The Spectre of Indie Sleaze

In mid-2021, a TikTok landed on my for-you-page that sent shivers cascading down my spine. A popular trend forecaster I’d been following for some time, Mandy Lee, announced there was an “obscene amount of evidence that the indie sleaze/Tumblr aesthetic” was coming back.

I’ve seen a few mentions of “indie sleaze” of late. It seems that it has mostly become a meme already.

The article quoted above, written for Vice, argues its all just an apparition of hype — a TikTok account coins a phrase and suddenly it is all anyone can talk about. It’s the product of an echo chamber, pure and simple. But it asks a few interesting questions:

[I]t’s easier to jump on the indie sleaze bandwagon than question why we’re revisiting eras from less than a decade ago. Could it be that we turn to nostalgia in times of duress? Could the hedonistic tendencies of 2008-2012 have been borne as an entire generation of young adults came of age during a global financial crisis? And could we be returning to the same hedonistic party culture now, as yet another generation of adults comes of age during a once in a century pandemic?

I think all of the above might be true, but for a specific demographic. In fact, these are all questions that can be given interesting and affirmation answers, but ultimately no answers are given. The article cops out.

Discussing indie sleaze as a monolith is easy, but it’s lazy. 

Indie sleaze isn’t “making a comeback”.

It’s become little more than a caricature of an era, created by a bunch of overworked millennials trawling Instagram, TikTok, and Google, in a bid to provide the winning take on something that isn’t really happening. 

I’m left wondering how this makes the “indie sleaze” trend different to any other. Every pointless fashion trend of late seems like a flash in the pan of an accelerated hype cycle, which moves too fast to come up with anything new and too fast to make good on whatever potentials might actually exist within these short-lived cultures pangs. It’s postmodernism slipping around like Bambi in its ultimate smooth space, where sensibilities do not share space incongruously but are swapped out at a rapid-fire rate, where everything is capable of a comeback all of the time, but in a manner that is always frictionless and inconsequential.

But what is intriguing, and perhaps explains why another “indie” revival has provoked more interest of late, is the strangely unacknowledged fact that “indie” was always just an echo. Indeed, all this talk of comebacks ignores how it was never anything substantial to begin with. “Indie” hedonism was an echo of Britpop hedonism, itself a depoliticised caricature of countercultural dissidence. It was only ever a sad product of what Mark Fisher famously called your average millennial’s “reflexive impotence” — the knowledge that things are bad, coupled with the belief that you can’t do anything about it; a self-fulfilling prophecy of political resignation.

Britpop epitomised this, not only in its own output but also in how it functioned as a stabiliser for post-Soviet neoliberalism; a convenient outlet for excess, comfortably entombed within the new hegemony of capitalist realism. This was interrupted by the trauma of 9/11 and all that followed, but it peaked again in 2005, especially in the UK, where every indie band was a bunch of kids talking about how shitty their local town centre was, happy soundtracking the very shittiness of their own town centre. (See: Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys, whose every early hit is an anthem for a shit, drunken, lairy towns that pours cynical scorn on shit, drunken, lairy towns.)

Then the financial crash swept all this away, and Occupy came about, repoliticising a generation resigned to its fate, before it reemerged, a shadow of its former self, in the mid 2010s, during those few years after Occupy dissipated and right before the tumult of the last few years.

Now we’ve got Biden in the White House, a stagnant UK parliamentary situation, and what seems like the final dwindling of the pandemic coupled with liberal war-horniness. The leftist movements that channeled a youthful energy through pop culture — from Corbynism to climate protests to BLM and others — have again begun to dissipate against the persistent stagnancy of liberalism and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that we’re now talking about “indie (sleaze)” again as a result.

Indie rears it’s head whenever political apathy does, whenever cynicism takes root, but especially when things seem tensely stagnant (liberals lusting after war in Europe after two years of a pandemic is painfully predictable). But it’s also worth acknowledging where this “reflexive impotence” comes from. Indie sleaze is a symptom of white apathy. It’s not “Anarchy in the UK” but its opposite: depoliticised, suburbanised angst. It is the stagnancy of the establishment reflected in the waters of popular culture, which lashes out like Narcissus, but only at its own reflection. It has no chance of ending itself, only prolonging the spectacle for the rest of us.

The story here shouldn’t be that some TikTokker predicted a trend revival, but that we’re once again on the brink of yet another political downturn, fuelled by an amnesia regarding the material contexts of indie past. It is better we face up to the truth — indie reemerges like the zombie it is everytime hope and political confidence are in short supply. To forget this is to fail to counter it, and that’s an amnesia we can scarcely afford right now.

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