Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: Independent Music/Independent Film

By  · Published on August 31st, 2009

The relationship between pop music and popular film has been a fruitful one. When popular tracks started to accompany the soundtrack of mainstream films regularly in the mid-late 1960s, the music was often used in the context of the film to reflect the aural preferences particular to a specific counterculture. Movies like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and A Hard Day’s Night integrated top 40 hits or artists into their film not only to help sell the film to a broad or specific audience (which proved especially effective when marketing to young people), but to tie that film’s narrative and themes to the counterculture that such music allegedly speaks for.

Songs featured in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy were written specifically for their films, but by artists already associated with these social and aural movements (Simon and Garfunkel and Harry Nilsson, respectively). The existence of Top 40 radio made it rather easy to identify which songs were most popular, and therefore easy to identify the specific songs most broadly indicative of a given moment of popular culture (at least in the logic of marketers, music supervisors, and some filmmakers). This formula proved to be an occasionally potent combination, as the song, sounds, and artists deemed as spokespersons for a counterculture associated itself with a popular film whose narrative (if successfully intertwined with the music) became by turn also associated, if not rendered broadly representative of, that same culture. This enabled moments like in The Graduate where Benjamin Braddock’s race to stop Mrs. Robinson’s daughter from getting married became a weighted iconographic moment not only for 1960s cinema, but for the 60s at large, due in no small part to the sequence’s association with S&G’s “Mrs. Robinson.”

The music video has had a similarly productive relationship with film, as many videos appropriated the plotting and visual strategies of popular films (even recruiting filmmakers as music video directors), and music videos in turn influenced film (creating the music video aesthetic through rhythm-based editing strategies). Music videos also proved to be an important promotional tool for films, thereby merging the sound of a specific popular song with the iconography of a popular film before said film is even released (e.g., Coolio’s “Gangster Paradise” and Dangerous Minds).


However, with the prominence of Internet-based distribution and song-by-song downloading, Top 40 radio and the music video have become weakened in their ability to promote and establish popular tastes. The slow, painful death of record companies is indicative of this move from CD-based to MP3-based music, and is reflected in the tastes of a certain set of consumers who, without a unified set of songs on a radio station or a popular single and music video to bow down to, have largely particularized their preferences rather than associated themselves with the active molding of a broad musical trend. What I mean to say is that because so few trendsetting young people now participate in the collective experience of the radio, and have carefully selected their personal favorite songs through MP3-based distribution outlets like the iTunes store, any currently existing subculture or counterculture no longer has its easily identifiable musical movement or artists that represent it to the degree that all participants are familiar with their sound. In short, Beatlemania is hardly possible today. There is no longer a Woodstock collective of artists that a counterculture at large can consent as representative of them.

The music of today’s various counter- and subcultures is labeled under the umbrella term indie music, a term that is not so much indicative of a particular sound, genre, means of distribution, or degree of popularity, but a label vaguely associated with some idea of credibility with a culture of young people in mind. This poses an interesting situation for newer films that aim to reflect or advertise to a particular subculture or counterculture by appropriating their music. Since there is no longer an easily identifiable set of songs representing a culture, these films basically choose songs that aim to be molded into active representation of that culture. Indie music is most often tied with independent film, particularly the recent trend/brand of quirky, hip indie dramedies (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Garden State, Away We Go, any Wes Anderson movie, etc.). But because indie music is so segmented among listeners (as a seemingly infinite number of musicians exist under this label), indie films choose songs that are molded into an association with its reflected culture (with varying degrees of success) rather than choosing a song or artist already deemed as directly or popularly associated with it (as indie music’s alleged credibility depends on it not being hugely popular). For example, the core audience of The Graduate was probably already familiar with Simon and Garfunkel, but the same can’t necessarily be said of The Shins and Garden State (as degrees of familiarity are more complex in indie music consumption: “I haven’t heard them but I’ve heard of them”) and The Shins’ association with that film certainly didn’t have the same impact of Simon and Garfunkel’s role in The Graduate.

Popular music in film also used to contain a temporal dimension in that certain songs could easily identify a place and time within culture (this is why Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is so often used to represent psychedelic hippy culture). This utility of popular music and time proved especially potent for period pieces about young cultures, like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, which used the music of the early sixties and mid-seventies respectively to delineate the time of the film’s setting. Indie music in indie film, however, does not necessarily hold songs to such associations, as music of the past is often just as actively associated with today’s “indie standard” as are contemporaneous bands, further enabled through their use in movies; like 70s artist Nick Drake for Garden State or 80s New Wave band The Smiths for (500) Days of Summer. Away We Go embodies this conflation of old music and new indie tastes as its soundtrack is dominated by new artist Alexi Murdoch, who sounds exactly like Nick Drake, coupled with music by Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and The Velvet Underground.

But there are even stronger parallels between indie film and its use of indie music. As previously stated, indie music is not a term that delineates a particular sound, rather a range of different, even opposing sounds exist under this label. The types of indie music artists and songs typically chosen for film are by far the most conventional and accessible, or the least potentially disruptive of the storyline it is integrated within. Critics and fans allege that artists like Feist, Regina Spektor, or The Shins promote a new, progressive brand of music, but the basics of their sound are indicative of decades of pop music structuring. Popular indie bands like Animal Collective or The Dirty Projectors, whose sounds are truly disruptive, confrontational, and musically progressive, have yet to be successfully adapted to film, despite the fact that such musicians are just as representative of this musical trend as the more accessible artists. This aspect of indie music takes place equivalently in independent film, as films like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer allege themselves to be new, even groundbreaking, approaches to filmic storytelling, but are revealed ultimately to be nothing more than shiny new iterations of something all too familiar. Indicative of this contradiction is the evidence that those who have praised these films as original also use films of the past to qualify such praise, as when some critics (rather misleadingly) called Garden State this generation’s The Graduate, thereby unknowingly acknowledging how truly indebted to the past these supposedly “original” films are (and Garden State in particular seems to equally owe its existence to other stunted adolescence films of New Hollywood like Harold and Maude).

(500) Days proves to be an interesting case of taking the old and making it seem new, as its narration self-consciously announces the film as something you’ve never seen before – a non-love story love story – but the film, like the music in it, remains undeniably indebted to past products, thus throwing its “originality” into question. In particular, the film seems little more than an update of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s quirky, hip romantic dramedy that also features a central couple breaking up, a nonlinear and often anecdotal narrative structure, the walking contradiction of a cynical and romantic protagonist, the liberal oscillation between moments of reality and fantasy, and even a brief animated sequence. (500) Days is simply another cultural product stamped with an “indie” label that makes the old seem new.

“Indie” suggests independent. In the case of independent film, it suggests independence from big studios, and in the case of independent music, it suggests independence from major record labels. However, these terms have become more like labels that a film or musician aspires to in order to attain a credibility by association to a larger group of films or musicians rather than an accurate indicator of production or distribution strategies. Indie films are often produced by studio subsidaries like Focus Features or Fox Searchlight, which enforce the indie label while the source of funding is frequently no different. Likewise, indie artists often sign up with major labels and become part of the mainstream, using the label itself to maintain their credibility (how else could Feist advertise for Apple and still be considered “indie” unless there was no real meaning to this term?). Indie music will continue to be used in indie film, but with their associations with major labels and indebtedness to the past, there remains hardly anything independent about either.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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