Wednesday, January 8, 2014

I've Been Feeling Sinister: Indie Pop's Bizarre Affair with Existentialism

Is this you?
“I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world.”

-Albert Camus, The Stranger

“There’s a tombstone right in front of you and everyone I know”

-Vampire Weekend, “Don’t Lie”

This article primarily exists to explore one of popular music’s most disturbing oxymorons. The moniker "indie-pop" speaks far more to the public consciousness than a literal reading of two impossibly ambiguous words shoved together. Sweet, earnest, cute, pretty, it’s music for modern teenagers to fall in love with. It may be a bit off-color, a bit off-key, but it never strays far from that pop anchor. It’s music to tap your foot to, music to smile to, music to feel good about. The question is, then, why is some of the most life-affirming, inspiring music so depressing in content. More specifically, why does indie pop seem so especially fixated on death. 

I imagine the release of Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister was a moment. The album is a masterwork, and, from where I’m sitting, was a major impetus for the contemporary coolness of the pretty and the soft. In reality, it was probably as quiet on arrival as its contents. It came to me 13 years late, at a time when I was exploring the scratchier reaches of punk rock history, from the airlessness of Gang of Four to thunderstomping ballads by bands like Husker Du. As I listened over and over again, all the appeal of the avant-garde’s harshness began to be stripped away in my head. Captain Beefheart may have changed the world, but Belle & Sebastian made me feel good. These were sincere songs about love and simple things, with austere instrumentation and, of course, the show-stoppingly humble vocal non-acrobatics of Stuart Murdoch. But there is a darker strain to If You’re Feeling Sinister, one that I didn’t notice until I’d been listening to it for well over a year and a half.

It came to me when I had been feeling sinister.

I sat on my bed staring at the ceiling and trying as humans do to bury deep those thoughts that can be so overwhelming but that hardly do us any good. You know, the ones about death. I decided to put If You’re Feeling Sinister on, because music is and will always be my crutch. When the title track rolled around, the chorus struck me:

“If you’re feeling sinister, go off and see a minister. He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless non-believer.”

I was instantly reminded of a section near the end of French novelist Albert Camus’ The Stranger, when the protagonist (?), on death row for a seemingly random murder (he’s not a villain, by the way, and me telling you that he dies isn’t really even a spoiler), is confronted by, after refusing his services for weeks, the prison chaplain. The chaplain tries to convince our hero (probably the world’s most passive human being) to see the light of God, but he’s having none of it (see the heart-warming quote at the top of  this article for context). By the end of their conversation, the chaplain is crying, his faith shaken to the core, and our hero is unchanged. 

I looked over at the album sleeve leaning up against my desk and slapped myself on the head. It was all right there. The album art (pictured above) shows a girl lying on her side in bed, a look of abstract errrhhh on her face. I suddenly realized that I knew that look, god dammit. Lying next to here in bed, was, of course, Franz Kafka’s The Trial. God dammit, she was feeling sinister. Dread washed over me. This music couldn’t possibly sooth me anymore. How could it? You don’t get over a girl by reliving your finest moments together. You can’t forget about death by listening to people sing about it, right? These thoughts were racing through my head, the title track was coming to and end, and then it hit me: I was still being soothed. 

Curious. It’s like how The Stranger, for all its ostensible cynicism, isn’t really depressing. The starkness of Camus’ storytelling, the resilience of his protagonist’s neutrality, it’s all somehow beautiful. It smacks of acceptance - an inhuman, dreamy acceptance of the darkest truths we all face. Listening to If You’re Feeling Sinister, like so many incredible indie pop albums like it that obsess over mortality, actually makes me feel happy to be alive.

So far I feel like I’ve solved none of the puzzle. 

So, why indie pop? There may be a simple explanation. Pop means a lot of different things, but, boiled down, it just means popular music. Beyond all the tropes and structures and cliches, it’s music that the majority can relate to. Compositional simplicity is nice, as well as big, catchy hooks. Subject matter is critical, too. Love, relationships, anger, fun, joy. Pop songs focus on broad subjects that strike broad nerves. How more perfectly could mainstream pop subject matter be inverted, then, than by underground and independent pop musicians making songs about what existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls the only experience that unites all human beings under a single banner: death?

One mystery down, I guess. But how the hell does it actually work?

It could be that we human beings are just apes, and people can scream “you’re going to die and that’s it” in our faces and leave us still smiling as long as it’s all well-harmonized with a 1-4-5 chord progression. Indie pop’s greatest strength in terms of controlling public opinion may be the anthem, a song form designed to broaden the chest and lend to each step a sense of urgent purpose. Sufjan Stevens, whose musings on expiration are all the more bitter in light of his strong faith, created maybe the be-all and end-all of indie anthems with the truly spectacular “Chicago.” If there has been a song released in the past quarter of a century more capable of dragging sinister-feeling asses out of bed, I haven’t heard it. But Sufjan. Ah, Jesus... Sufjan, the main hook of the song alternates between chants of “all things grow,” “all things know,” and, well, “all things go.” Even the 50 second fade-out seems somehow like a tragic epitaph. 

Immediately following “Chicago” is “Casimir Pulaski Day.” “Chicago” will be remembered and listened to for ages to come. It is a perfect pop song. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is not. If songs are measured in their capacity to produce emotion, though, the underdog wins, and by a margin. It’s one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. It retells the story of Stevens’ young love, and the fatal bone cancer that stole it away from him, and while it may not fill up the credit rolls of quirky rom coms, it would be well-suited for a Blade Runner -type humanity test for possible androids. The point is, it will make you feel. It will make you think. It will make you think about death. And it will make you think about life. 

Maybe this is the lesson existentially-conscious indie pop has to teach us. The Stranger works as the opposite of depressing because, if it leaves you moping, you’ve completely missed the point. This beautiful indie pop, the Belle & Sebastians, the Sufjans and the Vampire Weekends, they draw us in with melodious tunes that make us smile, music that can suffocate dark thoughts, but when they start to sing, they bring it all back up to the surface. And how noble. Hiding from reality isn’t an effective way to deal with its problems. Maybe this music exists not just to help us cope with dread, but actually to overcome it, to solve the immortal riddles that perhaps elude solving simply because many of us are afraid to try. 

Moreover, some of the material pouring out of this glorious, heart-thumping genre may serve as a solution itself. The lyric sheets of one of my favorite releases of last year, Typhoon’s White Lighter, could read, musicless, as just about the most depressing diary ever, scattered and packed with reams of stories marked by disillusionment, confusion, dread, and, notably, disappointment. Kyle Morton screaming distress on “Hunger and Thirst” about what he could have been will tear you up utterly, but boy will it give you chills. As a whole, the album is breathtaking. It’s perfectly conceived, poignant, relevant, literary, exciting, and maybe even ground breaking. Are you starting to see the paradox? Though Morton seems to wade through life overwhelmed by hopelessness, he’s managed to create something inspiring - a work of art worthy of hours of devotion, worthy of pondering and sharing, and worthy of love. He’s succeeded, not in conquering death, but in connecting with other human beings, in passing himself on to them, a challenge as perennial as any in life. 

Nearly as old as death itself is the ubiquitous security of our thick blanket of denial. It's this phenomenon that explains mainstream pop's plague-like avoidance of certain immortal subjects. There's a great richness to be found in the depths of the unknown, a richness of poetry and song and understanding, but down there, you're never going to strike gold. Forgetting and ignoring is just so much more comfortable, so much more immediate. Pop music is a major element in the complex system through which we defer our fears. I'm not trying to be cynical here. I like pop too. The people who make mainstream pop aren't evil. Sure, avoiding the subject of death is a more profitable route, but these people are also... people. They don't want to think about it either. They might not even be thinking about not thinking about it! I don't know! The point is, that kind of stuff rarely gets played on the radio. 

In a market, any vacuum of demand will be filled. The bottom line is that mainstream pop fails in its role as musical comfort food by simply refusing to address some of humanity’s basest concerns. The reason may be even more simple than all that denial business. Writing a pop song about death is really, unbelievably hard. It's easy to make a love song or a breakup song that people can get behind. The moral is always “relish in love!” or “there’s plenty more fish.” Indie pop has done the impossible by making songs about existential dread that everyone can sing along to, love, and even learn from. Here, the moral is harder to come to terms with, but no more complex: “relish in life.” 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliantly written article, about a question I've always thought about. I find that the motif of death and the dark thoughts that often arise in indie pop lyrics are a nod towards the truth that -- yes, life sucks. It lends an empathetic ear to our circumstances. But the beautiful melodies of Belle and Sebastian / Typhoon reminds us of beauty, tenderness, and perhaps even humour. It's a cathartic interaction, and I often come away feeling better.