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What Happened to the Cool Jerk of Indie Rock?

The release of a new Stephen Malkmus album reveals how musical celebrity has changed.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Stephen Malkmus, the slacker anti-hero of the 1990s indie scene, is that rare creature: an old man who can still rock. His new album with the Jicks, Sparkle Hard, has been a critical success, with reviewers noting that Malkmus has found a special groove in his golden years. Spin says it’s an album “by a guy who at this stage in the game, knows exactly who he is: a 51-year-old Portland dad who likes to play fantasy sports and occasionally indulge his inner Deadhead.” Rolling Stone writes that the former Pavement frontman finds himself “gesturing towards a kind of tastefully opaque midlife realism.” And Pitchfork applauds Malkmus for stretching himself in new directions, offering “a tantalizing taste of the kind of music Malkmus might be making if he were a quarter-century younger.”

It’s an interesting question: What kind of figure would a 26-year-old Malkmus cut in 2018? In his heyday with Pavement, he was known for his languid guitar work, his sunny hooks, the ramshackle way his songs seemed to hang together. But he was also known for the Malkmus persona, a haughty, bored ironist whose sarcasm was so sharp it could wound. There are traces of that persona still, such as on the Sparkle Hard track “Bike Lane,” in which he cites the death of Freddie Gray while deadpanning, over and over, “another beautiful bike lane,” a refrain that becomes an indictment of aspirational-lifestyle liberalism. Overall, however, there is a sense that Malkmus has mellowed with age, that he’s less aloof, less disdainful—in a word, less cool. “He’s a pretty approachable character these days,” Rolling Stone writes.

Well, that’s new. And it suggests that the indie rock hero of old—the cool “jerk,” as The New York Times called Malkmus in a recent interview—is one of the casualties of the new ways in which Americans listen to and appreciate music.

“Cool” is a difficult concept to define, but in the ‘90s Malkmus embodied a specific kind of cool, one that ultimately became associated with the hipster of the early aughts. He was smarter than you, the poor benighted fan. He listened to better, more esoteric bands. It goes without saying he was outside the mainstream of American life, because the mainstream was for sheep—but the point was not to rage against society, it was to mock it with a knowing smirk. Like Beck and Thurston Moore, Malkmus was skinny, floppy-haired, decidedly unattractive, and his awkward realness became, paradoxically, a source of power, a weapon in his assault on the pretty, preening males who have always dominated commercial rock. As he crooned on the 1994 song “Range Life”: “The Stone Temple Pilots / They’re elegant bachelors / They’re foxy to me / Are they foxy to you?”

Obscurity, authenticity, and, above all, exclusivity: This was the Malkmus ethos. Being cool meant not just cultivating an aesthetic of detachment, which Pavement had down in spades anyway, proving in every offhand song and every inside joke that they did not care what people thought. It also meant suggesting some inner sanctum of cool that, in the looping logic of hipsterism, would be degraded—uncool, by definition—if it ever became accessible to common mortals.

If the celebrity is a kind of god, then Stephen Malkmus was a god from a Kafka story, forever receding into inscrutability. And like all gods he had his acolytes in the millions of kids who prided themselves on their knowledge of small acts and minor labels; who measured a band’s worth as being in inverse proportion to its popularity; who had very rigid, if not always consistent, definitions of what was cool and what wasn’t. It was a whole subculture of people who acted like they were in on a secret. As the joke went: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Oh, it’s a really obscure number; you probably haven’t heard of it.

This is not how it works anymore. To start, rock and roll is in one of its periodic nadirs and hip-hop has long been in the ascendant. The advent of Spotify and YouTube has made the entire musical universe instantaneously accessible, rendering the concept of obscurity moot. And most importantly, the marker of good taste has swung in the opposite direction: toward inclusiveness and shareability, toward a big tent that discriminates against no style or genre. As the middle-aged protagonist in While We’re Young—directed by Noah Baumbach, perhaps the premier chronicler of Gen X’s anxieties about getting old and obsolescent—says excitedly of a new 25-year-old friend he has made: “You should see this guy’s record collection! It’s Jay-Z. It’s Thin Lizzy. It’s Mozart. His taste is democratic.”

There was, in retrospect, something fundamentally undemocratic about Malkmus’s indie rock, even if this sounds counterintuitive at first. This was, after all, a movement that came out of a grassroots opposition to corporate-driven pop music. It was composed of outcasts, nerds, the bullied, and it subverted the overweening masculinity of bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. These bands formed with zero expectation of success, let alone fame, fortune, or power. In all this, they were at the era’s cutting edge of progressivism. Yet somehow this music’s defining trait became a kind of elitism. “I was a product of my time. I’ve always been attracted to negative influences—I thought that meant you were smart,” Malkmus acknowledged in his interview with The New York Times. “It was kind of brutal, because men have to develop their hierarchies.”

One of the ways this elitism worked in practice was by icing out women. One vivid example was the indie scene’s collective treatment of Liz Phair, as Gina Arnold chronicles in her book on Phair’s 1993 album Exile in Guyville:

Although Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of the year’s top records by Spin and The New York Times, at the time of its release it was simultaneously massacred in the fanzine world by mainly male critics who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and a poor musician. Most famously, Chicago-area record producer Steve Albini called it ‘a fucking chore to listen to.’ Later her own producer Brad Wood called her ‘the most hated woman in Chicago.’

Indeed, you cannot find a more perfect example of indie dogma than Albini’s screed about Phair. It was sent to The Chicago Reader in 1994 to condemn its favorable coverage of Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill, under the headline “Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge.” Its tone is shrill, its politics reminiscent of the struggle session: “In your rush to pat these three pandering sluts on the heinie, you miss what has been obvious to the ‘bullshit’ crowd all along: These are not ‘alternative’ artists any more than their historical precursors. They are by, of, and for the mainstream.”

It is hard to imagine any serious person caring about this distinction today. And it is perhaps no coincidence, then, that in this new, more egalitarian era of music, the one artist who has earned universal rapture is a woman, and a black woman at that. Even a sourpuss like Malkmus has joined the chorus, telling the Times that, if he could have anyone else’s voice, he would have these: “I’d like to have a really pure voice, like the Radiohead guy [Thom Yorke]. Usually it’d be women: Cat Power in her prime, or Sandy Denny, or, obviously, Beyoncé. Who doesn’t wish you could be a badass like that?”

Obviously. Well, if we were to go back in time and ask a 26-year-old Stephen Malkmus the same question, and he answered that he would like to have the voice of the most famous musician in the world, I’d eat my collection of vintage records. Middle-aged Malkmus is a different matter. A few years ago a video went viral of Malkmus and the Jicks performing a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” to an audience of children and their parents. It was hard not to detect a strong whiff of irony emanating from the proceedings: This is what the kids want, not Stephen Malkmus. But listen to the song again. With its stripped-down arrangement, its catchy piano line, and his wavering voice curling around it all, it sounds a bit like Pavement. And as he closes his eyes and steps to the microphone, he seems to express, in the simplest way, how good it feels to sing it.