Two decades before a bunch of geeky American boys messing around on computers created social media, an earlier generation of geeky kids (mostly boys) messing around on guitars created another sort of social network. At its heart was the kind of music you wouldn’t hear on commercial radio or, except in the wee hours of Monday mornings, on MTV. It came on the heels of 1970s punk rock, and while it owed something to punk’s velocity and sneer, the spirit was experimental, as if all the old rules had been swept away. Ragged guitar riffs, ferocious decibel levels, and unpredictable song structures were its trademarks, but the sounds—from the percussively headlong to the distorted and depressive—proliferated as fast as the labels for them. Under the various headings of punk, post-punk, hardcore, alt-rock, underground, noise rock, post-rock, and, most generic, indie rock, bands such as Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Slint laid down the soundtrack of an alternative culture. If you were over the age of 30 when the Berlin Wall fell, this music probably seemed pretty much pointless. If, on the other hand, you were in your teens or 20s, especially if you were a skinny white male and wore glasses, it’s just possible that indie rock sounded like community—salvation, even.
Unlike hip-hop, that other Gen X art form, which originated in New York and later developed regional variants, indie got its start in emphatically local and often unlikely settings. Its fertile crescent was provincial American cities and college towns. Indie rock took off in places such as Athens, Georgia; Olympia, Washington; and my own hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, though most big cities also had a scene, and each had its own distinctive ecosystem. In Cleveland and New York City, for instance, where thrashy, locomotive hardcore music had a long reign, white boys predominated and girls were scarce. In Olympia, as in Boston, there were sympathetic college radio stations, more women, and more of an art-school atmosphere to the enterprise.