Deconstructing: The O.C. And Indie Rock Gentrification

Seth Cohen

Deconstructing: The O.C. And Indie Rock Gentrification

Seth Cohen

Ten years ago today, five words forever changed the nebulous concept known as indie rock: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” That dialogue was in the pilot of Fox’s teen soap opera The O.C., but you already knew that. The fact that it’s virtually impossible to imagine a reader of this website who isn’t aware of the show underlines the notion that it played a huge part in the genre’s trajectory this past decade — and in tastemakers’ retreat from it.

Let’s not belabor the whole “What does indie rock even mean?” thing. Yeah, “indie” is short for independent, and somewhere along the line it shifted from a description of a business model to a description of a musical style, at which point it was distended, like “grunge” and “alternative” and “new wave” and “punk” and “metal” and “rock” before it, beyond coherence. The O.C. played a pivotal role in that process. Still, even at this late date, you know indie rock when you hear it, whether in classicist forms like Parquet Courts and Cloud Nothings or modernized festival tentpoles like TV On The Radio and Spoon and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s intangible but unmistakable — a designation you’d assign to Liz Phair’s shambolic underground smash Exile In Guyville but never her radio-baiting Liz Phair.

Back in June, I argued that a move like Phair’s much-maligned pop crossover attempt in 2003 never would have provoked so much outrage in 2013. The thesis was basically that “poptimism” — the unapologetic embrace of pop music once deemed distasteful by critical elites — had been internalized to the point that your average straw-hipster is more likely to fawn over Justin Timberlake or Beyonce than the Walkmen or the National, and that becoming a superstar, even “selling out” to become a superstar, is now applauded rather than shunned. It ended like so: “In 2013, poptimism is the air we breathe. Why that happened is a complicated argument for another essay.” If there was ever an occasion for that essay, it’s the tenth anniversary of The O.C., a major player in the gentrification that helped drive away the kind of people who think of themselves as cutting-edge.

In the most basic sense, Josh Schwartz’s instant-hit drama was 90210 for a new generation — much more so than the actual next-gen 90210 that sprung up a few years later. Foundationally, it was your average teen soap, with contrived love triangles, the requisite dovetailed adult storylines and impossibly beautiful twentysomething actors portraying impossibly beautiful high school students. But thanks in large part to music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, the woman who almost singlehandedly made indie rock the soundtrack to Hollywood’s adolescent industrial complex, The O.C. heavily accessorized college radio’s accessible side from the (frankly glorious) Phantom Planet theme music on down. Whereas the Flaming Lips’ famed guest spot on Beverly Hills: 90210 was a one-off oddity, an unexpected burst of weirdness on an otherwise straitlaced show, (ostensibly underground) indie rock was absorbed into The O.C.‘s (pointedly mainstream) DNA from the beginning, the television equivalent of wearing band T-shirts for cool points. The series literally packaged and sold the music as a lifestyle product, releasing six volumes’ worth of Music From The O.C. compilations that — with all due respect to Pinback — are basically NOW! That’s What I Call Music with an Urban Outfitters makeover.

The aesthetic was personified by Adam Brody’s solipsistic geek-hunk Seth Cohen, for whom an obsession with Death Cab for Cutie was a defining character trait. As Sharon Steel explained last year, “Seth continuously mentioned how intrinsic Death Cab were to understanding who he was as a human being, a misanthrope, and a lover of unconventionally cool, under-the-radar things.” Never mind that underneath the outsider posturing, he was just an awkward privileged white dude who idolized the hottest girl in school for reasons almost entirely related to conventional standards of beauty, glamor and prestige. Trust me, I know these things from experience. Part of the reason The O.C. was so successful at first was how many people identified with the well-drawn Cohen character, whom series creator Schwartz modeled in his own self-image.

People like me gravitated toward Cohen — and, in turn, The O.C. — because he was filling a void. It’s not like pop culture was bereft of music geeks in the years leading up to The O.C., what with High Fidelity and Gilmore Girls (which gave Brody his big break playing Dave Rygalski, a more self-assured version of Seth Cohen) both emerging in 2000. But the characters in those stories gravitated toward the sounds of a previous generation. They occasionally mentioned contemporary artists like the Beta Band or Belle and Sebastian, but more often the conversation shifted toward decades-old works by the likes of David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, The Bangles, and Jimmy Cliff. John Cusack’s Rob Gordon and Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore were hip, but they could have been my babysitters or even my parents. Even the music-obsessed youths of Stars Hollow seemed more fascinated by the canon than the here and now. For better and worse, Seth Cohen felt like a peer, a product of my era, one of pop culture’s first avatars of “indie.” He embodied “adorkable” before the word was even a twinkle in a Fox executive’s eye.

That was no accident. Cohen’s name-drops were as target-marketed as his possessive longing for Summer Roberts, both with suburban white boys like me in the crosshairs. Hearing someone speak my language on a hit TV series was a thrill, and seeing some of my favorite bands get such a prominent spotlight was surreal. I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but this raised all the usual questions about exploitation vs. exposure, cultural tourism and allowing the “wrong” kinds of fans into the club. I was partially blind to these questions because like Cohen, I latched onto this music because I liked how it felt, not because I cared what it meant. To someone who got into indie rock primarily for the DIY ideals, I was probably the “wrong” kind of fan too.

I definitely didn’t object to The O.C.‘s conflation of indie rock with a luxurious, upwardly mobile lifestyle, which only intensified in Season 2. Much of the action took place at the fictional Newport Beach venue The Bait Shop, where bands including the Walkmen, Modest Mouse and, yes, Death Cab stopped by to perform multiple songs while the drama of the week unfolded. (Also the Killers, who were being marketed as an indie band back then on the heels of the dance-punk craze. Remember their feud with the Bravery? Alternately, remember the Bravery?) The bands that were cashing in didn’t seem to mind either; Death Cab and Modest Mouse glossed up their sounds significantly and rode the zeitgeist to crossover success. Numerous artists premiered music on the show, including Beck, who debuted five tracks from Guero in a single “Beckisode” (ugh). The series lost cultural clout with a confounding Season 3 and limped to a premature conclusion in a partially redemptive Season 4. No matter; by the time it went off the air in 2007 it had already foreshadowed a whole new genre of entertainment.

In The O.C.‘s wake came a wave of gentrified indie cinema: first Garden State (in which Manic Pixie Natalie Portman notoriously touted the life-changing power of the Shins’ “New Slang”), then Juno (in which teen parents Ellen Page and Michael Cera serenaded each other with a Moldy Peaches song), then (500) Days of Summer (in which Zooey Deschanel sheepishly grinned, “You have good taste in music,” to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and, by extension, every Smiths-listening indie doofus in the world). Meanwhile, Schwartz’s next teen soap, Gossip Girl, shifted its focus to an even more absurdly wealthy setting, bringing Patsavas’ indie playlist along for the ride. By the time the decade was over, she also lent her programming prowess to the Twilight franchise, a series with all the self-indulgent brooding of The O.C. but none of the self-deprecating quirk.

At this point, the thought of indie rock soundtracking pablum like Twilight doesn’t seem crazy. It’s just the natural order of things, a typical convergence of big-budget industries in a landscape where brands steal the spotlight from bands and nobody blinks (except maybe at the light show). It was bound to happen the moment Brooklyn’s early-aughts music scene was anointed as the new epicenter of cool and newspapers started publishing trend pieces on “hipster” culture, just like they did with “grunge” a decade prior. (The New York Times, which has made a cottage industry out of hipster reportage, was already chronicling the big-money dilution of Williamsburg nine days before The O.C. premiered: “To some extent, the self-proclaimed hipster capital of New York, if not the world, was a victim of its own P.R. As the neighborhood’s cachet started to rise, so did rents.”)

Following the usual pattern of co-option (perhaps I can interest you in a period piece on the “Summer Of Love” or the “Spirit Of ’77″? Wrong nostalgia cycle?), The O.C. was capitalizing on “indie” as the currency of cool even as it opened the very floodgates that diluted the genre beyond repair or recognition. As more and more listeners funneled into the audience, the music being touted under the indie banner got a lot softer and increasingly more accessible. Indie moved from “House Of Jealous Lovers” to Justin Vernon’s cabin in just half a decade, then was awkwardly stretched to fit bands that don’t pass the know-indie-when-you-hear-it test, from the post-emo pop wailers Fun. to the DMB-reminiscent Lumineers and Mumford & Sons. In 2009, Andrew Bird — exactly the sort of Soft Batch approachable-sophisticate that has come to represent the indie industrial complex — rejected “indie rock” as the province of haircuts and fashion, prompting Idolator’s Maura Johnston to wonder where the term ranked among the world’s most meaningless musical labels. In one of 2012’s best works of cultural criticism, Spin’s Chris Weingarten noted, “‘Edge’ once was something you could lose in an LCD Soundsystem song; now Edge is a luxury condo you can buy on the Williamsburg waterfront starting at $1.7 million. No sleep till that!”

So of course the early adopters got the hell out of there, just like O.G. Sub Pop stans did in the ’90s when “alternative” devolved all the way to Tonic and Vertical Horizon. Back in the Clinton era, the underground scattered from the spotlight toward IDM, backpack hip-hop, jazzy post-rock and other brainy niche genres that had little chance of catching on with a wide audience. The ones who still craved the melody and compact songcraft of alt-rock dug deeper into indie rock or went all-in on Britpop. In the aughts, that pattern repeated to a certain extent, with some indie-rock refugees gravitating toward extreme, abrasive music like black metal and Yeezus-style aggro-EDM. But just as many have aligned themselves with pop superstars, the kind of performers once assumed to represent the antithesis of forward-thinking taste.

The exodus toward the Hot 100 could be perceived as a right turn or a reflexive attempt to subvert the well-worn “hipster” stereotype, but it’s more likely intended as a progressive gesture. See, the commodification of indie rock happened to coincide with the rise of poptimism, a rejection of the so-called “rockist” values that dominated the discourse for decades. In 2004, Kelefa Sanneh effectively defined rockism in his widely circulated takedown of it: “A rockist isn’t just someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” As Sanneh explained, rockism is impossible to separate from “older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about.”

Sanneh summed up a rising tide that has since all but subsumed music criticism: that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, that so much of what has been dismissed as guilty pleasure in the past happens to be genres dominated by women and minorities, that an embrace of such so-called guilty pleasures is an implicit rejection of racism, patriarchy and elitism. That’s a good thing! Such a course-correction was needed, lest critics and tastemakers ignore vast swaths of powerful music. But of course in some circles poptimism has become just as dogmatic as the rockist machine it rages against. As with any corrective against privilege and prejudice, the anti-rockist backlash is difficult to critique without seeming to defend the oppressors, particularly when the argument is coming from a white male whose parents paid his rent in college. (Hi, Mom.) Still, I think Jody Rosen was correct in his 2006 response to Sanneh: “Ideally, poptimism shouldn’t be about critics working through their daddy issues and straining to prove that they’re hipper than Greil Marcus. It should be about openness to all kinds of music — including music that seems to embody rockist ideals.”

Don’t cry for indie rock — judging from the still-booming festival market and all those sold-out amphitheater shows touring through my town, it ain’t exactly hurting at the box office — I just think it’s fascinating that by becoming popular, indie seems to have forfeited the right to be hip. (Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, right?) Thanks in large part to gentrification spurred on by The O.C., indie rock is perceived as comfort food, the music of yuppies, the opposite of vanguard. If you want to pop wheelies on the zeitgeist, you dabble in EDM or R&B or hip-hop or black metal — anything but indie rock, “the bad thing Pavement hath wrought.” Even pop-country upstarts like Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves are catching up to indie rock’s tentpole bands in terms of critical buzz. It’s hard to take Taylor Swift seriously when she cites an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine” because in 2013, Taylor Swift is cooler than most indie bands. Even Phish is getting a second look; can Dave Matthews be far behind?

The most critically revered bands in the indie rock milieu today are the ones who cover Robin Thicke or collaborate with R. Kelly, and those bands are the same ones that already sound least like indie rock’s raw, guitar-centric platonic ideal. Acts that adopt the sounds of ’90s basement shows are celebrated — the likes of Japandroids, Waxahatchee, and Speedy Ortiz but they read as retro. Other, more Americana-infused iterations are frequently dismissed as dad-rock — think Wilco, the National, the Hold Steady. And maybe dad-rock is the right terminology for a genre whose primary fan base includes plenty of first-time parents right now, parents who listen to NPR on the way to Whole Foods. For better or worse, indie rock has settled down into a comfortable life of luxury, nostalgia and privilege. Seth Cohen is all grown up, and he looks a lot like his parents.

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