Indie Rock Is Losing Its Edge Right Before Our Eyes (and So What?)

Suuns new album drives home that much of the joy of the today's art rock is the way it inhabits a tradition—like classic rock, blues, bluegrass, and countless genres before it.

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Suuns / Secretly Canadian

"I always just say [our music] is rock and roll," says guitarist/vocalist Ben Shemie of the Montreal-based band Suuns. "I mean, it is a rock band." And guitarist/bassist Joe Yarmush chimes in, "Live our set cannot be mistaken for anything but rock ... That's where we're at now for sure."

They're right: Suuns is rock, and it can't be mistaken for anything else. But that unmistakeability is perhaps not such a good thing as Yarmush seems to think it is. On the band's sophomore effort, Images du Futur, the group has abandoned most of the proggy krautrock flourishes of its first album Zeroes QZ for bog-standard indie-rock formula. The album opener, "Powers of Ten," with its detuned guitar squall, is so suffused with Sonic Youth love it's almost parodic. Shemie even does a dead-on impersonation of Kim Gordon's breathless staccato vocals ... and then, on "Mirror, Mirror," he does a decent Thurston Moore.

Saying that a rock band is shamelessly imitating another rock band is almost always perceived as a diss. It doesn't have to be, though. The White Stripes sound like Zeppelin or the Stones or the Pixies, and I enjoy listening to them for that reasons. I like Sonic Youth a lot, and it's kind of fun to listen to someone like Suuns making new songs in the same vein. Similarly, the Beatles psychedelic harmonies routed through decades of shoegaze on "Minor Work" make me happy. The same goes for the folk-pop post-Byrds, post-REM, post-Fleet Foxes dreamy twang of "Sunspot," or, for that matter, for the post-Velvet Underground art-school cool of the whole Suuns album. Why should I sneer at perfectly good versions of things I like?

Suuns, in other words, are self-conscious indie-rock traditionalists. The only problem here being that rock's tradition, at least mythologically, has always been about turning its back on tradition.

Which is another way of saying that rock's tradition has long been about appropriating someone else's tradition. Instead of making hillbilly records, Elvis grabbed onto jump blues—and from that audacious grab, he got his energy, his edginess, his controversy, and (not coincidentally) his popularity. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin did something similar when they reached over to America to pick up the blues tradition. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen did something similar when they declared themselves the heirs of hillbillies like Woody Guthrie. Sly Stone and Prince did something similar when they reclaimed white rock as funk. David Bowie did something similar when he pretended that rock was music from outer space. Ke$ha, arguably, does something similar when, across the differences of gender, she insists that she can be Iggy Pop.

And, most relevantly, for the Suuns, New York art snobs like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth did something similar when, with both irony and love, condescension and admiration, they adopted the persona, tradition, and swagger of rock stars like the Rolling Stones. In all of these cases, from Elvis to Mick Jagger to Lou Reed, it wasn't authenticity or tradition that made the rocker, but rather the distance from both. The rupture—the ostentatious leap out of one's own place and into another's—is a source of energy, of newness, of outrage and relevance. It's the way that rock has, in the past, sometimes looked like a gimmick and sometimes like a revolution, but rarely like a tradition.

The pleasures they offer are ones not of shock, but of recognition—of the thing you love being done again with skill by someone who loves it also.

That's been changing though, and the progressively titled Images du Futur, in its skilled and heartfelt version of the past, solidified for me the extent to which rock is now, and ever more decidedly, about looking over its shoulder. Suuns are pretty clearly arty kids doing rock ... but that is no longer enough to put them outside the tradition. Rather, at this point, it just puts them in the long tradition of arty kids doing rock. When the Suuns reference Sonic Youth or the Beatles, they aren't creating a rupture or a gimmick or a revolution. They aren't looking to escape the implications or tropes of their most obvious and immediate heritage. On the contrary, they're just extending and celebrating the work of their forbears. They might as well be a blues band, or a bluegrass one.

Blue and bluegrass bands innovate too, of course. Muddy Waters sounded quite different from Robert Johnson, and Alison Krauss sounds a whole lot different from Molly O'Day. But those musics are focused on emphasizing continuities rather than disjunctions—on authenticity rather than innovation. The pleasures they offer are ones not of shock, but of recognition—of the thing you love being done again with skill by someone who loves it also.

Despite decades of retro moves and self-reflexivity, indie rock still isn't there yet, quite. Suuns may write a song that sounds a ton like Sonic Youth, but they aren't actually performing Sonic Youth cover versions as a regular thing. And, of course, critics continue to talk about them in terms of ambition rather than realness. Traditions, even traditions of no traditions, aren't so easy to set aside, and it'll be awhile still before indie rock is willing to trade the mythology of genius as rupture for the mythology of genius as keeper of the flame. But who knows? Maybe in 20 or 30 years, you'll see indie rock at state fairs as commonly as you see bluegrass and blues. If that day comes, Images du Futur, which can't be mistaken for anything but rock, may turn out to have been an image of the future after all.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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