That collective gasp when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs snagged the Album of the Year prize at the 2011 Grammys was not just the sound of middle America murmuring “Who?” It was also the crestfallen sigh of the hipster nation, aghast that another of its warriors had succumbed to the dark side. It was yet another lost battle to keep underground music where it belonged – in the hands of teens and 20-somethings dedicated to sporting thrift shop apparel and ironic looks.
As a grizzled codger, I took a “seen it all before” attitude. I am, after all, twice the average hipster’s age with an unfathomable 44 fire-hazard-producing candles atop my last birthday cake. That cry of “I remember when that band belonged to us” was not invented by the latte-swilling generation. There have been decades of precedents, be it U2 taking over the world with their #1 hit “With Or Without You”, Green Day signing with a major label so that they could win over the masses with songs about masturbation and paranoia, or Nirvana dethroning Michael Jackson on the album chart.
The “sell out” tag was attached to all these bands prior to these incidents, but like Arcade Fire’s Grammy victory, these were defining moments when indie faves became mainstream darlings. Hipsters might lament that Arcade Fire lost their edge when they racked up Grammy nominations. Maybe it was when The Suburbs topped the album chart. It could go back to their sophomore effort, 2007’s Neon Bible, hitting #2. It might date to “Wake Up” becoming inescapable or when the band’s 2004 debut, Funeral, went gold.
Ever since rock ‘n’ roll became the music for the masses with Elvis’ hip swiveling broadcast to millions via The Ed Sullivan Show, there has been an alternative scene dedicated to, well, not the masses. The garage rock of the ‘50s gave way to beret-wearing beatniks celebrating Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground pet project in the ‘60s.
In the ‘70s, Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop in Britain and Hilly Kristal’s CBGB club in New York gifted punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Ramones to disenfranchised youth with tastes for power chords and clothing decorated with safety pins. With their early brand of electronica, Kraftwerk spawned synth-loving new wave rockers who dressed fashionably and sported ozone-killing hairdos. Goth-rock innovators like Joy Division birthed a generation of brooding musicians and followers marked by jet-black hair drooping over pale faces and mascara-painted eyes.
It all gelled together just enough in the early ‘80s to spark under-the-radar radio stations devoted to representing the various underground scenes. A more all-encompassing banner became necessary. This left-of-center music which appeals to 20-somethings who dress funny has been saddled with a handful of monikers over the last 30 years, but I’ll call it “MICAH”. Huh? Who’s MICAH? No, not who, but what. “MICAH” is my admittedly cheesy acronym for music that has, at one time or another, been defined as modern, indie, college, alternative, and hipster music.
Because of its origins at under-the-radar college radio stations at the dawn of the ‘80s, this music first gathered under the “college rock” banner. Some of the genre’s earliest champions were U2, R.E.M., Duran Duran, INXS, Depeche Mode, and the Cure. In what became the MICAH music trend, these bands all forfeited their college-rock membership badges when they landed top-selling albums fueled by top ten hits. Fanatics who had supported these bands pre-MTV cried “sell out” and embraced the never-quite-prime-time rockers like the Replacements and Sonic Youth.
By the late ‘80s, the term “college rock” was overhauled to “modern rock”, presumably because its 20-something listener base were now struggling to pony up cash for rent and car payments instead of textbook fees and pizza deliveries. Groups like Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers found ways to turn Run-D.M.C’s remake of “Walk This Way” into an entire rap-rock genre. Like their predecessors, however, they were booted to the curb by their MICAH base when they fueled their efforts into top ten hits like “Epic” and “Under the Bridge”.
In the ‘90s, the music was rechristened “alternative rock” and helmed by punk rock revivalists like Green Day and flannel-wearing grunge rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Once again, these were the flagship groups who quickly outgrew their underground aesthetic when they became “the music of a generation”.
Amusingly, another MICAH trend perpetrated itself during this era. Much as groups like the Jesus and Mary Chain or Echo & the Bunnymen had enjoyed far greater success in their native UK, ‘90s groups like Blur and Oasis led the Britpop movement overseas, but were just part of the collective alt-rock genre in the States. Apparently, it was acceptable to listen to bands who’d landed huge hits – as long as they hadn’t done so in North America.
Another reboot was necessary by the end of the century. This time the worshippers of non-mega-label music opted to stamp their favorite tuneage with the “indie rock” tag. Once again, bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes, which came out of a garage revivalist movement, quickly became too big for their britches.
In the 21st century, MICAH music has become the soundtrack for hipsters whose credibility lies in latching on to that to which the general public remains clueless. Ironically, the very collective comprised of those who make such effort to not be defined have, like their predecessors, pretty cleanly boxed themselves into a clique with their concerted efforts at their alternative looks, tastes, and lifestyles.
What’s a MICAH fan to do when the rest of the world is suddenly aware of what was supposed to stay underground? Emo proved a failed outlet for indie tastes as Pete Wentz hooked and unhooked with pop singer Ashlee Simpson as quickly as his group Fall Out Boy and fellow emo rockers Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance went from underground to mainstream to falling out of favor. Similarly, dance-rock revival groups like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers were big before they’d ever been small.
In recent years, Mumford & Sons, the Fleet Foxes, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses, and the Hold Steady earned just enough media spotlight to leave hipsters wondering where to turn next. Thanks to the digital age, anyone and their mother can download anything ever recorded or YouTube anything ever filmed. Bands like Vampire Weekend practically had their MICAH membership cards revoked before they’d arrived in the mail.
Well, MICAH fans, rejoice. For every Arcade Fire or U2 or Green Day who makes it big, there will be a wake of also-rans. For every album that sells in the six-figure range, there will be other acts who struggle to sell, well, six albums. Every suburban garage holds possibilities for the next band that will go nowhere and every local club potentially houses the next audience-of-one performance by the latest not-up-and-coming band.
Oh, and there is one more possibility. Don’t gauge how much you should or shouldn’t like a band based on their sales on iTunes, their number of fans on Facebook, or the size of the venues they play. Don’t fret over who does or doesn’t have your band’s tunes spinning on their iPods. Don’t get alarmed when your band hits one million plays on YouTube or uses their song to hock product in TV commercials. Like the bands you like because… well, because you like them. Just a thought from a decidedly unhip fogie who’s probably old enough to be your father.