Breaking the Record with Roan Yellowthorn, Part 27: Going Indie

Breaking The Record 2020
Breaking The Record 2020
Jackie McLean of the indie band Roan Yellowthorn grants us an inside look at the making of an album from start to finish in her ‘Breaking The Record’ column.

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:: stream/purchase Rediscovered here ::
‘Rediscovered’ – Roan Yellowthorn

This is going to be something of an exploration. I’m not sure, going into this, how I feel. Maybe, through writing about it, I’ll land somewhere. That’s what usually happens with writing. It helps me get to the heart of the issue.

Just jumping into the Breaking The Record series documenting the making of our album from start to finish? Read part 1 here!

So, here’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the concept of ‘going indie.’ It’s a thing I’ve seen many pop stars do and it smacks of privilege. It rubs me the wrong way. Here’s what I mean when I say ‘going indie.’

Sometimes, you’ll see a pop star. When I say pop star, I mean someone whose musical identity is associated with astronomical commercial success. This person will likely be wealthy from their success. They will likely have major label backing and have a cadre of people they work with for every release and public appearance. Often, these pop stars will not be the writer or sole writer of their music. Instead, they’ll be the face of the music, the singer of the music. Often, they implicitly present themselves as the sole writer. Even if they don’t, the fact that they are the face of the music will lead many listeners to believe that they write their own songs.

I’m not talking specifically about Taylor Swift or Hayley Williams from Paramore, but these are two artists whose turn to ‘indie’ has made me consider this phenomenon.

Sometimes, once a pop star has reached the pinnacle of commercial success, they decide to plumb the depths. Sometimes, when a pop star can go no higher, they try to go lower. They try to establish some street cred by appropriating an indie aesthetic. Here’s how: the glossy, high octane photos will be replaced by make-up free, black and white looks. The images will become more austere, more abstract. Analog media will be invoked – camera film, polaroid framing, PR stills shot with expired film or a disposable camera.

Songs will be more stripped down, tasteful nudity may be alluded to. Musical production will become more minimal. Slickness will be replaced by softness. Grittiness will step in for gloss.

The pop star will maybe start dating a true indie artist. The pop star will likely begin dressing in a more ragged, casual kind of way. Makeup will likely be eschewed.

I believe that this is a kind of appropriation. It’s privilege masquerading as hunger.

There is no place for pop stars in the indie world. I enjoy Taylor Swift’s new album. I like it a lot. And I’m not mad about the fact that she did it. She’s always been somewhere in the realm of confessional songwriting. But there’s something distasteful about the concept as a whole; that a pop star, once they reach the absolute heights of commercial success, would appropriate (and monetarily exploit) the struggle that is a reality for many true indie musicians.

For many musicians, money is tight. Struggle drives lyricism. Recordings are sparse out of necessity. Many musicians work tirelessly to promote themselves, to create their music, to play to small crowds in small venues, to create press photos. To capture their work and send it out to the world as best they can, with the often limited resources they have available to them. These artists make art for art’s sake.ail

I have nothing against commercial, pop music. In fact, I love it. I am an avid listener of pop music. It’s often my preferred listening genre. What I’m saying is that it’s not the same as indie music and can’t claim to be. It’s an altogether different beast. As an indie musician myself, I believe that ‘indie musician’ is a title that is earned. It cannot be bought. An indie musician knows what it’s like to do things on their own. To struggle. I have no problem with an artist experimenting with sound, although it’s worth noting that, on her new album, Taylor Swift borrowed sonically from a sound reminiscent of Maria Taylor, a true indie musician and one of my favorite artists, who has been making music of this kind for years and who does not have the benefit of vast commercial backing.

I do, however, take umbrage when a pop star tries to rebrand themselves by taking hard-earned hallmarks of indie musicians and using them for aesthetic value. That feels wrong to me.

And so, I will say this: if you like Taylor Swift’s new album, good. It’s an excellent album. But, know that there are indie musicians who have been making the authentic version of this sound for years. They are the trailblazers. They paved this road with sweat and tears. There are so many to discover and so many to love. Ready and waiting to be discovered.

Here is a little playlist featuring some female indie artists I can think of just off of the top of my head:

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:: stream/purchase my new cover album here: Rediscovered ::

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Rediscovered - Roan Yellowthorn

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:: Breaking the Record ::

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