social power. We know from Bourdieu's colleague Michel Foucault that "power and knowledge directly imply one another," that "there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations" (27). Masquerading as taste, knowledge can be applied toward the acquisition and maintenance of social distinctions, which "are never just assertions of equal difference; they usually entail some claim to authority and presume the inferiority of others" (Thornton 10; italics in original). Foucault's and Bourdieu's respective theoretical approaches work well together in service of the power/knowledge dialectic; while the first offers a general, nonessentialist framework, a method of discourse analysis that underscores the very constructedness of "truth," the second allows one to ground power more firmly in social agency, to understand its conservative function within class structures. In the final analysis, concepts such as indie rock open up vast spaces for the management of power and the manufacturing of identities: purposes far removed from the innocuous pleasures of listening.

That's a mouthful, but worth getting out since it complicates the split between "high art" and "popular" or "mass" culture that has formed the historical basis of Cultural Studies. In the reign of this massive binary, little attention has been given to the complex processes and hierarchies within popular culture. Bourdieu distinguishes within the field of cultural production ("field" meaning a structured but dynamic space with internal rules and power relations) between the lesser fields of restricted and large-scale production. Johnson describes the restricted field:

   what we normally think of as "high" art, for example "classical"
   music, the plastic arts, so-called "serious" literature. In this
   sub-field, the stakes of competition between agents are largely
   symbolic, involving prestige, consecration and artistic celebrity.
   This, as Bourdieu often writes, is production for producers.
   Economic profit is normally disavowed (at least by the artists
   themselves), and the hierarchy of authority is based on different
   forms of symbolic profit, e.g. a profit of disinterestedness, or
   the profit one has on seeing oneself (or being seen) as one who
   is not searching for profit. It is in this sense that the cultural
   field is a universe of belief. (15)

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