How Indie Rock Changed the World

The influence of geeks with guitars on culture, from DIY to social media

R. Kikuo Johnson

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.

Everywhere, the line between fan and performer was paper-thin. The approach was anarchic and participatory: the idea (at least theoretically) was that anyone could get a band together, learn to play, and maybe even press a record and take the show on the road. At the same time, indie music was a judgmental world of cognoscenti, of teenage boys disputing Talmudically about guitar tunings and feedback. Hole-in-the-wall venues, alternative record stores, ragtag independent record labels, and copy shops incubated a subculture where outsiders became insiders and found one another. Flyers on telephone poles were its smoke signals, xeroxed fanzines were its telegraph wires, bringing news from far-flung scenes. Before the breakthrough success in 1991 of Nirvana—whose album Nevermind topped the Billboard charts and eventually sold more than 30 million copies worldwide—raw and abrasive rock, by definition, meant tastes and sounds that could never become popular.

How indie culture was built in the 1980s, sustained and transformed through the 1990s, and revived in the past decade is the subject of two new memoirs, Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) and Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band. The guitarist in a succession of bands—none of which was “threatened, even distantly, by actual fame”—Fine was one of indie’s middle-class worker bees, many of whom went on to adult jobs in media and academia. (He’s now the executive editor of Inc.)

Kim Gordon—the scene’s reigning queen—presided at its charismatic center, and then hung on. In 1981, with her partner, Thurston Moore, and the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Gordon founded Sonic Youth, a New York band of musical inventiveness and effortless cool. A bassist as well as a vocalist, she was an inspiration to the feminist-punk-rock riot-grrrl movement, which started in Olympia in the early ’90s and propelled more women (in bands such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney) onto indie stages. Gordon also painted, wrote art criticism, designed clothes, acted in films and on TV, and got to know everyone back when they were nobodies: she gave the filmmaker Spike Jonze his first break, cast a teenage Chloë Sevigny in a music video, and befriended a young grunge rocker named Kurt Cobain. Until 2011, when Gordon and Moore split up, ending the band’s 30-year run, Sonic Youth navigated indie rock’s hazards. The band made experimental music yet gained an audience, moving on to a major label with its cachet intact.

Elegy is the leitmotif of both books, not just for broken hearts and bands and youths gone by, but for the “failed revolution” in Fine’s title. At least sometimes, indie’s players thought they might upend the music business, though their dedication to a do-it-yourself ethos, and to excruciating loudness and dissonance, made that a somewhat unlikely proposition. In the end, it was the geeky boys with computers, not the geeky boys with guitars, who dethroned the major record companies. But the path mapped by indie-rock nerds exposes the prehistory of the broader cultural shift that we now take for granted. A bold start-up ethos, intensively nurtured networks of the like-minded, and the innovation-from-below that goes by the overused term disruption—indie rockers present another pedigree for our own decentralized, everyone-is-a-producer era. Who would have thought that these prickly outliers would help bust open the mainstream, creating the space for self-expression and outright weirdness that has come to seem, well, normal? It was an unlikely role for the upstart flamethrowers, who were a mostly homogeneous group and who, as these memoirs serve to remind us, were defiantly loyal to their marginal status.

Remember when millions of Americans were in thrall to the ways of the wasp elite? For 37 weeks in 1981, The Official Preppy Handbook topped the New York Times best-seller list, plying semi-satirical advice to readers eager to crack (or mock) the code of the madras-and-penny-loafer-clad Establishment. I was a malcontent in one of Louisville’s stodgiest private schools for girls. Within a matter of months in 1982, I discarded my add-a-bead necklace and Bermuda bag (kelly green, embroidered with butter-yellow whales) and adopted sterner stuff: lace-up black combat boots; short, dyed black (or blue) hair; one of those black-leather-and-metal-spike bracelets; and band T‑shirts atop black jeans. “A sheep in wolf’s clothing,” a friend at the time correctly observed. I can guarantee you that I knew every other Louisville female under the age of 70 who dressed all in black, so instantly did such clothing mark you out in my city in the early ’80s.

I fell in with a crowd of similarly disaffected (mostly) boys, some of whom went on to form the post-punk band Squirrel Bait and later other storied indie groups, including Bastro, Slint, and Palace Brothers. Teenagers, not college students, were the local constituency at the time. In that quasi-southern town, segregated by class as well as by race, the punk scene was one of the few places (other than athletics) where working-class white boys and upper-middle-class white boys could meet. (In most places—Louisville was no exception—indie was a mainly white preserve, with a few Asian and Latino adherents, depending on the town.) Nearly all of us were too young to drink legally, so we spent our nights loitering in the alley behind a bar called Tewligan’s, where we could hear the thumping reverberations of visiting bands. Or else, less poetically, we hung out at the Taco Bell a few doors down. During the summer of 1986, before heading off to college, I went on tour through the Midwest and East Coast with Squirrel Bait. Alibi: photographer.

Jon Fine has produced as evocative a portrait of the underground music scene as any wistful, graying post-punk could wish for. His thorny valentine is a worthy firsthand companion to Michael Azerrad’s lauded 2001 history, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Fine can write, and because he doesn’t mind making himself look like a jerk, he summons up all the idealism and the cluelessness, the talent and the posturing, that went with the territory—at least the territory he observed, which happens also to have been the realm I inhabited. A student at Oberlin when he founded the musically complex, explosive Bitch Magnet, Fine spent the next three decades in and out of bands.

By the time Fine arrived on the scene, in the mid-’80s, the sinews of an alternative culture were in place. In cramped record shops, you could flip through LPs or singles in search of the “sharp” or “thrashing” song you’d heard about in the ’zine passed along by a friend or ordered by mail for a dollar or two plus postage. Most towns had crummy one- or two-room bars (or church halls or Elks Lodges) with beer-sticky floors and three-foot-high stages (or none at all) where the band that had driven from Champaign-Urbana or Cincinnati or Minneapolis would dump its gear: Gibsons or Fenders plastered with band stickers, the all-important amps, the electrical innards in milk crates.

Indie was, as Fine puts it, a “culture that unorphaned you,” and he’s especially good on the haven that post-punk music offered Gen X misfits. After some scrounging around (necessary in that pre-Internet era), you could figure out that your own discontent was part of something bigger. “All the town weirdos were suddenly in bands.” The goal was to transform, Superman-like, from straitlaced social nonentity into pelvic-thrusting, guitar-smashing performer playing music no one had ever heard before—and still could barely hear, given the deafening noise levels when bands performed live. The audience that mattered most was in your own backyard, and the crowd wouldn’t be dancing, unless the diehards’ slamming into one another counted as dancing. The lyrics took a backseat to the shock of sound. This music was an effort as much to dominate as to persuade.

Post-punk had its own intense culture of connoisseurship, in which prestige accrued to the most rigorous critics of guitar textures, time signatures, and just about everything else inside and outside the scene. Disdaining what so manifestly sucked—the pop hits of the day, Reagan, the insipid culture of preppydom—was the ticket to entry, but the barrier was low enough that any disaffected teenager could scale it. Clout belonged to those with the encyclopedic record collections and the nerve to venture more-discriminating judgments and to defend them against withering reproach. Was Bad Brains’ comeback album lame or great? Had the Replacements sold out when they turned melodic? Like the locavores of today, aficionados were committed to incorruptibility, to keeping the music select and refined: small-batch artisanal production. Indie had its tastemakers, such as the Chicago musician and producer Steve Albini of Big Black and Rapeman, whose trademark rigidity would have done Lenin proud. Fine echoes the attitude. “I still couldn’t bully anyone physically, but I could bully everyone aesthetically,” he writes. Your band sucks, in other words.

Unless you experienced the scene, you’re likely to find the puritanical spirit of it strange. Between the desperados of early hardcore who drank too much and the grunge musicians haunted by heroin, Fine evokes the oddly innocent, untattooed early indie world I knew. The high-minded straight-edge movement (no drinking, no drugs, no casual sex), which took off in Washington, D.C., with the band Minor Threat, gave the scene some of its flavor. The essentially nerdy characteristics of its participants took care of the rest. Although I marvel now that my parents let me head off at the age of 17 with a post-hardcore rock band, the fact is that the trip was less risqué than the average Eurail-Pass Grand Tour of the late 1960s.

The druggy drummer who toured with Fine’s band complained to a friend that it “felt like being among scientists.” Sex was mostly beside the point; Fine admits that he can count his band-related conquests on one hand “and still have fingers left over.” The name Bitch Magnet was wishful thinking: Fine estimates that 90 percent of the band’s fans were male. The joke was that if you wanted to have sex, your best shot was a gig in a town where an ex-girlfriend lived. Married and monogamous, Kim Gordon was a very fitting post-punk sex goddess.

What mattered was not girls but friendship among boys, and Fine astutely explores these sympathies. Finding your band soul mate was like falling in love—“our equivalent of a shared orgasm.” Band breakups were every bit as agonizing as a dashed romance, and certainly more scarring. Courting an ex-bandmate to join a reunion tour, in Fine’s analogy, was equivalent to “heavy petting” and “talking dirty.” Fine glosses over the jeering about faggots that pervaded these homosocial settings, but browse through the ’zines, now digitized and online, if you want to see the slow uptake of post-Stonewall consciousness. More evident is the casual misogyny, not so much a reflection of deep-seated attitudes toward women as a product of awkward immaturity and a desire to offend. “We would just make posters that said, toxic shock: fuck you, and draw a picture of a woman pulling a tampon out of her pussy, and plaster them all over campus,” explains David Yow, who played in the band Toxic Shock in Austin in the early 1980s.

Rather than dwell on the indie world’s exclusions, Fine evokes the joys of building a distinctive culture for its own sake. Fame and money, for most bands, were not just irrelevant. They were almost inconceivable in the 1980s, when touring meant playing for 40 or so dedicated fans at a time and maybe breaking even when the tour was over. Five years into Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon disabused a well-meaning friend of her parents who imagined that rock-and-roll riches awaited her: “Well, the problem is, we’d have to tailor our music too much. We’d have to start wearing long wigs and eye shadow and glitter pants.”

But the purist spirit met its challenge during the next decade, when Nirvana’s hit album altered the landscape and an indie gold rush began. In the wake of Hüsker Dü, the first post-punk band to sign with a major label, the Replacements and Sonic Youth also moved into the big time, where Soundgarden and Nirvana ultimately sold millions. As it turned out, you didn’t have to get dressed up in wigs and glitter pants to join the mainstream, and despite the fierce rhetoric of the 1980s, the stigma of selling out diminished rapidly once the possibility of doing so became real. Not every indie musician joined the party, of course. Like Jon Fine, most were never asked. A minority of those who were—the most cussed (or principled or well-to-do)—chose artistic control and the respect of their peers over a bid for the arena filled with thousands of fans. Famously, Steve Albini hung up the phone whenever a major record label called.

What, if anything, survived of the underground when the homegrown turned mainstream depends on whose version of events you hear. Fine tells a tale of indie music brought down by sabotage from both within and without. He partly blames the shambling, arty, so-called twee pop associated with the Olympia band Beat Happening and its successors, which (Fine claims) carried the DIY ethos to the point of incompetence, tainting the whole endeavor: “Now our thing was starting to suck, too.”

The other culprit was the mainstream music industry. As major record labels scrambled to find the next Nirvana, they gutted the independent labels (which they treated as their farm teams). They signed bands and then pressured them to change their sound, leaving those who didn’t to languish, unpublicized. By the end of the decade, the post-Nirvana converts had moved on to the next new thing, and even well-established bands were failing to meet the major labels’ sales expectations. “The people spoke,” Ed Roeser of the band Urge Overkill told Fine: “It didn’t work out.”

By the mid-1990s, Fine argues, indie rock was losing the stuff that made it great. Many of its original enthusiasts were growing up and getting jobs so that they could afford to live in big-city, post-college neighborhoods such as Chicago’s Wicker Park and L.A.’s Silver Lake, where they’d once been the gentrifying vanguard. The working-class kids were getting working-class jobs. The punk-rock houses—crash pads and meeting places for the scene—were disappearing even from smaller cities. So were the mom-and-pop record stores, gobbled up by Tower Records and Barnes & Noble. Dispensing with “dickless indie rock anhedonia,” as Fine calls it, some post-punks even decided they wanted music they could dance to.

For Jon Fine, the indie revolution ended there, leaving him with little to show for decades of performing—not much of a following or, God knows, money. He calculates that Bitch Magnet’s audience topped out at 10,000 or maybe 15,000. Still, for a chronicle of a failed revolution and a string of bands that broke up or faded away, Fine’s is a fizzy, cheerful book that conveys an aura of accomplishment. Indie music was where he found himself: it “made me realize I wasn’t alone” and delivered him on his adult way. If anything, failure became the reward for purity, and only adds to his retrospective pleasure at having thrived as a young misfit on the artistic margins.

There is a more upbeat version of the indie trajectory, which you might expect the standout female pioneer in a very influential band to endorse. In that telling, indie rock persevered and broadened out. Kids who’d had no access to underground music—whether because they lived far from the action or because they weren’t clued in to the glories of low-fidelity, jagged sounds—could now see Nirvana and the grunge bands that followed in heavy rotation on MTV. At the same time, kids who formerly had little prospect of making this music staked out a space on the stage. The riot-grrrl uprising in Olympia in the early ’90s spread to Washington, D.C., and then went nationwide, bringing a third-wave-feminist sensibility to punk and post-punk music. The first lines of one riot-grrrl proclamation announced the movement’s independence: “We will never meet the hierarchical BOY standards of talented, or cool, or smart. They are created to keep us out.”

But Kim Gordon’s memoir seems written almost expressly to reject, or at any rate undercut, such a happy ending. Girl in a Band is a tale of huge success recounted as loss. It’s a bruised, stock-taking memoir, told in the aftermath of a failed marriage. Her three decades in indie rock and New York’s downtown art scene have left her with plenty of stories to tell and balloons to pop. But most of all, Gordon aims to debunk herself. Elbowing her way into the boys’ world Fine describes, she got stuck, only to emerge unsure about who she was and what she’d accomplished.

If you thought Gordon was the sex goddess of punk rock, all street chic and tough froideur, prepare to be set straight. “I felt frumpy and nerdy a lot of the time,” she writes, renouncing her status as musician and fashion trendsetter in favor of a self-portrait as an art student who came to music haphazardly, a grown-up tomboy who felt like a transvestite when she put on heels. If you mistook her reserve for strength, think again. “And believe me when I say that once you push past my persona, there aren’t any defenses there at all.” If you viewed her as a model for independence, she’s not that, either. “My whole life I’ve accommodated other people’s feelings.” As for the cool affect: “If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a ‘strong woman’?”

Gordon joins Fine in pushing back against a heroic tale of indie’s success, but for her, underground music didn’t offer the clannish haven for self-discovery he celebrates. Journalists would invariably ask, “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” She’d “never really thought about that,” she explains. When she started out, she “wasn’t conscious of being a woman.” What she wanted was to be inside the boys’ circle, to be one of the elect: “I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together onstage.” Male Bonding was one of the first names Gordon and Moore came up with for their new band—a strange choice for a coed group, you might think, except that it summed up why Gordon wanted to crash the club in the first place: “In retrospect, that’s why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out.”

Born in 1953, Gordon was too young to be a hippie but old enough to be touched by the 1960s, absorbing “whatever rebellion and amped-up freedom there was in the air.” Her father was a sociologist of education at UCLA whose early work analyzed the subcultures of adolescence. Her mother was a homemaker, but a restless one; she worked as a seamstress, designing block-printed caftans and pants from Indian bedspreads. The L.A. of Gordon’s youth featured the jacaranda trees, the beaches, and the pink stucco. But this was also the era of bad trips and Charles Manson, and along with the freedom, for Gordon, came fear. “Hypervigilance,” she writes, “was my mode.” The biggest threat was closest by: her older brother, Keller, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in his 20s. Keller tormented her, needling her every time she opened her mouth, beating her up, eventually climbing into bed with her naked and then calling her a slut when she pushed him away.

Gordon’s tough imperturbability was hard-won, part of an effort to create a “world where nothing could upset or hurt me.” The quality came in handy in the early days when men at shows threw things at her, such as firecrackers and a drumstick; one even bit her on the ass. Being aloof was her survival strategy, buttressed by a canny watchfulness and a sense of what to hold back. Gordon could hack off her hair, but she never quite lost the restraint, the underlying sense of control that made her performances so magnetic. Flip through the photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern’s New York Girls if you want to see Gordon in her 1980s downtown milieu. The other It Girls of the avant-garde are naked and kittenish, bondage straps pressing into their very pale flesh. In the picture of Gordon, a still from the music video for Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69,” she is fully clothed. She is also holding a rifle.

Gordon began as the voyeur but ended up as the person fans came to peer at through the wall of noise. Having a beautiful yet elusive woman up front was, it turned out, good for selling discordant music to a bigger audience. With Gordon as the lyricist, Sonic Youth turned to the sorts of subjects that resonated with 1990s identity politics—producing feminist songs about Karen Carpenter and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The band sang about race, gender, and the avant-garde in “Kool Thing” with the rapper Chuck D, which became Sonic Youth’s first video for a major label.

But what did Gordon find once she’d pushed her way inside the male dynamic? As she wrote in a 1987 tour diary published by The Village Voice, she had once fantasized about “what it would be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys who have crossed their guitars together, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and combat.” At the apex of power, she discovered the abiding thrill of performance, “a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness.” But instead of feeling catapulted into maturity, as Fine does, Gordon revisits the past only to discover a derailed quest for her own identity, and a scene of faux back-thumping camaraderie and arrested male development.

You could almost call her the purest of the outsider purists. “After thirty years of playing in a band, it sounds sort of stupid to say, ‘I’m not a musician.’ ” But Gordon says it, sounding rueful about all the years she devoted to the band (“the ultimate dysfunctional family”) and wishing that she’d spent more of her time on the daring margins of visual art. It’s as if Sheryl Sandberg had driven away from Google and written a book about having leaned in only to lose herself.

So did the indie revolution fail? A few months ago I went to hear Gordon talk about her book with the journalist Alison Cuddy at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The lights were dimmed and the theater, an Art Deco–era movie palace, was already packed, 750-strong, by the time I took my seat. The audience was made up mostly of middle-aged fans, with a crop of new-generation riot grrrls in their midst. At best, Gordon made a reluctant interview subject, without affectation but also without much visible urge to engage. She stopped herself every few words and sometimes ground to a halt altogether. If you knew her only from her steely, self-assured performances as a musician, such hesitance was a perplexing sight. If you’d read her memoir, it made perfect sense.

“Did the 1990s ever exist?” asks Gordon in the book, agreeing with Fine’s withering verdict that indie, for all its mainstream success, left little lasting mark on American music. But the Chicago crowd that had gathered to see Gordon was proof of a different sort of influence. Leaning forward in their seats to hear what she had to say, these were people who were obviously still enthralled by her. They loved her for the mashup of conceptual art and music she’d helped create, evidence that you could make weird, dissonant music and ride popularity without becoming compromised by it. They admired her for getting up onstage and delivering powerful performances and speaking for women. They respected her for putting on the leather pants—and for keeping them on. A pioneer’s own view of her legacy is only half of the story: Gordon had opened doors for her fans and for the women performers who followed, riot grrrls and all the rest.

As for that failed revolution: the irony, both Fine and Gordon recognize, is that in the new millennium, YouTube & Co. have given the indie bands of the ’80s and ’90s a second life. Bands that hardly performed at all, such as Slint, are suddenly revered. The past decade has featured reunions for many bands, including Bitch Magnet. Erstwhile indie rockers have returned to music they wrote as teenagers or, as in the case of Sleater-Kinney, recorded new albums.

They have gotten back together because a dedicated independent label asked them to, or their fans did: a hybrid of new aficionados, called forth by the Internet, and their old followers, including, as Fine describes, some whose parents didn’t let them go to rock shows 25 years ago. Maybe the bands have even hoped to make some money, though the struggling music industry is no better-equipped to serve them now than it was two decades ago. Like Bitch Magnet, most haven’t done more than a tour or two; the real purpose, as Fine explains, has been “to write a different and better ending for the band, and with these guys.”

But indie’s legacy is more than nostalgic reunions, and more, too, than the mainstreaming of tattoos and skinny jeans. Indie’s founding premise—that anyone could be a producer of art and culture, the more inventively off-center the better—is now a staple of the new media of the information age. Here is where the line between the audience, the performer, and the critic began to unravel and wear away. The blog is the ’zine made immaterial. The start-up peddling the latest moneymaking app has roots in the nonremunerative start-up that took cutting-edge dissonance on the road. Silicon Valley didn’t invent the notion that decentralized social networks could disseminate new forms of culture generated in garages and kids’ bedrooms. That notion percolated out of America’s heartland.

And the indie story, as Fine and Gordon tell it, reminds us that even the most inclusive DIY vision has its insiders and outsiders, its purists and compromisers, its pressures and its disenchanted pioneers. If nerdy boys still reign supreme in Silicon Valley and venture capitalists overshadow artistic adventurers, that goes with the territory: revolutions often confound their creators. For a movement born in basements and powered by the geeky and the self-taught, indie did pretty well. Whatever you may think of the bands, the revolution didn’t suck after all.