Read: Empire of DirtMay 29, 2008
Wendy Fonarow is an anthropologist and lecturer at UCLA, and in Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, she turns her professional eye to the indie music subculture. It’s a scholarly work, and the nature and tone of the writing reflects that, but it’s nevertheless surprisingly readable. If ‘culture’ can be loosely defined as ‘all the things that you do that you don’t think about doing,’ part of the fun in reading this book is developing a self-awareness of indie culture by viewing it through the eyes of an ethnographer. For example, she talks about the central role of live music, and describes the existence of distinct ‘zones’, with zone 1 closest to the stage, zone 2 the intermediate region, and zone 3 near the back of the venue:
For the majority of zone one (the exception being the very front rows) participatory spectatorship is embodied in demonstrative physicality coordinated with the music and in following the proper etiquette associated with being near the stage. For zone two, participatory spectatorship is embodied in mental concentration on the music and a prolonged visual focus on performers onstage.
She goes on to describe the ‘proper etiquette’ for both regions (as well as for zone 3, the music industry zone), the demographics of the different zones, and how participants choose zones and transition between them.
Fonarow also makes an excellent case for using Puritanism as an analogy to understand indie culture: she contrasts indie music against the major labels (ie Catholicism), describes its ethos of simplicity, and compares their common emphasis on an unmediated experience of the ‘divine':
I see a lot of the religious narrative of Puritanism in the indie music scene; the idea that, to have the pure divine experience, it has to be direct and unmediated. So the smaller and more intimate a show is, the ‘truer’ fans believe their experience was, compared to someone who saw them later on in a bigger venue. That’s why so many people claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club.
While Fonarow’s fieldwork was mostly in the British scene in 1993 and 1994, many of her observations still apply today, and to indie rock culture on both sides of the Atlantic. One exception is that she describes indie rock as defining itself in opposition to dance music (‘technophilia/technophobia; electronic drums/electric guitar; synthetic/organic; faceless/charismatic artists’). But this was before artists like Dan Deacon and Girl Talk, and the many other crossovers between indie and dance/electronica.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably immersed in indie rock culture to a greater or lesser extent. Empire of Dirt is a fascinating guide to thinking more deeply about what this culture is and what it means.