WEB EXCLUSIVE: Breaking the knob: Why college rock is dead

Pete Imburgia

In the early 1980s, the phrase “left of the dial” was used to refer to the direction you had to turn the knob to locate college radio stations, because these stations occupied the lower numbers on the dial. These stations were known for playing all kinds of underground bands, some that became very popular, and some that didn’t.

Unfortunately, that phrase has lost all meaning — partially because modern day radios use digital tuning instead of a knob and a dial but mostly because indie rock has invaded mainstream music.

You’d be hard-pressed to find college students who haven’t heard of bands such as Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse or The Killers. Dubbed as “indie rock” by most, they now would most aptly be characterized as mainstream.

Indie rock used to be known under the less familiar category called college rock. Notable pioneers of this genre that have sustained their popularity include R.E.M. and The Smiths. Even most students are familiar with these bands as well, mostly because R.E.M. still churns out albums, albeit lousy ones, and Morrissey has once again wooed the hearts of the mope-rock crowd with his recently acclaimed solo albums after The Smiths disbanded in 1988.

But how about bands like The Fall? Doesn’t ring a bell? How about Daniel Johnston? While legendary artists such as these have been deprived of mainstream status and popularity, they are credited by the underground music scene as having more of an influence on music than Sonic Youth and New Order combined.

Their unique sound cannot be faked or copied, only imitated. Because the music these bands produced was too abrasive and dense for the mainstream, they obtained cult status and were quite content with that. Sure, they wanted to be successful like any band but would gladly be remembered more for their influence than their popularity.

Modern indie music has lost its energy, its creativity and, most of all, its ability to take risks and try something completely different and experimental. Ninety percent of indie music you hear today sounds like everything else. Copies of copies.

One look at the bands that pioneered the genre of indie rock will open you up to an entire culture of the most interesting, innovative, artistic and inspired music that goes ignored in favor of boring, pretentious bands such as The Postal Service and We Are Scientists.

The reason people should care so much about the history of this musical genre is no different than asking why we should care about the history of this country. Mark E. Smith should be treated no different than Alexander Hamilton. Exploring and learning about the history of anything enables you to complete the puzzle and get a fuller picture of how it has influenced the modern manifestation.

Sadly, people don’t care because that would take effort. Which is why most people don’t know that Abraham Lincoln was the first president elected from the Republican Party, let alone that Kurt Cobain was one of the biggest proponents of bands such as Half Japanese and the Wipers.

My point is that many of the true progenitors of the indie rock movement of the early ’80s are long forgotten and not given their due credit for their tremendous impact on modern music. Now that indie rock has become mainstream, the term creates an inherent contradiction.

Indie rock is not popular because people’s tastes have actually deviated from the mainstream. Indie rock is popular because of the mainstream. Whatever’s within reach is good enough for most people who are passive music listeners.

So if indie rock is so popular now, why is it that most students have never heard of legendary bands such as Beat Happening, The Minutemen or Spacemen 3? What purpose do these bands serve besides being relegated to name-dropping status, occasionally being used by the guy with the studded “punk” belt at a party trying to keep his indie cred?

Instead of listening to mainstream indie pop music because it is readily available, make an effort to seek out some bands that might be a lot harder to get into, but more rewarding after you do. Instead of going “left of the dial,” just keep turning the knob until it snaps right off.

Pete Imburgia is a senior English major and columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].