[from the gut] Demanding style over substance in indie music and culture

Editor's note: this is the first column in a new series from Chris Keene, singer/guitarist of Boston rock band Mean Creek. Follow them: @MeanCreek

In Martin Scorsese's 2005 BOB DYLAN documentary, No Direction Home Bob Neuwirth explains that in the underground folk scene of the 1960s, when someone was curious about whether an artist was worth checking out or not, they would ask, “Does he/she have something to say?” That’s how they judged an artist. What were they adding to our lives? What were they saying about our lives? What could we learn from them? Great songs are learning tools for life. They are a reflection of ourselves, they move us, and in turn help us understand things in a way we may have never been able to understand otherwise. That’s what art does. In the 1960s, it was all about the substance of the song. When I look around at the current indie music landscape, I wonder what happened to that sentiment.

The internet has made all music available to everyone at any time. Internet blogs have become a huge part of indie culture. We live in an age where they can make or break an artist. In a recent online review of the new CHRISTOPHER OWENS solo album, Lysandre, the entire first paragraph, 160 words to be exact, is spent talking about the significance of the artist’s hair. Owens’ emotional honesty and songwriting craftsmanship is as impressive and apparent as ever throughout Lysandre, but the album is for the most part panned in this review albeit for a couple of complimentary sentences in the final paragraph. The review then ends with yet another line about Owens’ hair. What does the artist’s hair have to do with whether or not his music is worth listening to? The answer to that question is simple: nothing; and it’s this kind of thinking that helps flood our music world with superficial garbage, and leaves a lot of real talent struggling to be heard.

In 2011, before having read anything about her, I randomly discovered the songs “Video Games” and “Born To Die” by LANA DEL REY. I loved the songs, I loved her voice, and I didn’t judge it on anything but that. After hearing it, I went to research the artist, and I found more articles written about her rich family history, name change, and fake lips than I found written about her music. Did any of this superficial information change how those songs affected me? Of course not, nor should it.

Indie culture is just as image and trend obsessed as the mainstream now; sometimes even worse. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read the labels “lo-fi” or “chill wave” on a music blog over the past year, I’d be a millionaire. These trends come and go faster and faster, and it makes me wonder, what does it add up to? As they proposed in the underground of the 1960s, do these artists have anything to say? Sometimes they do, but too much focus is put on image and trends, and too little focus is put on the music and the substance of the song.

I want to hear about substance over style. I want to hear people care about music because it means something to them, because it resonates with them; music that has something to say. Most importantly I want to hear bands that make music for those very same reasons. Not just to get popular, or to be hip, or to look cool, but to play good honest music. As KURT COBAIN famously said, “I think punk rock should mean freedom. Liking and accepting everything that you like, playing whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, as long as it’s good and it has passion.”

Let’s try to always remember the last part of that quote.

Chris Keene can be reached at

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