underground since'89

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Friday, November 6, 2009

The Underground

This week I was asked to write a piece about this Decade in Music. It was a little hard because, for one thing, what is this decade even called? And for another, that kind of framing device is easier to see in retrospect...but it got me thinking about the underground...some people question whether there is an underground in the digital era...so that in and of itself sort of begs the question: is this framework still useful?

I think it is...but what do YOU all think?

more soon


marissa magic said...

I really want there to be an underground. I think there is. I have this cynical knee-jerk reaction to the question "does the underground exist?" that's automatically "no! everyone wants money and a comfortable lifestyle and a career" like everyone has the same consumerist american dream, the only difference is some people (the supposed underground) want to arrive at it differently. BUT THEY ALL WANT THE SAME THING.

At the same time I definitely know kids who are throwing DIY shows, putting out their own records, and have little desire for the mainstream idea of "success". It's encouraging.

All of this underground talk in the context of the digital era is weird. Things are tricky. Like the amount of artists who have supposedly risen from obscurity through myspace or youtube. But did they? Or is this simply an example of astro-turfing(fake grassroots movements engineered by corporations)? Is that (astro-turfing) even a new thing? That's really only one of many things that comes up when considering the digital/underground question.

We've arrived at a place where consumerism is more ok, our goals are more selfish, pop music is no longer a guilty pleasure but something that is genuinely accepted, and kids are pretty apathetic.

There's a lot more sitting at home on our computers alone. I think that makes a huge difference. Recently a friend wanted to start a band with me and wanted me to listen to some bands he was really into as of late. Instead of inviting me over to listen to records he sent me some MP3's. Instead of hanging out with a friend and talking about ideas I sat at home by myself, listened to some hardcore and surfed the internet looking at facebook.

I mean, is facebook a worthwhile networking tool for the underground?

I think it's important to look back on the best of the decade in the underground. It reminds us that it still exists, that it's still worthwhile. It forces you to figure out where it still exists. You'll find more of it in the bands that you share a practice space with, in the pile of flyers and zines you have piled in some corner from all the shows and things you've gone to, your record collection, your tape collection. Not on a computer. It's easier to find an mp3 of lady gaga on the interweb than it is to find out about one of my favorite bands right now, american splits.

Is it time to turn our backs on the digital era?

SpenSer R-S said...

I'm of the mindset that the underground characterized by the physical community we come in contact with. I guess this mainly happens at shows, though I'm not completely convinced that the computer is the downfall of the underground, though aspects of it have really complicated things.

I agree with Marissa that the digitization of the scene has led to more isolation and that MP3s have led to the cheapening of recorded art, but at the same time, it has evened the playing field to the point where bands can distribute and promote their own music while not having to shell out hundreds of dollars to get a record/cd pressed. And blogs have made it easier for some kid in Indiana to find an interview and free mp3 from an underground band in Portland without having to have a zine mailed to them.

I keep trying to come up with scenarios that are definitively one way or the other, but it's pretty difficult:

A general rule is that an underground band is DIY, but in this time of high-quality laptop recordings and blog seeding websites, is DIY always considered underground? Conversely, if someone does a fantastic job engineering their own record and develops their own grass roots following via the internet, without the help of spam bots/publicists/managers/labels, should they not be considered underground because they used digital means?

Is it all about the effort you put forward? Can you be an underground artist while making an attempt to get as many people to listen to your music as possible? Or is being a part of the underground all about not giving a fuck who hears your music?

When does the crossover from underground to above ground happen? Is it when a band gets signed to a label? Is it when they lend their music to advertising? Is it when they change their sound from lo-fi to dance-pop?

As I look back at these rhetorical questions, they seem to be the same questions that the underground has always asked itself.

I think the digitization of the underground has given kids a place to find out about different scenes around the world and inspires them to get out there and start their own scenes. But the underground cannot exist if kids don't get outside. I think we're teetering on the edge of becoming completely isolated from each other and rationalizing it by saying we're still connected through the internet.

I believe there can be a balance, but there has to be a constant check on how technology affects our real life relationships and local communities.

That's why Tobi is here. :D

evn said...

The internet creates more opportunities, but not out of nothing. You still need people to give it purpose. Subcultures can become even more firmly entrenched, or blatantly public; trends can spread and dissipate even more rapidly, so rapidly that you could hardly say they even happened at all. It creates access, but in the midst of an overwhelming morass of information. I would be hard-pressed to generalize how digital culture has changed the world. There are a lot of specific examples, but they don't necessarily add up neatly.

What's the use of describing an underground, anyway? Is it to elevate the things we love because their so contrarian and obscure, or is it, can it be, something more meaningful than that? Was Nirvana underground? When did they become underground, or stop being underground (did they)? Is that weird band I heard about on WFMU and Mutant Sounds underground? How do I measure it? I'm not sure if there are answers to these questions, or if they really lead anywhere.

Tobi Vail said...

well I'd say as soon as a band signs to a major label they are no longer underground--though several groups remain connected to the underground and use their access to a mainstream audience to share information about bands that previously had no media access--examples for Nirvana would be The Raincoats, Flipper, Daniel Johnston and to some extent the "riot grrl" bands. Sonic Youth did the same, helping Nirvana gain access to a wider audience and exposing legions of isolated kids to female underground artists....Green Day did the same by bringing Pansy Division on tour with them...of course "bigger" underground bands that have an audience do this as well--helping the bands they like/their friends or bands which influenced them gain access to a wider audience. The Gossip would be my current example of this I guess.

Tobi Vail said...

I'll save my thinking on the rest of it for the article I'm working on, but these are all good questions and interesting perspectives. Hoping to get some more posts!

Pat Scott-Walsh said...

The concept of underground isn't even around anymore. Everything now is just one giant network. There are just degrees of separation between you and whatever band or group or whatever you want to put here. But honestly, this subject isn't even uttered anymore unless its in some retrospective manner like this. So much back in the day bullshit it makes you sick. The people who don't want to be pigeonhole or labeled with subculture and politics they don't agree with don't need to be. It seemed like the only way to have access to "the underground" before was to be part of something. People don't want that anymore. I don't want it. To some extent the community is dead, and to me... it seems like a mixed blessing.

Tobi Vail said...

ok, so far we have some mixed opinions on that...it seems like it's still "cool" to be cynical and people like to declare their allegiance to the mainstream as if it's a profound act of individualism, somehow an act against conformity. this has always seemed, to me, like the status quo getting the upper hand. like, when it's cool to be racist and sexist and homophobic and cool to be a republican, then things are really cutting edge again. it's like....huh?

as someone who has tried to be visionary, in the sense of let's criticize 'the way things are' so that we can change them...to use criticism as a way to be vigilant against capitalism, against patriarchy, against passive acceptance of consumer culture....I guess I don't get it when people are like, 'that's not cool right now, people don't care'...it's our job to change this! right?

or do we just want to conform to society's bullshit rules? when that idea of punk is dismissed as nostalgia, then really who are the kids? more importantly, who are you working for? where does your allegiance lie?