Indie Grown-Ups: Are Wilco and Fesit our Adult Contempoary Music?

Nitsuh Abebe New York 10/31/11

Months before the release of Wilco’s latest record, The Whole Love, front man Jeff Tweedy told Spin the album might turn out a bit obnoxious and irreverent, at least compared with the band’s other work. Of course, he also figured that as soon as the record was out, there’d be “somebody sitting in a basement at their computer with the word ‘meh’ already typed up,” waiting to write it off. The finished product certainly doesn’t sound cramped; it ranges around from sunny Americana to pop-rock fundamentals, and it’s bookended by two long tracks you might describe as experiments. But it’s the kind of record a lot of fans praise not by pointing out powerful songs or grand ideas but by spotlighting the musicians themselves—some imaginative, molten-metal guitar leads from Nels Cline here, some nimble and inventive drumming from Glenn Kotche there. It turns out that Tweedy and his basement “meh”-sayers are both right: Wilco has packed some first-rate musicianship into an album that feels a bit like sitting on a Chicago back deck watching a particularly uneventful baseball game.

A similar reception might be in store for the Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist and her new album, Metals. Four years ago, a sly pop song called “1234” wound up propelling her out of indie circles and further into the mainstream than she might have imagined—the kind of mainstream that involves Grammy performances. The problem: For a while, countless descriptions of her music revolved around coffee shops and dinner parties or cast her as a maker of middlebrow background listening, of NPR Muzak. The career change was big enough that the artist stepped away from music for a few years—and when she returned, it was to hole up in a cliffside studio in Big Sur and make Metals, a record that politely ignores whatever commercial or marketing expectations anyone might have had regarding her. Metals sounds natural, like brambles, stone, and thunder; it’s almost obsessively interested in the sounds of wood knocked, metal plucked, and bodies moving in a large, open room. Now and then, it gets genuinely heavy, ramping up to a commotion like a storm passing over; and unlike Wilco’s latest, it stirs at somewhat more pungent emotions. (Wilco always seems like something you’d listen to in company; Feist is good at making you feel like you’re the only one hearing her.) But as much as it may ignore the bigger audiences it could be courting, Metals is still a singer-songwriter record, with gusty singsong melodies about finding clarity by the oceanside delivered over cozy acoustic arrangements—which is to say, there is plenty of “meh” in the world for it, too.

Perhaps that dismissive reaction strikes you as snobby or elitist. Then again, perhaps you have precisely the same feelings about, say, Mylo Xyloto, this week’s album release from Coldplay, a band much of the mainstream public has agreed to think of as boring pap; at times it seems like their pivotal role in our culture is to give even the most casual listener one solid chance to be snobby about music. And perhaps you wouldn’t feel particularly elitist about that opinion; only correct.

If I were to claim that records like Metals and The Whole Love—or recent albums by Neko Case, Bon Iver, Stephen Malkmus, perhaps even Radiohead—represented some kind of norm or mainstream in American music, you might wrinkle your nose a bit. These acts don’t sell nearly the number of records that Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Coldplay do, and we have the habit of thinking of them as independent acts (and, by extension, underdogs). But if there is a consensus about what counts as respectable, adult music in 2011, these acts are surely a part of it: While more people consider pop music inherently silly than enjoy it, few assaults are leveled at the seriousness or artistic value of this stuff. It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it. If this sounds close to the definition of what was once considered “adult contemporary,” well, that’s precisely the territory bands like Wilco have spent the past decade colonizing, often entirely by accident. One good indicator of this norm’s normalness? The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it. These acts, intentionally or not, have won; they’ve taken a lower-sales, lower-budget version of the type of trip Sting once took, from a post-punk upstart to an adult staple.

In other words: “Meh?” This isn’t just knee-jerk meanness. It’s more like the response that turned seventies listeners into punks—growing bored and skeptical about tasteful rock and roll (not unlike Wilco’s), thoughtful singer-songwriters (not unlike Feist), and idea-driven progressive music (not unlike, say, Radiohead’s). Music fans still spend plenty of time making subtle distinctions between the acts they find challenging and the acts they fear might be lapsing into Coldplay’s realm, but the music world is now fragmented enough that we have the luxury of ignoring things we don’t like, rather than rebelling against them—which is why you’ll see more people shrugging and “meh”-ing over this stuff than yelling and spitting. Still, that vague sense of dissatisfaction can lead listeners in new directions. One great sign about new independent rock bands, over the past few years, has been a noticeable uptick in the number whose names are vulgar jokes, or deliberately inappropriate—in other words, mission statements that tasteful professionalism and the approval of sober-minded adults are not among their interests—and who play music that’s abrasive or adventurous enough to match. (It’s been awhile since my listening ran through so many acts like Death Grips, Pissed Jeans, Fucked Up, and Child Abuse.) Respectability, for the moment, looks like something that might be worth avoiding.

This is not, of course, the seventies. Our tasteful professionals aren’t saps shoved down our throats by giant record labels; our sophisticated rock bands aren’t pompous millionaires with silly ideas. (They’re bashful millionaires with sensible ideas, like finding global warming worrisome.) Neither is this the nineties: Acts like Wilco and Feist aren’t slick, pandering constructions. For the most part, they’re independent musicians who’ve scrapped their way to an audience. It’s only recently that major labels have figured out how to groom and market acts for this space—the nook that serves all the purposes of middlebrow adult-contemporary listening, and some of the purposes of indie music, at the same time. That’s one of several reasons music-lovers haven’t gotten too punkishly unreasonable about a band like Wilco pouring out inoffensively pleasant music—another being that there are always a billion other things to listen to. But the great “meh” remains in circulation, and Tweedy’s right that no amount of subtle, well-crafted twists on his format will entirely dispel it.

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