I was telling a friend how excited I was about I Am Easy to Find, the new album by The National. He didn’t know how much I love this band. I told him they were one of the groups I traveled to Chicago to check out.
“All right, ya hipster,” he said, laughing. “I’ll check it out.” I never saw myself as any kind of hipster, so I was a little surprised to have that title attached to me, even if it was funny. I was even ready to deny it.
But it’s time to face the truth: when it comes to music, I can be a bit of a hipster.
It has little to nothing to do with the way I dress, or facial hair, or the way I look at the world. And it’s certainly not something I have intentionally aspired to. Nevertheless, when it comes to music, I’m gonna have to own this one.
It just kind of worked out that way. The overwhelming majority of popular music does nothing for me. I am much more comfortable with music most people, it seems, have never heard of. I’m not trying to be contrary. At least I don’t think I am. I just think my music is better. I’ve been that way for a very long time, and I’m fine with that.
So yeah, I dig Radiohead quite a bit. And The National, Grizzly Bear, Aimee Mann (solo and within The Both), Foxing, Slacker, Thank You Scientist, Bent Knee, and many other bands that would fit into this particular category. They don’t get much airplay on the radio, and commercial program directors seem to show little to no interest in them (save for Radiohead, but even that is based on their early ’90s output). Yet these bands prove to be quite the draw in the clubs, and that is precisely where I want to see them. Once they grow enough to play in arenas (see, The Black Keys), I’ve usually moved on. I do my best not to say snotty things like “I only like their early stuff.” But that has been known to leak out of my mouth from time to time.
Contrary to common belief, my “war” with commercial radio ended in the late ’90s. I read an article in Musician magazine (a marvelous periodical that no longer exists) that explained to me how commercial radio worked. Once I understood what I was being taught, I realized my war against Top 40 was futile, at best. The point was driven further home more than 20 years later when I interviewed a long-time radio DJ for my book. The conversation was both incredibly enlightening and unbelievably depressing. Commercial radio was a lost cause, and I was much better off where I was when it came to exploring new music.
I suppose the hipster-ism also stems from the kind of bands I enjoy. They don’t write uptempo, sappy “love you til the day I die” kind of songs. There’s not a lot of dance-ability happening in my musical world. The songs are deep and introspective. They come from a place that no doubt makes a Top-40 radio programmer groan from pain. And that’s just perfect with the rest of us. One does not look to The National for uplifting moments.
For the most part, the hipster sound seems based in the “Indie” realm. Bands that slogged away in the clubs and traveled from gig to gig in nothing much bigger than a station wagon seem to garner the most respect. Two guitars, bass, and drums created the basic sound. A keyboard was an added bonus. The songs are not overly complicated, and rarely clock in at more than five minutes on record. In concert, the band might re-arrange the song a little bit, and stretch it out. This serves as a bit of a gift to those who have made their way to the club to check said band out.
Hipsters like me tend to guard our music. We are very choosy about whom we choose to let into our musical family. We don’t want our music sullied by those who would mistreat it. I took consecutive road trips from St. Louis to Chicago over a two-week period. I suppose the trips would have been that much more fun had I invited someone to go with me. But I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to invite into my precious musical circle. So I went alone, with absolutely no regrets.
The Beyonces of the world may offer a hockey arena’s worth of entertainment to the gathered masses, but they don’t hold a candle to what we have. Ten songwriters and as many producers for a song? Forget about it! The singer (sometimes along with the guitar) player more than have things covered for all 12 to 14 songs on the album. When outside producers get involved and make the songs slicker and snappier, that’s when things go off the rails (see also, The Black Keys).
Now to be certain, some of these bands — like The National — have come above ground, to a certain degree. You might catch them on a late night talk show like Fallon’s or Colbert’s. But it’s the sound of their music that tells us whether they have maintained their original musical integrity, and haven’t given in to the so-called demands of the Top 40 market. I’ve seen The National play before tens of thousands in Australia (thanks to YouTube), but they still have a sound that works just fine in a place live Chicago’s Civic Opera House (where I saw them), or in that grungy club where you like to hang every other Friday or so.
No one is begrudging our favorite bands the opportunity to make a living making music (particularly during this day and age, where that is far from easy). We just want to know our band’s haven’t “sold out” to the marketplace at the expense of what got them there to begin with. We want to get close enough to our bands to feel their warmth on stage, and we want to experience their music on the format we love, like vinyl. (Having been into records since the ’70s, I do get a good laugh out of millennial hipsters looking at vinyl like they’ve unlocked some great musical secret. You’re about six decades late, guys.)
I’ve been picking on the Black Keys just a little bit, because they represent the dilemma I’ve had with an underground band making it to the commercial side. Admittedly, they had already done this by the time I purchased my first album from them. And I heard them on the radio before anywhere else. The song I heard struck me as a little slick, but there was something going on underneath I could dig. When I told my friend at the record store about my feeling, he understood completely. “You need their first couple of albums, where they sound like they’re recording in somebody’s basement,” he told me. And that’s how an album like The Big Come Up found its way into my home. My friend was right. This was exactly the sound I was looking for, and I knew was under there.
In the end, hipsters like me just want our music treated with respect. We want our artists to maintain the high standards and personal musical integrity that drew us to them to begin with. We don’t want to hear our music splashed all over the radio, because it ruins our personal relationship with it, which is best experienced at home with the drink of our choice. We want our bands to sell tickets when they come to town, but we also want to know we can can get ours with relative ease, before the poseurs make their way in. That sums up nicely the way I feel about this brand of music, and how it makes me appear.
But you can keep the skinny jeans to yourself.
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