Well the Grammy's have come and gone, leaving us with that same cacophony of yays and nays about the state of popular music that we hear each year.
Pop music is trash!
Remember when musicians actually were musicians!
We're in the midst of a pop renaissance!
And on and on. Say what you will, but after the spectacle died down and the top honor of the night went to Mumford & Sons' album Babel, at least one thing is clear: We are in the midst of the New Sincerity.
See, in the era of the New Sincerity, it's OK to be weird and to have weird preoccupations. A few examples: Gadgets used to be just for geeks, now everyone has at least one; fantasy books consistently top best seller lists; Pinterest exists.
Ultimately, being really into something is cool now, even if that something is, well, God, as Mumford & Sons and many other Indie rockers seem to be.
A quick history of indie rock: Indie grew out of grunge rock, which was itself a reaction to the over-the-top insincerity of glam rock and heavy metal. When grunge died (most say this corresponded with the death of Kurt Cobain), what emerged was a generation of musicians -- and eventually, filmmakers, writers and artists -- who shared grunge's disgust for flashy image-laden rock, but they also eschewed the overly ironic and detached posture of their grunge forbearers. Grunge had shown that it wasn't cool to be cool, and thus Indie rockers took it even further: not being cool was kind of cool. Eventually it seemed settled that the only thing that is actually cool is being authentic.
This emphasis on authenticity means that there really is no shortage of examples of Indie artists working out questions of faith in their songs. From folkier artists like Iron and Wine, Monsters of Folk and, indeed, Mumford & Sons, to rockers like Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire, examples abound. Writing for Religion Dispatches, S. Brent Plate describes Indie rock as "music of faith ... if only because the musicians give voice to pain, doubt, and survival."
Case in point: many significant indie artists, particularly early on in the movement, were either Christians or former Christians who eschewed the Christian music industry in favor of independent record labels. Some of these include Neutral Milk Hotel, Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, Sufjan Stevens and Further Seems Forever, among others. More than anything (and certainly not coincidentally), this is a function of the emphasis on authenticity in Indie rock, which makes it acceptable for artists to mine their religious backgrounds and continue to give voice to their spiritual journeys.
Plate points out an important aspect of Indie's dealings with faith: it's never easy. More often than not, Indie artists express doubt or disbelief through their music, and we listen along as they wrestle with God. Thus, it is not surprising that Mumford & Sons give voice to both their faith and doubt. But what is kind of surprising is how popular they've become by doing it.
Indie rock, as a cultural phenomenon, has not reached the same level of commercial appeal as other genres that have come in and out of fashion, but its influence on popular culture, from movies to television to books, is huge. Though, as Mumford's big win at the Grammy's this year, and Arcade Fire's surprise award back in 2011, shows us, Indie artists are breaking through. And, with its establishment of the New Sincerity as a permanent pop culture ethic, Indie rock's influence reaches beyond the music world.
This fact hasn't been well received by everyone. In an article for The Phoenix, a Boston alt-weekly, a writer named Luke O'Neill bemoaned this trend while simultaneously providing a rather accurate history of how it developed. He writes,
"Around the turn of the millennium, bands started to triangulate among the over-earnest butt rock of grunge, the little-boy tantrum punk of emo, and the ironic indifference of indie. Somehow, they came up with the authenticity response ... indie became less about rocking out, f---ing around, and having fun, and more about caring about s---."
So yes, Indie rock made it "cool to care," even encouraging what might have once been considered strange preoccupations with things that are not typically considered cool by the culture at large -- like God, as we've seen.
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of Mumford & Sons; this is less a function of any distaste for their music so much as a latent pop snobbery that has me wanting declare that they are "so three years ago." But, that said, I'm encouraged by their popularity and the role they play in bringing the New Sincerity to the masses. Turns out, I think over-earnest butt rock is good for us.
This post is partially excerpted from Not Your Mothers's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better.
Follow Jonathan D. Fitzgerald on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jon_fitzgerald