Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Indie-rock: As advertised?

While watching the college football National Championship last week (a sad affair for my family -- my dad was born in Cleveland and grew up near Columbus), I was stunned to hear the outro from "The Bleeding-Heart Show" by the New Pornographers in a television ad. The advertisement was for the University of Phoenix, the online purveyor of higher education that bought the naming rights to the stadium in Arizona that hosted the championship game. This song is one I truly love by a band I've enjoyed since 2003, when I first heard the ebullient, gleefully-incomprehensible single "The Electric Version" on my college radio station. I was so surprised to hear it on television because the band has avoided much of the sources of mainstream exposure: no contributions to movie soundtracks, no performances on late-night TV (at least none that I'd seen or heard of), and staying on Matador, a respected independent label.

Another ad that debuted during bowl season featured the intro to "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service. This ad was for UPS, and the backing track fades out before Ben Gibbard's vocals come in. But I wasn't at shocked to hear this song in this setting. A version by Iron and Wine on the soundtrack for "Garden State" moved the song from 'sweet indie sleeper' to 'ubiquitous quote in away messages and Myspace profiles.' It's still a good song, but one already widely recognized.

So the UPS ad has warranted the attention of Pitchfork, complete with added link from the UPS site. But I haven't been able to track down any comments on the University of Phoenix ad. I can't say I'm utterly disgusted or shocked by it, but I think it speaks to the gradual de-indie-fication of 'indie-rock.' So many bands that are defined as 'indie' are getting more and more press attention or are signing to bigger record labels. At this point, 'indie' is pegged more as a sound than as an approach to recording and distributing music: rough, unpolished vocals; lo-fi production; poetic, often introspective lyrics (when they're intelligible).

None of the Pornographers' great lyrics appear in the ad; only the sung "hey-na, hey-na-na" of the outro. I was surprised to read on the band's site that the song is influenced by South Africa isicathamiya singing, the style of groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo that I studied in my "Music and Politics" class last semester. So what we have here is a Canadian band with African influences lending their music to an American pseudo-college. Pretty wild.

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