Last week Earwax got about 1,500 people to its two-day mini music fest, featuring top Anglo-American indie bands The National, Mogwai, Daughter, Youth Lagoon and others. It was a strange scene, and having witnessed it, I would like to begin lobbying to remove the word “rock” from “indie rock.” Indie is now its own genre, and it should no longer be confused with rock ‘n’ roll.
Daughter has re-appropriated post-rock for popular consumption, adding the anguished, crystalline vocals of Elena Tonra and structuring songs like other four or five-minute songs you might hear on the radio. At the same time, they keep the drones, crescendos and false epiphanies of instrumental post-rock, as well as its emotional tone of distance and uncertainty.
In other words, it is perfect music to check your iPhone to, and about half the crowd was doing just that. Other than a few thank yous, the band said little to engage the audience. At one point towards the end of the set, guitarist Igor Haefeli introduced one song, intoning into the mic, “This is another depressing one.”
Staring at an iPhone is a strange way to relate to live music, but it is becoming more common. This is a generation that would have trouble doing otherwise, because since they are always partially online, they are never really fully anywhere. For them, the question of existence has morphed into a question of virtual existence: if a tree falls in the woods, and one posts about it on Facebook, did it really make a sound?
The Taiwanese-American novelist Tao Lin described this situation in his 2013 novel Taipei in a protagonist, Paul, who lies in bed on his side, staring into his MacBook and “refreshing Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Gmail in a continuous cycle.” Paul is described as “affectless,” “humorless” and confused. Though Lin has lived his whole life in the US and his character Paul is meant to be a Williamsburg hipsters, the description feels just as apt in Taiwan.
Looking at screens is not just about perceiving reality, it is also about projecting reality. It is now completely normal for people to project different versions of themselves onto blogs, discussion forums, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other virtual pseudo-selves. What’s more, projecting one’s self onto all these different screens has become completely intuitive, and in many ways, one’s body has become just another screen to project an identity onto. As a result, being there is now only meaningful if you also post about it online. But if part of your existence is always online, then it is hard to ever be fully present anywhere.
At the Daughter concert, I was without a smart phone and in an auditorium with 1,500 kids who seemed to half-wish they were holograms. It surprised me every time they applauded with yells and hand-claps and whistles. At least they were still doing some of the things one does at a rock show.
After Daughter, Mogwai was cool for a while, and then their music felt old. There was once an impassioned creative fire in the band, but last week they were just playing the songs. Not badly, but also without sweeping emotion, and that’s pretty much what their music requires.
What is it about this Indie generation? Will their sedate good manners be remembered as their “act of rebellion” against past music generations? Is being emotionally closeted their answer to the psychedelic 60s, sexual liberation of 70s, punk and disco of the 80s and the angry music of the 1990s, when white kids began listening to hip hop and mosh-pits went mainstream? There is probably a boring answer that has to do with economics and the growth of the global middle class. And anyway, EDM is the real music trend of our time.