The State Of New York's Indiepop Scene: A Roundtable Discussion

Robert Adam Mayer
The Drums play the 4Knots Music Festival tomorrow.
"I don't think any indie pop bands or fans really cried out for attention," Clyde Erwin Barretto told the Voice in this week's feature about the recent rise of New York's indie pop scene. Well, they're getting some.

The NYC Popfest, co-organized by Barretto, recently marked its sixth year of celebrating all that is jangly, haze-shrouded and jubilantly forlorn with a weekend that included local new jacks like Heavens Gate and UK imports like Allo Darlin', while the similarly themed local dance party Mondo has been quietly going strong for eight years. And while the Lower East Side indie incubator Cake Shop has been hit with a number of unexpected legal difficulties recently, several of its most high-profile graduates have reached out to offer their support.

Events and clubs like these have helped create a fertile landscape for indie pop in New York, as seen by the recent success of outdoor-festival staples like The Drums and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. It wasn't always thus. When the Voice talked with Michael Grace Jr. of the beloved sweaterclad post-punks My Favorite recently, he talked about watching his group getting overshadowed by buzzier acts. And while indie pop will likely never be a Hot New Sound like dance-punk or chillwave, it's undeniably having a bit of a moment in New York. SOTC gathered some of the New York's primary experts in the field—Barretto, Grace Jr., Mondo DJs Maz and Miss Modular, the Drums' Jacob Graham, Cake Shop co-owner Andy Bodor, and Pains frontman and indie pop Padawan Kip Berman—to discuss the genre's recent rise, what makes it so special, and what the heck the term "indie pop" means, anyway.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, The Finale: Jay-Z And Kanye West Fiddle While The Underground Gets Wasted

Smell that money burning.
This concludes Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, a conversation about pop music in 2011 between Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph. Read it all again.

Thanks for the handoff, Nick, and thanks to Katherine, Tom and especially Maura for the great conversation over the past few days. I'll try and wrap this thing up with the rigor and candor you all have displayed so far. Quickly, to Tom's question about Skrillex: he is a big deal, and we should be talking more about him. I was just having a conversation about the fact that, yet again, hi-NRG dance music is making important inroads into American dance culture—for the first time since the "electronica" moment of the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, then the Big Beat microsecond of Fatboy Slim and Moby, which we quickly learned worked best on this side of the Atlantic in car commercials and movie trailers.

Skrillex's (and Canadian contemporary Deadmau5) most immediate predecessor—in terms of function, not form—is clearly Girl Talk, who taught American college and high school kids that it's okay to wild the fuck out now and again. Yet whereas Greg Gillis seems like an accidental hero who started making music off Limewire downloads after getting home from work, Skrillex strikes me as much more of a musician's musician—an ex-emo kid who saw an opportunity he couldn't pass up. As some of my smart esteemed colleagues (including Tom—hi Tom!) were discussing on Twitter yesterday, critics need to pay attention to this new wave of party-starters. It's very likely to be a passing fad holding us over until Rock Comes To Reclaim The Fist-Pumping Throne, but maybe—just maybe—it'll trigger the rise of an entirely guitar-free musical culture for the next decade.

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Underwhelmed and Overstimulated, Part Nine: Working For The Weeknd

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Drake and the Weeknd... enjoying themselves?
Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Fellow roundtablers,

As we turn down the home stretch, I have to say this has all been awesome, and I'm a little sad that we'll soon have to wrap this up. That being said, I'm going to take advantage of that fact that neither Maura, Katherine, nor Tom will be able to respond to anything I say and talk a little about the Weeknd. In the words of Abel Tesfaye, you'll wanna be high for this.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part Eight: What Happened When Skrillex Helped America Discover Rave

Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Thanks Katherine—though I'm afraid I'm going to kick the "defending Drake" can further down the road, and leave it to Nick or Eric. I don't enjoy Drake, and sad to say the main thing he makes me feel is "I'm too old for this shit": the world of gender, fame and power relations he's a window onto seems grim and thankless, even if playing it up is his game. Whatever emotions a man of 38 is meant to feel listening to a man of 25, relief surely isn't one of them.

But on the other hand, the first thing I thought of when I heard "Marvin's Room" was, er, my own teenage faves The Wedding Present, and David Gedge's habit of transcribing knotty, private half-conversations in songs—the woman's responses sometimes implied but never given trackspace. Nobody ever called his productions beautiful, but while the genre changes, the manipulative angst remains and will always find an audience.

This kind of automatic pattern recognition is the curse of listening to music too long: You identify things too quickly, it becomes hard to push ghosts aside and focus on what a piece of music is doing in the now. The most-cited book in music criticism this year was Simon Reynolds' Retromania, his attempt to tackle this head-on and ask whether our culture is addicted to its own past. The book touched a nerve with many readers, who intuitively agreed with Reynolds' sense that music's drive towards the future had sputtered and stalled. My feeling is that private retromania—the involuntary encroachment of your own memory—is more of a problem than acts reusing and referencing the '80s and '90s. Occasionally in 2011 I found myself unable to offer much comment on an artist, simply because I felt like I knew and had heard too much.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part Seven: The Sorrows (And Fantastic Sound System) Of Young Drake

Shhh... He's thinking.
Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Look, it's what I've been dreading talking about all year! Anyway. For the past hour, Maura, I've tried to think of one—only one—perfect antidote track, or line even, by a woman to the pickup whines by Drake and those who'd love to be him. I haven't even come close. Nicki Minaj has little interest in this, which is absolutely her right but rules out the most obvious candidate. A few Rihanna shame-changers, like "Watch 'N' Learn"'s "don't ask me if you were the first to sleep here/ 'cause if he did, you wouldn't even be here," might work, but they're lost amid album filler, raunch and career churn. Laura Marling's "Sophia" would work if it had any genre relation whatsoever and if the point of the song wasn't "how and with whom I've moved on is none of your business"—the only safe response when being candid as a female writer almost automatically means people call you oversharing (imagine if Drake was a woman), but no good for countering. And more plausible answer songs like "212" have reaches, as Eric said, currently confined to music blogs and whatever came of Banks' day out with Kanye. JoJo's "Marvin's Room" remake doesn't even pinprick Drake's original hit if you go by audience—even discounting the implications of wanting a white pop singer like JoJo to dethrone a black R&B singer like Drake, which shouldn't be discounted.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part The Sixth: Was 2011 The Best Year For Women In Music Ever?

Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Hi again everyone,

Sure, there was lots of great music put out by women this year—my Pazz and Jop top tens will be stuffed with them. But does that make 2011 a Year of the Woman by any stretch? I'd argue no, and I suspect the guy who I overheard on the subway the other day, who was complaining that while he liked Lady Gaga going to a concert of hers would make him feel like less of a man, would agree with me; those people horrified by "Super Bass"'s showing on the Pitchfork singles list might as well. If anything what bothered me about the Year of the Bro (yes, I'm calling it this now) was the way that gender roles became more circumscribed, the way that people who called bullshit on misogyny and homophobia (OK, I'm mostly talking about Tyler here) were mocked in ways that Nick rightly pointed out were absolutely conservative, and the end result was little more than a lot of empty laughter and "objective" music-blog reports that implied an overtightened sphincter on one side.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part V: Who Is Bon Iver, Again?

D.L. Anderson
That's ee-vayr to you, Nicki Minaj.
Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Greetings to you four from Bloomington, Indiana, a happening college town perhaps one or more of you have flown over at some point. It's the birthplace of Hoagy Carmichael and David Lee Roth, and the home of John Mellencamp and Jagjaguwar Records, a label which this year released an album called Bon Iver, Bon Iver that you may have heard of. Most critics liked it, some liked it a lot, Rosie O'Donnell wanted more, pop lovers and rockists alike united to sneer at the smoothness of his album's textures and its ostensibly outré signifiers (I prefer the first album, but am a sucker for the Bruce Hornsby vibes of "Beth/Rest"). At the time of writing, 317,375 music fans have purchased it—40,000 more than Fleet Foxes, 40,000 less than LMFAO. Yet once the album was nominated for several Grammys last month, lots of people microcasted their ignorance of this album on Twitter. Quickly, another person culled this proudly professed ignorance into a Tumblr called "Who Is Bon Iver?" A member of a long-dormant Australian DJ concern accused him of "selling out" for lending his increased profile to something so horrifying as a whiskey concern, even though the accuser's own group hypocritically endorses deadly mountain calamities.

So what happened? Did the Bro From Eau Claire break through, or is he still a secret? If you follow music on the internet with any regularity, you couldn't go a day without hearing about him, but if you don't, there's a good chance you don't have any idea how to pronounce the name, and wait, the white guy from Kanye's album made his own album and everyone loves it apparently? To Twitter! It's clear why Bon Iver in 2011, just like Arcade Fire in 2010, made ripples critically, popularly, and awardishly—they fit long-established rock tropes into a modern, gently hip, and well-executed form. And it's also clear that this is happening at a point when with very few exceptions, good weird rock music is the last thing you expect to hear released by a music label owned by a multinational corporation.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part IV: The Joys Of Nicola Roberts And The Problem With Odd Future

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Nicola Roberts, having herself a lucky day with the Village Voice.
Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Hey all. Again, thanks to Maura for putting this together, and thanks to Katherine for not only writing another outstanding recap of 2011 but also handing off to me no less topics than Bon Iver, PBR&B, K-Pop, all hip-hop, the cloud, and trollgaze. Where should I start?

Not with trollgaze, but we'll get there, for better or for worse. How about Nicola Roberts? I completely agree with you on that record, Tom, and I know from conversation that Maura and Katherine do too. (Eric?) I'd imagine that my experience with it was pretty common: Blown away by the singles, and by the fact that Cinderella's Eyes was almost a Girls Aloud album, it took me a while to allow it to develop into much more than that. I still enjoyed it plenty—amid the worst year for music ever, how could you not?—but not as much as I did once I started paying closer attention to its latter half.

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part III: Occupying The Year Of The Woman Cliché In Hopes Of Blowing It Up

Kanye West at Occupy Wall Street; confused woman.
Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Hello all, and thanks! I'm honored to be here. Let's talk about the collapse of the global economy.

Or rather, let's not; as tempting as it is to link early 2011's glut of apocalyptic dance or late 2011's druggy numbness to financial panic or cultural malaise, you'd have to glibly ignore 99% of both music and the cultural moment. Even the arguments that almost worked didn't, like the reductive meme that Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne was just about being rich, not about the experience of being black and having become rich. And speaking of the 99%, it's far too soon to anoint any Occupy Wall Street anthem. (Sorry, Jonah, Miley's track is just a fanvid.) There's been music on the ground, of course, and there's an album coming out, but it's telling (of my now-bastardized Google Reader feed, if nothing else) that my main associations between music and Occupy are three things: the Radiohead non-concert that turned out to be a new-media bro's prank, the musicians whose Zuccotti cameos were probably out of good intent but in practice indistinguishable from photo ops, and the albums in Occupy's library, which was seized after the NYPD raids—alas, the cloud couldn't save it.

Nor can megastars—they're too busy mythologizing themselves to survive in lieu of those megasales. There are exceptions; candor in interviews and mega-megasales aside, you can't really call Adele a "celebrity," at least not using that term. (Contrary to rockist belief, this is not a selling point.) But take Rihanna, who's wearing herself out being better at this sort of thing than anyone else. Icky news stories? Out-ick them on Twitter! Gossip cackling about Chris Brown? Tease it in the "We Found Love" video! Moral guardians carping about being too sexy? Send racks of raunch down the Talk That Talk assembly line!

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Underwhelmed And Overstimulated, Part II: PJ Harvey, Jessie J, And The Post-Pop Character Landscape


Sound of the City's year-end roundtable, with contributions from Tom Ewing, Eric Harvey, Maura Johnston, Nick Murray, and Katherine St. Asaph, continues. Follow along here.

Thanks Maura! And hello Nick, Katherine and Eric.

Post-megasales megastars? Beyoncé and Gaga fit the bill, for certain. There are convincing post-rationalisations of why sales on those albums were soft—Beyoncé can do what she likes, and what she likes right now is old-school soul belters; and Gaga's mix of hi-NRG and stadium rock is a maximalist step too far. But nobody would dispute Beyoncé and Gaga's presence. If you look at the top celebs on Facebook, the appetite for musicians is endless: scattered athletes and actors cower in the shadow of pop stars living and dead, G and B among them. So perhaps pop music is becoming like comics—a minor artform, fiercely loved by enthusiasts but nugatory in revenue terms, whose real value lies in powering something else. What comics IP does for the film industry, pop does for the celebrity biz—provide a stream of garish, blockbuster characters and never mind the source material.

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