"Indie Rock is about to have a big Pop Culture moment," I told a friend recently. The minute the words came out of my mouth, I of course realized how utterly ridiculous that sentence sounds. Inherent in the word "indie" is something that exists completely outside, or independent of, the mainstream. Nevertheless, there seems to be no denying that after a half decade where American Top 40 radio has been exclusively dominated by the electronic dance music and house-influenced sounds of Lady GaGa, Rihanna, RedOne and their ilk, the continued mainstream success of artists like Foster the People, Gotye, Fun., and their peers suggest that we may be on the precipice of a broader willingness to embrace more varied and eccentric music, the music we used to think of as exclusively "indie."
The seeds of this change in tastes is no clearer than in the career of our superstar du jour, Adele. Adele released her debut album 19 in 2008 to rapturous acclaim. 19 had a number of hit songs worldwide including the global smash "Chasing Pavements," which went to number 1 in the UK and even yielded her a best new artist Grammy. However, none of these accolades helped her music break through in the highly codified and deeply controlled world of American radio, leaving Adele and her music squarely in the "indie" category of the American music scene circa 2008-9. Two years later, Adele released her follow up, 21, which while clearly building and expanding on the retro, soulful vibe of 19, was certainly not a massive overhaul of her sound by any stretch of the imagination. As we all now know, 21 has gone on to yield three number number one singles on US top 40, a trunk full of awards and has gone to be the highest-selling album in America since 2004. Indeed, Adele's music may fit more easily into what Americans have traditionally considered as "indie," but it is also more popular than much of what we more clearly associate with being "pop" in 2012.
This trend toward "indie"-ness, or embracing fringe culture, is somewhat fitting for our time. Oddly enough, one of the most unabashedly mainstream artists working today, Lady GaGa, seems to have spearheaded this movement towards accepting and even elevating those who had historically been considered outsiders. Her message to her young fan base that being "different" is the new "cool" has played a huge role in legitimizing and popularizing "indie"-ness: While GaGa's music is by no means "indie," her mantra "You were born this way!" tells her massive young fan base that trying to fit into any preconceived box of "coolness", or mainstream-ness if you will, should never take precedence over being yourself. In other words, she has helped make it cool to be uncool. Of course, with GaGa this sentiment is reflected far more in her message and her visuals than in her actual music.
Back on the radio, this larger cultural trend has continued to be clearly reflected in popular music over the past year. Building on the success of Adele, LA-based Indie Rockers Foster The People's single "Pumped Up Kicks," a song which was largely removed from the dance-pop sound of most of its peers on the radio in early 2011, rose from obscurity to become one of the defining hits of the year. This was a crossover feat that People's immediate sonic predecessors like MGMT and Empire of the Sun, while certainly producing songs of equal quality as "Kicks," had been unable to mount just two years prior. Furthering the trend, just three weeks ago the top three songs in the country were rock band Fun.'s smash hit "We Are Young" at #1, Australian folk artist Gotye's song "Somebody That I Used to Know" feat indie-darling Kimbra at #2, and Adele's "Set Fire to The Rain" at #3, a top tier that would have seemed ludicrous just a few years prior. In fact, it was the first time that the top 3 songs on Top 40 radio and the top 3 songs on the Adult Alternative chart which more closely monitors independent music, were identical to one another since Nirvana dominated the music scene in the early 90s.
So what does this mean for Indie Rock's future tango with Top 40 radio and Pop Culture at large? Of course, the meaning of "Pop Music," and indeed "indie" music as well for that matter, has always been malleable by definition, and what we think of as a marginal genre can quite suddenly take its place as the defining element in Popular Music. It happened with hip hop and grunge rock 20 years ago, with house and electronica in the past few years and it appears to be happening again with the contemporary indie rock scene. It's increasing popularity, however, seems only fitting in a time where our culture is trending towards a widespread embracing of individual differences in new ways. Legalizing and embracing gay marriage and campaigning to end bullying in high schools are just a few examples of how the new "cool" in American culture seems to be enfranchising what had previously been viewed as fringe cultures. It seems only fitting, then, that the soundtrack to this time period should be music that was itself once viewed as fringe culture. In any case, it's nice to see Americans flocking to a definitively quirky and subtle tune like "Somebody That I Used To Know" over, say, the latest Pitbull/RedOne Collaboration. And that is something that even the most die-hard indie rock fan can, oddly enough, thank Lady GaGa for.