2005 week

Losing Our Edge: 2005, the Year the Mainstream Hijacked Indie Rock

The ideology behind these artists was decidedly indie, which was to say alt, which was to say, anti-corporate and pro-creative freedom. But the way they broke into mainstream culture was old school.

by Lizzy Goodman
16 September 2015, 9:00am


Image by Paul Raffaele

This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revist all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.

When it comes right down to it, the calculus of rock stardom is now and has only ever been very simple: There are bands and there are fans and when the right song from the right band connects with the right fans, it generates money and fame and girls waiting outside the bus, and boys asking how you got that killer sound on whatever song, and free beer, and free Levis, and the cover of magazines, and playing SNL and buying something stupid/awesome like a muscle car or an exotic pet, just because you can. The whole Behind the Music, we’re-famous-now montage come to life.

Back in the dark ages of a decade and a half ago, the path to this kind of success was the same as it had been since the dawn of commercial rock ‘n’ roll: Get yourself signed to a big label, the kind with the influence, connections, and brute financial muscle to support you and—since you want to be a rock star—your probably self-indulgent, expensive habits. An esteemed member of the Big Four that can hire the producer who magically knows your ideal sound better than you do, convince KROC-FM to play your single during drive time, strong arm MTV into putting your video in rotation (since they really need exclusive premiere rights to the new video from the label’s bigger band you’re being marketed as heir to the throne of). The kind of corporate power that will hire you the most connected booker and publicist so you get to play the right shows in the right venues and get written about by the right journalists in the right publications all so you can be discovered, organically, by the right fans. Connect the artist with the fans—that’s always been the point.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is the part of this essay where the writer tells you how the internet changed everything. You’re so smart. It did! But the thing is, it also didn’t. The name of the game remained the same: song + fan of song = success! But the means of delivery, everything about how A + B would come to equal C changed, and the year this really became apparent was exactly 10 years ago, in 2005.

Continued below.

Allow me to take you back. George Bush has just been elected to a second term, and based in large part on his and his party’s banging the drum about the war on terror, the Republicans increased their majorities in both houses of Congress. It was a red, red world out there in America, which meant music should be getting real, real good. And it did. Four years earlier a so-called rock revolution, launched in New York City by bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, resulted in the greatest global resurgence of garage rock sensibility since the punk era, with bands like The White Stripes, The Killers, The Hives, and The Vines achieving substantial commercial success in multiple countries.

The aesthetic and ideology behind these artists was decidedly indie, which was to say alt, which was to say, anti-corporate and pro-creative freedom. But the way they broke into mainstream culture was very old school. Like Nirvana before them, or Green Day (who in 2005 was reasserting their subversive punk cred via their venomous anti-Bush opus American Idiot, one of the top-selling records in the country that year), these bands were, for the most part (exceptions: Interpol, The White Stripes) signed to major labels. In spite of the rebellion and iconoclasm they represented and were inspiring in their fans, they had been discovered, A&R’d, and presented to the marketplace by the same corporate entities responsible for promoting groups like Bush and Limp Bizkit and, you know, O Positive. Bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or The Strokes, taught by their alt rock forbearers to be wary of corporate power, capitalized on the insane buzz they’d generated going into the signing process, as well as the panic the majors were already feeling about their dying business model, and were thus able to secure uncommonly good record contracts with very big labels. But they really were among the last of a dying breed, the last generation of traditional rock stars, raised on record stores and fanzines, discovered in dive bars, wined and dined by label execs with access to private jets and no-questions-asked expense accounts. And they were really the last generation who had to even play that major versus indie shell game. Within a few short years, the idea of employing a big clumsy company with offices in midtown as the middle man between an upstart indie band and its young fans would seem like bad business and worse, very uncool.

There were plenty of signs of what was coming before 2005. In 2004 Interpol’s second record leaked three months before its formal release, threatening to undercut the band’s hard-earned momentum. Meanwhile, a brazen slice of unapologetically loud, dirty guitar rock called “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” by a little known Australian band called Jet was used in of the first iPod commercial and they subsequently went on to sell over three million copies of their record worldwide. But by 2005, it was clear: Indie had gone mainstream. It was as if The Strokes and The White Stripes paved the way aesthetically for an indie sensibility to dominate, and now their immediate predecessors were taking full advantage, aiming higher than the initial wave of bands had, armed with the knowledge that what they have to offer creatively (indie cool) was suddenly big business. For a blissful moment or two, it really felt like creatives were the new corporate power.

This was the year LCD Soundsystem released their self-titled debut on DFA records, which James Murphy formed literally underground, in a friend’s basement in the West Village. The first LCD single, “Losing My Edge” is of course about being old and obsolete and eclipsed by bright-eyed up-and-comers with better vinyl collections and cuter outfits. By the end of the decade LCD would play their final show at Madison Square Garden. This was the year Yeah Yeah Yeahs friend and producer Dave Sitek, also of the newly formed, increasingly acclaimed TV On the Radio, founded Stay Gold studios in Williamsburg, where everyone from Grizzly Bear to Blonde Redhead to the Knife to David Bowie would record. (It’s now a J. Crew). This is the year that Conor Oberst, new resident of New York City, released two albums simultaneously, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and armed with all the hefty promotional might of his tiny homespun Omaha label, Saddle Creek records, watched as the two albums’ singles—“Lua” and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”—claimed the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the year The National release Alligator and locate the sound that will eventually earn them Grammy nominations and inclusion in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. This was the year Franz Ferdinand broke in America with You Could Have It So Much Better, the year M.I.A. released Arular, The Hold Steady put out Separation Sunday, the Kings of Leon release Aha Shake, Heartbreak, and Philly’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah self-release their eponymous debut after a glut of online buzz. With their bassist mailing out copies from his apartment, the limited run sells out, CYHSY score a record deal with Wichita and earn the tag-line, the First Band Blogs Broke. It’s also the year the Arctic Monkeys record Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not, after becoming one of first acts to gain a serious foothold thanks to Myspace. And speaking of the internet, 2005 is the beginning of bloggers as industry power players. Sarah Lewitinn, a.k.a. Ultragrrrl, a DJ and assistant editor at Spin, who had a hand in getting The Killers signed, and briefly managed My Chemical Romance, quit her day job to go run her own label, Stolen Transmission, at Island/Def Jam. Scott Lapatine of Stereogum began to entertain startling buyout offers. A Pitchfork review became as desirable as one in Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, the very landscape New York, the epicenter of this indie earthquake, started to reflect these ideological and aesthetic changes. Brooklyn formally transitioned from a place you have to beg cabs to take you, to the real estate promised land. Jay Z as his partner, developer Bruce Ratner bought the New Jersey Nets and began planning the monolithic Barclay’s Center. In 2003 they’d proposed Frank Gehry would design the building, which was set to include the Nets basketball stadium plus 2.1 million square feet of commercial space and up to 4,500 apartments. The project was to cost $2.5 billion. 2005 was the year they revised their proposal; it was too modest. They eventually won the development rights after bidding $100 million.

By 2005 you could walk into a Target in middle America and buy a pleather motorcycle jacket. It wasn’t long before record sleeves in specially measured, mass marketed frames were as likely to decorate apartment walls, as they were to lie in an artful heap next to a vintage turntable. Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney started including skinny jeans in their collections, and by 2006 the trend had infiltrated malls via Banana Republic and Bebe. Adam Brody, who played the cute nerd Seth Cohen on this era’s defining teen soap, The OC, started getting laid. As the neurotic Jewish kid in Converse who quoted from Chuck Klosterman essays, the idea of this guy as a pin-up would have seemed ridiculous even five years prior. But in this new age of Weezer glasses as sexy and Wes Anderson movies as live action moodboards for the season, an entire way of living that used to be genuinely countercultural—as in you’d get beat up for participating in it—became marketable on a mass level. Being weird became normal.

Given all of this, you’d think you’d look back at the charts from '05 and see nothing but cool rock bands from Seth Cohen’s iPod enjoying their reign. Not so. While it was the year indie broke, it was also the beginning of the split we’ve seen widen between the Beyoncés and Rihannas of the world and everyone else. This was the year the floodgates opened—any band from anywhere could suddenly bid nearly equally for attention. Yay! But much like our financial markets, the deregulation of the music industry has resulted in the decline of the music industry’s middle class. Mariah Carey’s Emancipation of Mimi was the number one album of 2005. Madonna, 50 Cent, Eminem, and Coldplay all had huge years. Yes, we got Bloc Party and Okkervil River and Mountain Goats and Fiery Furnaces, but cynical greatest hits records by Destiny’s Child, Limp Bizkit, and Blink-182 outsold them all.

Nevertheless, it was the last great shift in music, and by extension popular culture, the effects of which are still playing out. There is no Girls without LCD Soundsystem, you know? No Tame Impala without The Strokes. In every kiosk at every major tourist destination in every major European city (and some in Asia and South America) where they used to sell I Heart NY t-shirts, they now sell I Heart Brooklyn versions, a reflection of the global shift in cultural perspective from big batch to artisanal. We still haven’t resolved the widening split between huge untouchable pop stars and everyone else making music, but these days you can buy green juice in Starbucks, stay (soon) at an Ace Hotel in Pittsburg, Urban Outfitters lies about being the biggest vinyl retailer in America because it’s on-brand and our moms know The Strokes and Interpol singles because they keep hearing them over the sound system in the Gap. The revolution came, and it’s still here.

Lizzy Goodman is currently working on an oral history of the New York rock scene between 2001-2011. She’s on Twitter.