Out of tune: why indie music in India is dead

The demise of indie-rock can be blamed on a lack of ideas, the towering shadow of Bollywood and the rise of rap, R&B and electronica.

Early last month, David Longstreth of American experimental indie-rock band Dirty Projectors took to Instagram to discuss the state of indie-rock, questioning whether the genre had become “both bad and boujee [bourgeois]”. In a slightly rambling note, he argued that after more than a decade of pushing the boundaries of both rock and popular music, indie-rock had become both musically underwhelming and “also bad like sartrian bad faith, outwardly obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense”.

The post sparked a spirited discussion, with the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold pitching in to say that there was nothing “cutting edge” in the modus operandi of contemporary indie-rock. It didn’t take long for this interesting discussion to turn into a slagging match as younger artists chimed in to defend indie-rock and to call Longstreth and Pecknold “out of touch”.

On Twitter the next day, music writers had a field day joking about the “day indie-rock died” or dusting off their old hot takes from the last time someone posed the “is rock dead?” question. Battle lines were drawn, barricades manned and any possibility of reasonable discussion was buried under the 140-character Molotovs being hurled from both sides.

I found myself thinking of Longstreth’s question a few days later, as I listened to Mumbai indie-rockers Blek’s long-awaited second EP. Released six years after their critically-acclaimed debut, it had all the elements that made Blek one of the most exciting acts around when they broke through in 2011. The infectious grooves are still there, as are the nods to British indie-rock and dance-punk. The guitars gleam and chime, clean wholesome basslines rumbling in complement. Over it all, frontman Rishi Bradoo – a little wearier, a little wiser – lays down alt-crooning vocals about love and heartbreak.

When Blek emerged, this sound was exciting and (relatively) fresh. Six years down the road, it sounds dated and uninspired. As I listened to the record, I couldn’t help but think that Longstreth had a point. Indie-rock – and guitar music in general – has run out of ideas. And as a result, after decades of overwhelming dominance, it has also lost its hold over the musical mainstream. Or in India’s case, whatever musical mainstream exists under Bollywood’s towering shadow.

Rock’s place as the avenue for cutting edge artistry in the pop world has now been overtaken by rap, R&B and electronica, even as the few rock leftovers retreat into nostalgia and retromania.

The last wave of exciting young guitar bands in India came early this decade, when acts like The Lightyears Explode, Blek, Peter Cat Recording Co, The Supersonics and the F16s looked like they were gearing up to be the reigning kings of a rapidly-expanding indie scene.

Instead, we’ve seen them ignored by promoters hungry for accessible, bar-friendly music, break up (The Supersonics), lose steam (The Lightyears Explode) or continue to peddle a sound that was barely fresh when they started, to middling success (The F16s, Blek).

EDM acts like Nucleya and Dualist Inquiry have taken over the headliner slots; experimental electronica and bedroom producers have taken up the mantle of being cutting edge, and rock can no longer compete with the fast-growing rap scene’s sense of danger and an authenticity that cuts across class lines that indie-rock never managed to cross.

Even the perennially-safe pop-rock space has been taken over by folk acts and Hindi pop bands, much more accessible to the average Indian than the desi version of Bryan Adams. Which leaves Indian rock in a cultural no man’s land.

Before I get lynched by a Twitter mob, let me clarify that I’m not writing guitar music’s obituary here. It still exists in the margins, living off the nostalgia of 30-something scenesters and a new generation of rock kids who have grown up on a diet of pasty-white American indie. And India’s metal and punk scenes still offer the sense of transgressive frisson they always have to small and devoted audiences, with bands like Hoirong and Skyharbor sticking to their progressive guns.

But much like in the West, rock music in India is lost in the wilderness, bereft of even a spark of new musical ideas. It doesn’t help that many of India’s rock musicians refuse to even see the elephant in the room, content to rip off classic rock tropes that were already old when they were still in their diapers, while sharing luddite memes about how DJs aren’t real musicians because they only press play.

But perhaps it was inevitable. Unlike American and British indie-rock, which despite its overwhelming whiteness maintained a link to blue-collar communities until recent times, Indian rock has always been by and for the privileged urban upper-classes.

Underneath the outsider pretence was a comfortably bourgeois interior that very few artists were able to move beyond. Their travails are not the travails of economic or social exclusion but of being well-off, bored and Anglicised in a country that was none of the above.

This was all well and fine as long as everything stayed in the same upper-class bubble. But as that bubble expands to include new audiences from smaller towns and lesser means, their creative bankruptcy in both content and form stands exposed.

In the West, women and people of colour have already started a fightback, reclaiming rock music from the stranglehold of the young white male voice that has lulled it into its current coma. Artists like Waxahatchee, G.L.O.S.S, and Speedy Ortiz are subverting indie’s “electric white boy blues” by bringing in new voices and a newer, more inclusive sensibility.

In India, where indie-rock has never reached out to anyone other than bored rich boys in the metros, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So yeah, Indian rock isn’t dead. But maybe it deserves to be. Long live the usurpers.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes about music, protest culture and politics.

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