There’s an anecdote I like to pull out anytime I’m having a conversation about how quickly songs that you might hear on the Current—which is to say, songs in the overarching contemporary indie rock vein that might range from Americana to punk to electro-R&B—have started crossing over into the Top 40 sphere.
Earlier this year I was driving up north to celebrate my grandpa’s 90th birthday. I had the Current on in the car and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” had just been put into rotation, so I found myself passively humming along to what was starting to become a familiar melody. A while later I started bouncing around the FM dial and was surprised to come across the song again on KS95, Cities 97, and KDWB, and when I got out of the car in my hometown and stopped into a pie shop, there it was again: “Stay With Me” blaring overhead in a tiny bakery on the edge of a town that holds just over 1,000 people.
Much like Lorde’s “Royals” had done just six months before (and Foster the People and fun. and Mumford and Sons and Gotye and Fitz and the Tantrums had in the years before that), Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” quickly crossed over from noncommercial radio to become an alternative hit in the Top 40 market and a song that the entire pop music-consuming population seemed to momentarily rally around. And the process of passing songs up the pop music food chain has become so efficient that it can be hard to keep up. Everyone was so obsessed with identifying the song of the summer this year but I think pop music is moving even faster than that. Now that we’re a few years away from the “INDIE MUSIC IS RELEVANT TO THE MAINSTREAM” a-ha moment that happened when Arcade Fire and Bon Iver were handed Grammys, I’ve been wondering: What does it mean that these songs are being so easily and hungrily devoured in the Top 40 market, and is it still possible for “indie rock” as we know it to offer a true alternative to the mainstream?
It’s something I’ve been pondering a lot lately as yet another “crossover” success blows up all around the country: the Irish songwriter Hozier and his omnipresent single “Take Me to Church.”
To be honest, the first few times I heard “Take Me to Church” I was almost certain it was Father John Misty or maybe a new one from the aforementioned Sam Smith, but I would go look up the track and see that it was Hozier and then immediately forget his name again. Strangely, this happens fairly often when I’m attracted to something at a subconscious level; my brain can’t seem to retain any other pertinent information and I’m left with only the vaguest tingling sense of a melody or feeling. But the song started popping up all around me as if someone was slowly turning the volume up in my life—there it was in the car, then in the background while walking around at the State Fair, then overhead at the grocery store and the pet store and back in the car again.
When it would come on in the car I had started to do that thing where you want to sing along but you can’t remember any of the words, belting out, “TAKE ME TO CHURCH, eh, eh-eh-eh-ah-eh, eh, eh SHRINE OF YOUR LIFE, eh eh eh ooh eh eh…” And then, just as the song started to really sink its teeth into my brain, Hozier was everywhere: his show at First Avenue—announced six months ahead of time—sold out instantly, he was announced as the guest on Saturday Night Live, his new record was picked to be our Album of the Week, and his powerful video for “Take Me to Church” was being shared by everyone from Dessa to my mother on Facebook.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is a continuum of associations,” the great rock critic Greil Marcus said in an interview this week. “It’s a conversation going on between records and people and people and songs, wherever they’re performed, wherever they’re heard.”
And while Greil and others might object to me classifying Hozier and Sam Smith as rock ‘n’ roll—it’s more like singer-songwriter music masquerading as the loneliest kind of gospel, the kind sung not in a church choir but by a lonely white guy, in the dark, with ghosts all around—it made me wonder where these artists fit into the larger conversation that happens with music. I do think they sit beside each other on a continuum of modern rock music that the industry deems “authentic” and “real” enough, yet is still palatable for widespread consumption. And I like that Hozier song—or at least I’m having a pleasant enough response to it—but this trend toward authentic, yet safe music feels quite reminiscent of the period in the mid-’90s where alternative artists were plucked out of obscurity and sold to the masses. The music industry may have imploded over the past decade—but it’s somehow figured out how to once again serve us these one hit wonders under the guise of alt culture.
We have so much new music all around us—too much, really, for any one person to figure out how to navigate and consume. But with so much importance being placed on having music placed in commercials and movies, getting appearances on late-night TV, and otherwise being embraced by these modulating facets of pop culture, are we drowning out the voices of true dissent? And is modern rock music capable of picking up on the associations of its past and carrying on a real conversation about society in the 21st century?