In Defense Of the Lumineers And 'Mall Indie'
    • FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 05, 2016

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    If there's one thing the music snobs of the world all hate, it's "mall indie." Considering it's a term we jokingly use in the office, you might not know what "mall indie" means. It's pretty self-explanatory. Bands that are "mall indie" are bands that have a chance to play over the speakers at the mall. You're shopping in your local Urban Outfitters and suddenly "Call It What You Want" by Foster the People comes on. Or (to broaden the term), you're watching One Tree Hill, and all of a sudden, your Chad Michael Murray fix is being accompanied by Band of Horses or Feist. To simplify the term, it's "indie" with crossover, commercial appeal. And if you dismiss those sort of bands out of hand, I immediately stop listening when you speak.

    There's this great myth that there are two types of artists: those who do it solely for the sake of their art and those who do it for the money. If you're a working artist, I promise you that -- unless you've reached the point in your career where money is no longer an issue or you already come from money and therefore money isn't an issue -- you're doing it at least in part for the money. You have bills to pay. You want to do this for a living so you can quit the unfulfilling day job you have that is adding hunger and drive to your art in the first place. And in order to make money off of this art, it has to be something that someone, somewhere is going to pay to listen to. You have an audience in mind every time you make something. If you don't and you manage to make it (and it happens), you're some sort of prodigy. Anyone else in the solipsist camp of art has to eventually come to terms with the fact that no matter how much meaning their art may have to them, it isn't connecting to other people and they won't be known for it.

    And there is a difference between writing a song and hoping that other people enjoy it and writing a song that panders to the lowest common denominator of whatever trends are exploding in your scene. It's the difference between Chvrches -- whose brand of ebullient, shimmering synth pop transformed the Glaswegian trio into international superstars -- and all of the cheap imitations that have popped up in their wake. It's the difference between Foster the People and lesser bands that thought they could score a massive radio hit with an over-reliance on kick-drums and dance beats. It's the difference between Temper Trap and any band that thought they could get over with just an attractive lead singer with a crazy falsetto.

    Chvrches and Foster the People and Temper Trap and Disclosure and Charli XCX and Of Monsters and Men and Mumford & Sons and Passion Pit and other bands that one could reasonably call "mall indie" wrote songs within the template of classic pop (or folk or dance) and brought a fresh perspective to scenes that had grown stagnant. They didn't succeed simply because they embraced commercialism. They brought something new to audiences who were hungry for more than the same old shit on the radio. They weren't writing something on the edge of the avant-garde. It was never their intention, and it's unfair to hold them to those standards. They were attempting to invite people who may not have a familiarity with non-commercial music to something a little outside their comfort zone by offering them fare that's a couple steps removed from what they already know. And good for them for making money that way.

    I got into "indie" music because of songs that would qualify for "mall indie" if they weren't written by bands that are part of the official indie canon. My first two "indie" records were Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and The Shins' Oh, Inverted World. I was a kid that grew up almost entirely on classic rock. And I loved Neon Bible because it reminded me of Springsteen and U2. I loved Oh, Inverted World because it reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel as well as The Beach Boys. That's how music works. Every band that has ever existed draws influence from someone. We latch onto (or reject) that familiarity. It's how we discover new things. Everybody fell in love with Kendrick Lamar a couple years back because he reminded us of Nas and Tupac and now he's arguably one of the most beloved figures in all of music. Haim (the literal definition of "mall indie") won me over when I realized how shameless their love of both Wilson Philips and Fleetwood Mac was. My little sister got into "indie" music because "Pumped Up Kicks" became a massive hit, and then she listened to Foster the People's Pandora stations and started to find the bands that were a little more obscure that now mean more to her than that smash hit ever did.

    And if you're the sort of person that doesn't want your favorite bands to be known/loved by anyone else, you need to come to terms with the fact that you're a selfish piece of s***. Every artist (unless they're content with obscurity or totally full of s***) wants acclaim. They want fans. They want people to connect to their art. Music is like literature and film. There are people who get high on their superiority to what is popular. I know that because I have a bad habit of being one of those folks. And there's nothing wrong with critiquing popular art in good faith. But I'm so god damn tired of hearing tracks dismissed because "they're too poppy." If your most substantive complaint about a piece of music is that it works too well on the part of our brain that processes warm melodies and memorable hooks, congratulations. You just actually gave that song a compliment.

    This whole spiel is brought to you by The Lumineers. The band just released a new single today, "Ophelia" (a mellow folk ballad that immediately strikes me as a grower), and if any group of the last five years or so has been the whipping boy of the "mall indie" hatedom, it's them. The Colorado folk-rockers have earned the reputation of being "Mumford-lite" which is silly 1) because they sound almost nothing like Mumford & Sons besides being a folk band and 2) because it rests on an unstated presumption that Mumford & Sons aren't particularly interesting either. And whether you like The Lumineers (I'm a big fan) or don't, to dismiss them as the culmination of the dilution and commercialization of folk music in the last ten years seems both lazy and a bridge too far.

    I could write an entire essay (and might at some point in the future) about why the Lumineers' self-titled debut is worthy of a critical revisit. Four years removed from the folk zeitgeist that was shaping the early 2010s, the album provides a more dramatic, more atmospheric, and more vocally driven spin on the genre. I'm not sure how much the Lumineers have in common with Mumford, but it's impossible to not hear the imprint of early Laura Marling in its almost gospel-esque theatricality. But there's a playful energy present that the always serious Mumford tends to lack.

    But this isn't an article about the Lumineers (though it was originally meant to be). It's about why music critics need to examine their prejudices against this particular part of the indie soundscape. This isn't generally a problem within mainstream music publications, but it's endemic in an indie sphere where Childish Gambino's Camp can get a 1.6 (on a scale of 10) from arguably the indie publication of record and have said review start with the phrase "if you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I'm guessing it will be Camp" in a year that gave us a f***ing Kanye West/Jay-Z collaborative album. A 1.6 album is something Nickelback or Kid Rock drops. I have major substantive quibbles with that Gambino record but a 1.6? That's snobbery pandering to an audience of snobs.

    So why do people...people who write about this s*** for a living...dismiss these bands out of hand? I think a large portion of it is that, by my own admission, a lot of these bands are "singles" artists. And music writers/music snobs are obsessed with album artists. And I get that. I'm an album guy. But if you think for one second that the album has been the primary method of music consumption for the average music-listener in the slightest since the advent of the MP3, you're deluding yourself. Hell, even in the day when people actually bought full albums, physical singles were also sold. The average person listens to the radio. They're not listening to whole records. And if you're a working artist trying to pay your bills, you're going to work in the medium that gets you paid, and it's still possible to do fascinating things within the framework of the single.

    There's little debate that Elton John is one of the greatest of all time. I saw him at Bonnaroo in 2014. It's tied for my favorite concert I've ever been too. I can't name a single essential Elton John record (except maybe Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) but I would take his collection of singles over most of the library of records of your traditionally acclaimed "album bands." Great songs work because of their brevity. You can listen to one track over and over in a way you can't play an album over because of the time commitment. I once listened to Tina Turner's "What's Love Got To Do With It" like eight times in a row on the G train to Williamsburg. I could afford the time commitment to pick it apart more than I could pick apart listening to a record eight times in a row. Singles breed the familiarity that is at the forefront of how we interact with music.

    What this whole rant boils down to is that it's fine to like "mall indie." It's fine to like weird, avant-garde s*** (let me talk to you about how brilliant Flying Lotus is sometime...although even he speaks to me through his obvious love of jazz and Miles Davis). It's fine to prefer singles. It's fine to prefer albums. Just don't get it in your head that you get to condescend to folks just because the bands they like had the audacity to decide they want to write something that has the potential to be enjoyed by more than just the art house set.

    Long live "mall indie."

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