The Shins and skinny jeans: the ever-changing meaning of ‘indie’

HAMILTON (CUP) – In the movie “Pineapple Express,” Seth Rogen’s character tells his high school-aged girlfriend, “You’re gonna go to college, and you’re gonna get really into Godspeed You Black Emperor, and the fucking Shins.” This is just one example of how indie culture has been adopted and co-opted by the mainstream, using cultural signifiers such as indie bands to comment on the culture conventionally consumed by young people.

Initially the term “indie” signified something this was independent, most commonly used to describe independent bands that weren’t signed by a major record label. But over time, indie evolved into a descriptor for anything outside of the mainstream and often it is even more loosely used to describe something that resembles a DIY aesthetic.

Big deal. The same thing has happened with countless subcultures, punk included. Punk was a lifestyle and morphed into an aesthetic. But why is indie so touchy? The indie culture is overhyped and a major source of tension for culture consumers. People are throwing the term around along with words like “hipster.”

Indie is trendy. Indie is mainstream. Indie movies like “Juno,” bands like The Shins, websites like Threadless or; all of these things have been adopted by the mainstream, and you’re nothing special for liking them anymore. It doesn’t reflect any early bird, fashion forward, alternative sensibilities.

Pitchfork’s Nitsuh Abebe writes in his article “The Decade in Indie:” “More and more, we define ourselves . . . via our skills in picking interesting things out of that cloud of options. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that somewhere in this process, ‘indie’ completed its trip from being the province of freaks and geeks to something with cachet – something that appeals to people’s sense of themselves as discerning.”

Has anyone seen the Threadless t-shirt with the slogan “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet?” This exact sentiment is a good example of the sort of tension around indie culture. Consuming indie culture was cool when you were the only one doing it, because it was alternative, but once it has been co-opted by the mainstream, it’s only cool if you consume it first.

What constitutes as indie if indie no longer means what it used to? Generally the indie aesthetic embodies at the very least a pseudo-DIY style, a creative and ethically conscious outlook, and a polite, pleasant demeanor, that wouldn’t offend your parents, but probably wouldn’t attract them either.

Abebe continues, “Any film, book, or cultural product that came anywhere near a certain sensibility – anything anyone would describe as ‘quirky’ or cleverish or tender – fell in the indie bucket, too: Garden State with its hilarious Shins scene, Wes Anderson movies, Dave Eggers . . . Juno, Zooey Deschanel’s general existence, private colleges, button shirts, the Internet, IKEA, Miracle Whip, literacy, you tell me. The sensibility used to seem rarer, and then . . . half the people attracted to it grew up and got creative jobs and now it floats everywhere.”

At this point if you are wondering what a working definition of indie might be, you might be out of luck. One definition that I like is put forth by Kaya Oakes. In her book “Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture,” she explains, “Indie is not just about DIY, though DIY remains its central tenet. It’s about serving your community, self-actualization via creativity, and it’s about empowerment, all of which occur as a result of DIY.”

This does translate to the mainstream conception of indie. If Animal Collective is indie, it’s because although they were distributed by Universal they were initially on their own independent label. If American Apparel is indie, it’s because even though they are one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the United Sates, they support fair wages and don’t airbrush their models. So while there is usually some correlation between DIY and something that is considered ‘indie’ in the mainstream, it usually doesn’t conform to indie idealism.

Oakes elaborates: “The signifiers of indie in popular culture are multifarious and often puzzling due to their blatantly corporate ties: iPods are indie (since indie artists like Feist sing in iPod commercials) . . . Chuck Taylor sneakers are indie; tattoos are indie; shock-fiction writer Chuck Palahniuk is indie; shag hair-cuts are indie; male facial hair is indie; eyeglasses are indie (especially if they’re thick framed); and yes, skinny jeans.”

Don’t get me wrong; I consume indie, whatever it is. But what began as a subculture centered on politeness, quirkiness and pleasant music, has morphed into a much-contested aesthetic that is often associated with pretension and arrogance. People need to drop the attitude, and live and let live.