How Modern Rock’s queer politics got gentrified & straightened out into “Indie”

This was originally published on July 15, 2023 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

Pitchfork recently published a feature on the “secret gay history of indie rock.” Widely disparaged by music writer Twitter for its ahistoricism that wildly misrepresented modern rock’s history for the sake of a few Pride Month clicks, the article claims that nobody knew new wave acts like The B-52s were queer and then jumps to the 2000s to argue that indie acts like Deerhunter bravely stood out as queer in what was “the most heterosexual genre” of them all. 

That latter take is possible because the article misrepresents the hegemonic notion of what “indie rock” was in the 2010s as the mainstream understanding of post-punk, new wave, modern rock, and alt rock from the 1970s forward. As I explain in my book about modern rock radio station 97X WOXY, in the 2010s indie rock was “gentrified music for the very crowd of people who were behind the wave of gentrification sweeping the downtowns of ‘economically vibrant’ cities from Charlotte to Denver and beyond…As Zachary Lipez wrote in Vice in 2014, ‘Now [indie rock’s] about being really reasonable and maintaining your lawn; metaphorical and literal.’ Or, to put it more bluntly, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreath described the indie scene and music of 2017 as ‘boujee’ (i.e., slang for bourgeois)” (139). This idea that indie rock was watered-down music by and for elites is a very recent development, one which began with the hype around The Strokes in 2001 and solidified with the turn away from aughts dance-punk and electroclash and towards the more traditionally rock and folk sounds of acts like The 1975, Arcade Fire, and the like. 

To claim that indie rock is exceptionally heterosexual, you have to overlook two important historical facts:

First, indie rock didn’t solidify as a genre until the late aughts. As pop music studies scholar Eric Weisbard explains in his book on late 20th century American radio, genres are categories that describe musical styles: they focus on aesthetic features like instrumentation, lyrics, song structure, etc. Formats, on the other hand, are categories used in the radio industry to describe the demographic segments that radio advertisers wanted to reach: Disney radio is geared towards kids and families, just as Sports Talk is geared towards men. “Modern Rock” and “Alternative” are formats that emerged in the late 1980s as Billboard and Radio & Records began to chart the performance of songs played on this new kind of format. If you look to early Billboard “Modern Rock Songs” charts, you will find numerous genres represented. For example, on the Wikipedia page listing all the #1 songs on the Modern Rock Songs chart in the 1990s, there’s electronic dance music supergroup Electronic, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, hip hop inspired Big Audio Dynamite, the indie pop group The Sugarcubes, goths The Sisters of Mercy, Aussie rockers INXS, Manchester group The Happy Mondays, and the obligatory grunge. Modern rock is a format that plays a wide range of genres. Indie rock is a genre that emerged as the pendulum swung away from the aughts post-punk revival of early modern rock styles toward more Wilco-like sounds. As I explain in my WOXY book, in the late aughts and early 2010s, indie rock solidifies as a stylistically narrow genre as many of the prominent musical elements of the post-punk revival—especially the centering of dance-oriented styles from bands like Gang of Four, labels like ZE Records, and new genres like electroclash—fade and folk-influenced sounds, song structures, and instrumentation gain in prominence. It’s less DFA, more Saddle Creek. 

This stylistic narrowing coincides with the rise of the post millennial hipster subculture and hipster capitalism. Hipster capitalism is a version of neoliberalism wherein mostly white people with a fair amount of cultural capital leverage their hobbies and niche interests into small businesses as the dot-com bubble and 2008 financial crisis make the kind of “good” middle class jobs their parents had increasingly harder to find. Indie rock is the musical equivalent of craft beer: the hipster gentrification of something traditionally low in real and/or cultural capital into an entrepreneurial opportunity. In the September 2012 issue of The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Keith Harris makes this connection explicitly: 

[N]ow, “local music” has become a marketing technique for cities to lure hip professionals, like brewpubs and bike paths. With outlets like Portlandia, or The Current, the Twin Cities adult alternative public radio station, local indie rock is viewed through a lens of gentrified nostalgia, and comes to have the same relationship to civic identity as jazz does to New Orleans. The sound that predominates such a scene must have middlebrow appeal: nothing too weird, strong production values, maybe rootsy but probably not twangy (279).

By the early 2010s, local indie scenes had been co-opted into a form of tourist commission/chamber of commerce branding, and in this context the least illegible, most broadly appealing artists and styles get the most attention and resources. Local indie music is an asset local government and business leaders leverage to encourage tourism and development, and to serve as adequate collateral for all the money and hype invested in it, the musical style has to sound like a “good” credit report–it must show evidence of taking few unprofitable or unwise risks.

As Jessica Hopper explains in this 2013 piece for Buzzfeed, “selling out saved indie rock.” As the stratification between the 1% and the 99% grew after the turn of the millennium, the rise of Napster and Spotify contributed to the evisceration of underground music’s middle class: it was harder than ever before to make music a sustainable day job. When selling records and touring don’t pay the bills, licensing recordings to ads and TV shows started to look more attractive. As Hopper put it, “Decades of posturing and sanctimony were rendered moot once artists realized that corporate gigs were the only paying gigs in town, a (very) necessary evil.” And as corporate execs are to be the main paying audience for indie rock, the genre’s sound grew to be more cleaned up, business both in the front and the back with a lot less party all around. Most of the artists Hopper’s article mentions— such as Wilco, Feist, Texan & Sara, Lorde — have a very toned-down, guitar- and vocal-centric sound. Hopper describes a recording session where a well-known indie vocalist has come to record anonymous vocals for an agency that writes ad jingles thusly: ““So, kind of a Shins-y thing?” she asks. He nods. The song is sweet, pretty, California folk pop, with a little ukulele.” Saving ad producers the labor of editing out edgy sounds like the “liquor and drugs” or “sex machine” in Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (which is featured on a Carnival Cruise ad), this bespoke jingle focuses on the most upbeat and anodyne (and white) sounds in the modern rock spectrum because those are the feelings that advertisers want consumers to associate with their products and services. There are significant structural reasons (not just Spotify–this was in motion long before the platform debuted in the US) why “indie rock” consolidated as a very white, very bourgeois, very aesthetically traditional and conservative genre in the early 21st century, and these structural reasons are rooted in patriarchal racial capitalism. But modern rock wasn’t always that way, and mistaking 2015 or 2023 “indie rock” for the whole history of post-punk/modern rock/alt rock obscures the very power dynamics that Pitchfork article purportedly aims to push against.

Second, back in the late 70s and 80s, the mainstream press represented modern rock and modern rockers as queer, often in an attempt to whip up moral panic-y vibes about threats to the white nuclear family. For example, in the early 80s the Chicago-based syndicated TV talk show The Phil Donahue Show did two episodes on the theme of “Parent of a Punker.” In both episodes teens and young adults who represent various punk and post-punk subcultures (and “With Sympathy”-era Al Jourgensen) appear as guests on the show, often with a parent, and audience members and callers debate the legitimacy of their existence. In this episode, a mother with a very Phyllis-Schlaffley-channeling vibe (and an ironically apt last name), Anne Morrissey, describes her “punker” daughter in terms that echo the way homophobes and transphobes talk about queer people. “It almost broke up our family,” Morrissey explains, “through her lifestyle she’s expressing this.” Another guest, Serena Dank, founder of “Parents of Punkers” later adds, “It brings a good deal of pressure to the family, pain,” and then goes on with the contagion trope: “It’s getting bigger and bigger. It started in Los Angeles and it’s moving across the country…a lot younger children are attracted to it…A lot of kids are becoming aware much younger…” That last quote sounds like it could easily have come out of the mouth of a TERF or Republican politician in 2023. Donahue notes that “We’re talking like it’s a disease” (1:59). (Interestingly, that same year, 1981, the first AIDS cases in the US were reported among 5 gay men in…Los Angeles.) From the destroying the family trope, to the contagion trope, to the disease metaphor, the participants in this episode describe punk kids in the same basic terms traditionally used to demonize queer people.

Though the connection between “Punkers” and queer people in the above comments is implicit, there are a few comments that make that connection more explicitly. Later in the episode, an audience member addresses Jourgensen saying “My question is for the gentleman dressed like a woman.” That commenter directly named what she perceived to be abnormal gender performance. Donohue himself gets in on the game, though he maintains the veneer of objectivity by relying on dog whistles. There’s a section of the audience comprised of members of varoius post-punk subcultures (new wavers, goths, hardcore punks, etc.), and Donahue approaches a middle-aged white man with a shaved head, thick black glasses, and a NEO T-shirt; NEO is the legendary Chicago New Wave club with its interior designed to mimic Lower Wacker (think the underground chases in the Batman movies—those were filmed there). At 9:07 in the first video, Donahue asks the man, “How do you get to be your age and have the freedom to, sort of, join a community of people like this?…I’m trying very hard to get some more information from you, as to…you say you’re apolitical?…You’re a single person, are you?…And you’re happy?” Probing into the man’s marital status and lack of the trappings of the average middle-class white heterosexual family man, Donahue not-so-covertly implies that the man might be gay. For Donahue and his audience, post-punk is controversial because it looks and feels queer.

This perception of post-punk’s queerness is not idiosyncratic to Donahue’s guests and viewers (nor to the early 80s). Writing in The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1985, Steve Rosen describes the music that modern rock radio station WOXY played at the time in terms that highlight sexual deviance and family-unfriendliness. For example, near the beginning of the feature Rosen says that “Instead of hard-rock chestnuts by Led Zeppelin and The Who, WOXY-FM, at 97.7 MHz, plays controversial tunes such as “Meat Is Murder” by The Smiths, a pro-pacifism, pro-homosexuality and pro-vegetarian British band.” Though his personal politics tend to be reactionary, Smiths lead singer Morrissey has long had a reputation for being queer. A 1984 Rolling Stone article begins with the lines: “He goes by a single name, Morrissey. He calls himself “a prophet for the fourth gender,” admits that he’s gay but adds that he’s also celibate.” That Rosen chose to highlight this particular artist as representative of the kind of music played on modern rock radio is further evidence that in the early 1980s, modern rock/post-punk was widely perceived as queer in and by the mainstream. Later in the feature Rosen expands on this theme, describing the artists played on the station as a combination of “startlingly high-fashion, sexually unsettling, high-tech British performers considered too weird or trendy for the American Heartland” and “rebellious, rough-at-the-edges American performers, politically malcontent, socially rebellious, or just generally too alienated to sing ‘we are the world, we are the children’ without sounding threatening.” Represented as unsettling norms around sexual propriety and the family, modern rock was perceived as anything but heterosexual.

The currently hegemonic take on “indie rock” that centers sounds on the Jack Antonoff/Justin Vernon/middle-aged white bro axis is a very recent development, and one that obscures what was actually interesting about modern rock. A more informed understanding of the impact of modern rock on today’s pop music would center things like the similarity between “Born This Way” and “Stupid Love” and KMFDM’s house-meets-industrial formula in songs like “Juke Joint Jezebel” or “Naive.” It would view all the recent covers and interpolations of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” as taking up a song that originally found success on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. When Rina Sawayama leads into one of her more metal songs, “STFU,” with a preamble that calls out indie rocker Matt Healy for his sexism and racism, that reminded me of when L7, founders of Rock For Choice, threw a used tampon out into the crowd at Reading 1992. Such a perspective would see hyperpop as a natural evolution out of modern rock history and welcome artists like Janelle Monae and FKA Twigs. I’m not sure “modern rock” makes sense as a musical category for contemporary releases (the music and the broadcast industries have changed too much), but when we think about its effects and impacts today, it’s important to remember that modern rock has always been a big stylistic and demographic tent and not the white bougie vibe currently sold under the label “indie rock.”

The stylistic narrowness implied in 2023 by “indie rock” is the same sort of stylistic narrowness corporate radio programmers enforced around “alt rock” back in the 90s, just aimed at people with lots more cultural capital than your average Limp Bizkit fans. So-called “indie rock” is just one strain that has evolved from modern rock’s germ, and to mistake it as representative of the whole tradition both frames dudes like Antonoff (or Vernon, or Healey) as the true inheritors of that tradition and marginalizes both modern rock’s full impact on pop today and the artists inspired by these other aspects of modern rock, like gay icon Lady Gaga. Moreover, in claiming to newly reveal all the queer artists who are part of modern rock history, that Pitchfork article actually naturalizes indie rock as normatively heterosexual by obscuring the queer politics that modern rock represented in the early 1980s. It’s not just that many modern rockers had and/or have queer identities, it’s that modern rock was itself perceived to be a queer threat to the white cisheteropatriarchal nuclear family, much in the same way LGBTO+ people are misrepresented today by the right wing. Such a take on indie rock also discourages one from asking, as I do above, how the hell the politics associated with this music basically reversed themselves in the last 40 years.