Indie Rock and Spirituality

Judy Berman has a really intelligent and fascinating look at the treatment of ethereal and transcendent themes in contemporary indie pop over @ The Believer that’s definitely worth a read.

I think, however, one has to be careful in limiting the phenomenon of “indie rock’s current metaphysical fixation” to the last five or so years. Indie rock has definitely trod this ground before, even if it reached different conclusions. Hüsker Dü’s seminal 1984 album Zen Arcade is part bildungsroman, part spiritual odyssey that directly deals with the place of transcendence in music and modern existence (the track Hare Krsna is little more than the prayer, repeated over and over, grinding atonality signifying the cognitive dissonance that results from attempted spirituality, perhaps?)

Or one of my favorite albums, Sonic Youth’s 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation. The transcendent may not appear explicitly in the album’s lyrics, but who could listen to the haunting vastness of “The Sprawl” or the atmospheric desolation of “Providence” without considering the metaphysics of solitude or a sort of spiritual heat-death. It may be the reverse side of the hazy spirituality embodied by Yeasayer or Animal Collective, to use two of Berman’s examples, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take up the question of spirituality in general.

I think that may be the bigger point — not that contemporary indie rock has suddenly discovered religion (or something approximating what religion may once have meant somewhere…), but that today spirituality can be seen as something positive — or at least worth striving toward, whereas during the Reagan era, spiritual desolation and muck were unavoidable. Non-mainstream culture was torn between nihilism and rock bottom depression, and it makes sense that the concept of spirituality was dealt with in a negative way, exploring the seeming absence of any sort of transcendent in the face of messianic Christianity and materialism. Nor does contemporary indie rock escape this sort of negative exploration of spirituality — Berman mentions the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible as an example of an album that “may also make a grab for our souls by recalling the sounds or harmonic structures of devotional songs, thus reawakening our collective memory of what faith and worship feel like,” but it’s worth noting that Neon Bible is a profoundly anti-religious album, with the hypocrisies of contemporary Christianity in its direct crosshairs, just to note one example.

If anything, the prevalence of indie music that expresses an open or positive attitude toward spirituality may be seen as a response to the evil perpetrated under the banner of heaven during the Bush years, most likely rooted in contemporary America’s multiculturalism and appropriation of positive psychology, meditation, Buddhism, etc. In other words, what’s changed is the era’s attitude toward spirituality in general — the music continues to mirror changes in social attitude toward religion and transcendence. The emergence of alternative spirituality and the growing liberalization of some branches of Christianity are reflected in music more willing to engage spirituality and transcendence on its own ground.

~ by Benji on August 6, 2009.

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