From the archives: why music should still matter (August 11th, 2013, SBPost column)

Is indie-rock music anywhere near as important culturally as it used to be? I’ll admit to having that rather gloomy rumination recently while standing in a crowd of thousands at Blur in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Like most punters there, I was experiencing an intense wave of nostalgia, but it wasn’t simply for the indie music made in the 1990s, when Blur were in their hey-day.

Instead, with a bittersweet pang, I was realising how much I’d missed the thrill of being at a big indie-rock concert where everyone could sing along to the songs – where everyone knew every line. From Parklife to Tender to Out of Time: Damon Albarn sang to us, we croaked joyfully back at him. It was a heady, embracing experience.

It doesn’t happen anymore. Take away your Bruce Springsteen, your Rolling Stones, your hoary grandfathers of modern rock – and you’ll quickly realise that in indie-rock, some time ago now, everyone quietly stopped knowing the lyrics by heart, because everyone quietly stopped being quite as passionate about the tunes.

When did you last stump up for a rock album that made you feel as exultant as you might have done about Nirvana’s Nevermind or Oasis’s Definitely Maybe? Could we mention MGMT in that regard? Mumford & Sons? Mercury Prize winners Alt-J? Or should we fess up and admit that we hear radio singles these days rather than album tracks, remixes rather than records? We have the attention span of gnats and the tolerance of Ian Paisley at a hippie gathering.

And no, it’s not an age thing. It’s not because I’m in my thirties and getting ready to kick out my festival wellies rather than the jams. It’s a technology issue. Like everyone else, I have a zillion songs at my fingertips, so many that sometimes the pressure of all I haven’t heard weighs down on me, like a million countries I’ll never visit. The proliferation of bands has perversely made the experience of loving music more tricky.

We don’t go to trouble for a band anymore. If they birth something ‘difficult’, we’ll shrug our shoulders and click the next download. There are so many fledgling acts, each occupying an infinitesimal, pressuring space. In accommodating the din, we’re creating an attention deficit problem on the part of the audience. Spotify this, YouTube that, stream the other: your new favourite band is still your new favourite band, but only for the next five minutes. And mainstream radio, with its effective kibosh on indie-rock music (pop sells better), doesn’t help. We don’t commit to music.

It’s a shame, because in troubled times, we need communal experiences. Public events, whether rock gigs or football matches, serve to bind us together, hold us in a warm embrace. Rock music can be life-changing. Recently, the British papers were full of an account of a British MP who, seemingly inspired by his love of the band Drenge, decided to resign his post. The story was shocking, because it seemed so anachronistic: here was a man who still cared about indie-rock. On a micro level, at Blur, there was a punter who arrived wearing a giant milk carton, in homage to their Coffee & TV video.

I loved how much trouble he’d gone to – how much Blur mattered to him. I want to live in a world where indie rock music is a powerful force, capable of making people change themselves in inspiration. For all that the likes of services such as Spotify have given us, it’s important to recognise how much they’re taking away.

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