LCD Soundsystem and the Mythical Death of Indie

Get ready for nostalgia whether or not the reunion rumors are true.

Victoria Will / AP

In 2011, LCD Soundsystem took the notion of quitting while you’re ahead to a joyful, lucrative extreme. A mere 10 years into an influential career that was still on an upward trajectory, on the occasion of no scandal or tragedy or big fight, James Murphy’s art-disco rockers chose to break up—and memorialized the event in a Madison Square Garden “funeral” concert that also became a five-disk box set, a record-store exhibition, and a feature documentary.

At the time, people joked that they were doing this all to reap the profits that would come from a reunion tour a few years later. And lo, on Thursday, Consequence of Sound reported that sources in the music industry say LCD Soundsystem will play at least three music festivals on 2016. Billboard then published confirmation from an anonymous source of its own.

But as quickly as the news triggered a social-media storm of crying-with-joy emojis and references to the band’s third album title, This Is Happening, Kris Petersen of Murphy’s label DFA tweeted that it was all a lie. “LCD Soundsystem are not reuniting next year, you fucking morons,” he wrote. Consequence of Sound’s Alex Young held his ground, though: “I’ve been working the LCD Soundsystem story for a month. It’s happening.”

And here it was, the last time people argued about indie rock.

Okay, that’s not true. But the confusion does put a fine point on how times have changed in four years; the truth is, with the way music is now, there probably is real, pervasive nostalgia that LCD Soundsystem could cash in on. In fact, you could argue that the 2011 Madison Square Garden show is as good a marker as any for the end of the era when “indie rock” was a term with any cultural significance. Cultural is the key word there—“indie” has long been more of a social description than a musical or economic one, though it originally referred to a truly countercultural movement that predated the Internet. When I use it here, I’m talking about the parade of aughts bands feted by Pitchfork, selling out venues, and making a musical canon that served as a plausibly vibrant alternative to the mainstream.

Defining golden eras and genre trends is always messy, limited, inevitably silly. Plenty of standard-bearers—Arcade Fire, Animal Collective—are still working; plenty of underground and alternative scenes thriving right now; a few newish acts, like Tame Impala or Haim, successfully fit the old definition. But Google “indie rock is dead” and you come up with a slew of think pieces in the last five or six years with that headline: Just today, The Fader published a Q&A between the Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig and Carles, the blogger behind Hipster Runoff, that takes for given that their subculture has died. If it ever lived, that is: “Indie never existed,” Carles says. “What people believe ‘sounds’ like indie still lives on in the fringes of Bandcamps, content farms of yesteryear, and in the hearts of regretful thirtysomethings.”

Parsing exactly what has changed is tough. Maybe it’s the way that streaming has made obsolete many record-collector’s cravings as well as the need for distribution channels separate from mainstream ones. Maybe there’s a gender and race dynamic going on; the artists with the highest name-recognition-to-innovation quota now are those like FKA Twigs and Grimes, women who received attention from indie-rock tastemakers but draw on very different traditions. And maybe it’s the rise of “poptimism”—the phenomenon that allows “cool” people to enjoy Beyonce and Taylor Swift.

To hear LCD’s camp tell it, it’s all of these things and more. Days before he took to Twitter to deny the reunion, DFA’s Petersen had written there, “How come the minute I start working in music everyone stops being elitist and snarky and starts liking pop bullshit :(.” And in a follow-up interview with the Village Voice, he observed that it’s plenty plausible that major festivals offered lots of money for an LCD Soundsystem reunion, simply because there aren’t many acts of that band’s tier active at the moment. It also sounded like DFA—one of the most influential labels of the new millennium, having released albums by the likes of Hot Chip, Hercules & Love Affair, and The Rapture—was facing struggles. “I sort of have the understanding that [LCD Soundsystem is] probably going to be the biggest band that comes off this label,” he said, “not because they’re so special, but because there’s no music industry anymore.

In the Fader interview, Koenig made among the more perceptive comments anyone has made about how music culture seems to be changing:

The amateur/professional dichotomy is just about destroyed now. The biggest celebrities now show the openness/vulnerability/‘realness’ that was once associated with ‘confessional’ ‘bedroom’ indie. The smallest artists now rely on big corporate money to get started. All the old dualities are jumbled.

He added, “The world has spoken, and it prefers genuine fakes to fake genuines. Mid-2000s indie was full of fake genuines. I won’t name names.”

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy might or might not be on that list of names. His band approached modern culture and music history with a mix of ironic poise and seemingly sincere emotion; one of their most famous singles, “Losing My Edge,” offered a half-joking rant from an aging scenester threatened by kids with their “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s.” Were LCD Soundsystem to come back now, they’d be reaping those same kids’ nostalgia, but for a time they remember, a time that seems farther in the past than it really is.