When the news broke in October that Condé Nast had bought Pitchfork, I was out of the country. If there were think pieces, I missed them. Today, a Google search turns up a few relatively tame headlines: looks like there was a dispute as to how much money you can make by advertising to millennial males; backlash against Condé Nast for seeming to say Pitchfork is more about men than women; and an assurance via Twitter from Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber that “Women are a huge part of Pitchfork’s staff and readership. We’re totally about reaching all music fans everywhere.”
All music fans everywhere. Now, I don’t mean to ignore the very important question of gender parity. This issue of a mass audience, though, really nags on me. There’s nothing new in pointing out that Pitchfork’s slow assimilation into the mainstream has contributed to the watering down of “indie” as a term with any real ideological significance. Most of the conversation has focused on aesthetics, economics, and authenticity—what it means to sell out. Less has been said, however, about another aspect of the indie tradition: the importance placed on, or at least the attention paid to, the notion of distinct regional identity.
In the U.S., of course, regional identity has always been particularly fragile. We move around too much, and, native peoples excepted, most of us were never that rooted in one place to begin with. Still, the small-scale nature of indie music scenes that popped up in the 1980s always struck me—reading about them well after the fact, but also experiencing later iterations first-hand—as a welcome, rational antidote to the mass media behemoth that dominates national culture. To my mind, at least, it’s hardly a radical notion to think that the music scene in one town should differ from the scene in another; that the particular identity of a place should be somehow reflected in the music made by those who live there, and thus that different areas of the country should each have their own distinct sound. As diverse local enterprise gives way to bland national corporate expansion—you’ve got your Walmart on the outskirts, your Starbucks downtown—local and regional identity becomes more imperiled. Everything goes monotone. Indie music, ideally operating outside of the mainstream economy—at the very least making efforts to do so—thus acts as one way to preserve this diversity.
I feel a kinship to and curiosity about parts of America that I’ve never visited, thanks solely to the music I’ve heard come out of them: Hardcore in D.C. in the 1980s (Bad Brains, Minor Threat, later Fugazi); grunge in the Northwest in the late 1980s–early 1990s (Sub Pop records; Mudhoney and Nirvana); the “soft music” scene and Wham City collective in Baltimore in the 2000s (Dustin Wong, Dan Deacon). This isn’t to say that each scene was a perfect reflection of its city’s identity—indeed, given that indie’s audience skews white, male, and affluent, it would be highly problematic to do so. What I’d like to say is simply that in each of these places, a unique sound emerged; that this is an interesting and welcome phenomenon, and that to understand it requires a discourse of place.
Pitchfork complicates that discourse, though. If, before the internet, sheer logistics dictated that there would be a regional component to underground media, Pitchfork, by virtue of its native-online nature, represented something different from the outset: Pitchfork was an underground publication without ever being a regional one. (The cries of “selling out” that accompanied Pitchfork’s move from Chicago to Brooklyn at the start of the decade ignored the fact that the site had never been particularly keyed in to its hometown.) In this light, Pitchfork’s failure to remain an independent, underground publication seems inevitable, and reflective of a broader American failure, another triumph of undifferentiated national culture and of mass media’s gravitational pull.
Part of me feels embarrassed for phrasing this as a lament. Other music writers—Greil Marcus comes most readily to mind—have embraced the extreme, outsized character of the United States, and praised most highly those musicians willing to contend with the country in all its big awfulness. Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t made for small scenes; the goal is always to reach the mass audience. There’s no sense mourning whatever gets lost on the way; it all just contributes to the myth. Never mind that most of us don’t live outsized lives, or that behemoth America is often less awe-inspiring than simply oppressive.
Maybe its reach isn’t infinite yet, though. I recall a documentary called We Fun. Released in 2009, it profiles the music scene in Atlanta, Georgia. The film—which, it should be said, is not really a great film—is a kind of two-decades-late rebuttal/counterpart to the 1987 film Athens, GA Inside/Out: though Athens is much smaller than the capital, it had received more attention over the decades, thanks to bands like the B-52s, REM, and Neutral Milk Hotel; with the late-’00s rise of bands like Deerhunter and the Black Lips, Atlanta was enjoying newfound prominence. Living in Athens at the time of the film’s release, and having grown up in Atlanta, this was all of great interest to me.
That said, it’s possible I wouldn’t have seen We Fun if it hadn’t been available for screening on Pitchfork when it came out—ironic, I guess, but the site had helped break many of the bands appearing in the film; it made sense that they’d screen it. Anyway, there’s a scene in which King Khan and members of the Black Lips are shooting off fireworks in a parking lot. At some point King Khan gets right in front of the camera and says, “Fuck Athens!” I remember wondering then, as I still wonder now: did all music fans everywhere get the joke?
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.