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What Exactly Is Indie?

What is Pitchfork? A back-door answer to this question comes by way of another question: What is indie? Pitchfork cannot be mentioned without “indie” coming to mind (and, incredibly, vice versa). But these questions have not one direct answer, because Pitchfork is one body with many parts. And likewise, indie doesn’t mean one thing, but rather a conglomeration of things. But the part of Pitchfork that is best manifested outside of the Internet occurs once a year, from July 13 through July 15 in Chicago, Ill. By way of a festival, Pitchfork hosts the ultimate party for all things indie.

There are a lot of festivals that go on in Chicago during the summertime—from John Mayer and Cheap Trick at the Taste of Chicago to the massive alternative party of Lollapalooza to the scores of neighborhood festivals that pull out the best/worst cover bands you can ask for. But none capture the strange power of indie rock quite like the Pitchfork Music Festival. This year it’s a sold out festival featuring 39 bands over two and a half days of obscure, anti-corporate hipster rock. It brings eccentric twentysomethings out into the heat for what might as well be a fashion contest between American Apparel and Urban Outfitters.

Why is this particular festival such a big deal? Well, if you haven’t noticed the name, it’s that very same Pitchfork that has been hipsterdom’s greatest tastemaker for the past few years. This is the festival where you can score the highest number of scene points. This is the one that will let you say to the introvert sitting across from you at the coffee shop, “Bro, I danced to Girl Talk while the sun went down in Chicago. And hey, if you haven’t heard of Girl Talk then you’re missing out man.”

But what’s the point of all this? Why is dancing to Girl Talk something to boast about? (If you don’t know any actual persons like this, God bless you.) Eclectic, independent rock music is bringing thousands of people out to a park in Chicago for a whole weekend, but are all of these thousands of indie snobs still as sophisticated in the musical culture as they think? Well … maybe.

Upon first entering Union Park, I’m immediately aware of two things: the absolute chill that is over the crowd (it seems like the quietest rock festival I’ve ever been to) and the aesthetics. The former may be a result of getting to the fest before the first band starts, but in a rock ‘n’ roll environment, there’s usually noise one way or another. Maybe this crowd really is just more mature. Maybe they are just here for the music, not for a sing-along party or drunken weekend brouhaha. The other possibility would be that everyone is so busy thinking about what everyone else might be thinking about that they’re not thinking about the rock at all. So there might be some narcissism going on around the fest. Maybe …

The aesthetics though, now this is impressive. The fest has somehow accomplished bringing money into an “independent music” festival without appearing to be selling out. There are still do-it-yourself aspects to the fest, but there is progression as well.

On one end, the DIY end, there’s a record fair (which really just seems like a big yard sale) full of cardboard boxes of vinyl records from the ‘60s and latest Sub-Pop Records releases. There are booths selling homemade clothing everywhere. It’s a huge event, but the do-it-yourself charm of indie is as alive as it can possibly be at the Pitchfork Fest.

On the other end there is the progression. There are two main stages as usual, but this year, there are huge monitor screens to the sides of the stages. Who knows how much they cost, but they sure do look expensive.

The initial question is still largely unanswered; what is Pitchfork? What is the point of this festival? And why is it so “indie?”

The Pitchfork Fest is actually mirroring today’s indie scene quite astonishingly. Indie music has a huge audience right now. Indie-labeled bands like Arcade Fire and The Shins are debuting albums at the top of the Billboard charts; Sufjan Stevens sells out enormous national tours without even having a Myspace, general website or major label, and this music fest in Chicago that only hosts indie acts is bringing in more than 25,000 attendees in a weekend.

Jared VanFleet, of Pitchfork Fest players, Voxtrot, remarks, “It’s a big festival, major, but with a lot of independent bands. It’s because there’s more people paying attention to independent music now. I don’t know, maybe because they’re bored (laughs).” His laid back attitude about his art seems oblivious to any real reason that an independent scene is becoming (through some strange irony) as mainstream as MTV.

But Pitchfork is successful because it’s making a big deal about small things. Outside of the Pitchfork/indie world, acts like Dan Deacon are virtually unknown, but leave it to the “Best New Music” charm of Pitchfork and Deacon is suddenly going from playing shows for 10 people at a house party to thousands of people at the Pitchfork fest.

Another member of Voxtrot, bassist, Jason Chronis, notes, “It has become a style. Tere was a grunge phase, but indie is the thing right now. But it is really vague.” This is probably the best description of indie at this moment. It’s ambiguous and indefinable, but in our present culture it’s completely hip and fashionable. Perhaps most importantly, it is a scene.

But what does this scene really represent? There is certainly a seriousness about music in this scene. In the world of indie music, stardom is not sought after, because indie is about the music, not the stardom. Indie represents real people, real art and real music. “Over-production” is a dirty word in this scene. But ultimately, indie is the pursuit of an ideal. It says “nevermind” to stardom. It keeps things low-key, sincere and homegrown.

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The wonderful and confusing thing about indie is its incapability of labelization. Indie can be pop music, it can be rap, it can be metal or it can be folk. The easy answer to this dilemma used to be that “indie” was short for “independent,” but it’s become much more than this. As has been mentioned, indie is a style today, it’s not just shortened term for an unsigned act anymore, and the Pitchfork fest emulates this truth perfectly. For pop they have Of Montreal and the New Pornographers, for rap they have Clipse and De La Soul, for metal there’s Mastadon, for folk there’s Iron and Wine, and then there are even more genres! There’s experimental jazz like Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic, experimental pop like Menomena, jangly rock ‘n’ roll from Voxtrot, techno like The Field and alternative rock from Sonic Youth. And while all of these bands sound different, the actual style is found in the substance. It’s about the scene. It’s about what’s going on behind the art—the community, the reality.

Pitchfork really isn’t just another typical rock festival; it is an indie festival. It’s set apart from Coachella and Lollapalooza in that all of its acts are somehow in touch with the “scene” of indie. You’ll never see The Red Hot Chili Peppers or Dave Matthews Band at the Pitchfork fest, because they’re just not in the scene.

It’s this strange reality that makes Pitchfork so unique. It’s more than just rock ‘n’ roll; it’s rock ‘n’ roll for only a select few, the few that care enough to search through the Internet for the best new music. And the beauty is that all are welcome to search, as long as they’re sincere about a love for music. But, this sincerity is beckoning idealism.

There’s more respect and politeness seen here than at any Christian music festival in America. This is one reason the Pitchfork fest is important; it’s doing things unlike any other festival in the world. PMF Green Task Force (a recycling project in Chicago) is giving away tote bags and CDs to any persons that bring 12 littered plastic bottles to their booth. The ice cream being sold at the fest is soy ice cream. Water is a mere dollar-per-bottle. The fest’s organizers seems to care less about the ticket-holders’ wealth and more so for their health! There’s this kind of desire for communal and natural goodness that makes the vibes at Pitchfork ring out with positive, life-affirming glory.

There’s local love at Pitchfork too. Local paper Chicago Reader is present to give away shirts, tote bags and bandanas to all. Time Out Chicago, a local happenings magazine, is actually hosting the press tent, offering free water and juice to all media persons. And WLUW, a local college station, is the only broadcasting presence on-site (nothing from Clear Channel at Pitchfork). A local scene is important to Pitchfork, for Pitchfork itself stemmed out of Chicago music as well (it’s head offices are located here). This is important for Pitchfork’s credibility, because if an indie scene hopes to be sincere, it must be in touch with its locale. Indie happens when it’s local, when there’s real community. A perfect musical example of this is the Cool Kids (local rap group). The Cool Kids played the fest this year, and without yet having released a proper album were able to get the crowd moving. They’re capable of doing this because of word of mouth in the indie community in Chicago. The Cool Kids are known friends with another local act called Flosstradamus, who is in turn friendly with A-Trak (Kanye West’s DJ). All of these local connections mean something. They show the importance of real community. Without community, the Cool Kids wouldn’t even be playing Pitchfork, let alone making hundreds of twentysomethings jump and dance around to music they’ve never heard before.

What is Pitchfork? Pitchfork is an ideal. It’s a community of music-lovers, immersed in 9.0+ conditions. The food is healthy and varied (even Whole Foods was available at the fest), recycling is beneficial and prioritized and nothing for sale is overpriced. The diverse mixes of fans don’t fight each other; they respect each other’s tastes. Most importantly, the music is indie. Indie—it can mean so many things, but the one thing it does mean is that it is representative of an ideal. The ideal is real community for the sake of art. And while Pitchfork’s demographic continues to chase after that ideal, life will continue to be good in the world where small things that no one has heard of are given precedence over the popular music that everyone has heard of.

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