Thursday, February 25, 2010

Motive Talk Among Indie Rockers

I wrote this paper for a presentation at the meetings of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionsim in Las Vegas, 1999.

Presentations of Self as Claims to Group Membership: Selling Out Motive Talk among Chicago’s Indie Rockers

Our presentations of self are claims to membership in groups. Others’ acceptances or rejections of our presentations signal their acceptance or rejection of our claimed group memberships. Chicago’s indie rock musicians maintained their membership in the early-nineties indie scene by acting in ways that validated the existence of their group, and thus their selves. They talked incessantly about selling out, a contextual paradox where musicians presented allegiance to a scene that decried working in any way with the major label recording industry, while at the same time anticipating careers in the same industry. Indie musicians used talk about selling out as motive talk, a way of ironically making claim to membership in the local indie scene in the face of behaviors to the contrary. “Skepticism,” “persistence pays off,” and “identifying the authentically successful” are three types of selling out motive talk that musicians used to assert their indie scene membership.

The Presentation of Self and Group Membership

Groups. Groups, like all objects, are things toward which we act (Hewitt, p. 169). They exist because we perceive them as existing, and act as if they exist. We make real decisions about what to do, how to behave, and who to consider friends, based on the groups we perceive to exist. We consider ourselves to be members of some groups and not others. The groups we want to be members of are the ones we behave so as to stay members of.

Chicago’s indie rock music scene of the early 1990s was a group. It consisted of nightclubs, radio stations, recording labels, periodicals and, most important, people who defined themselves as indie rockers. Indie rockers acted as if the indie rock scene existed. They acted toward the nightclubs, radio stations, recording labels, periodicals, and other indie rockers in ways that confirmed their mutual membership in the scene. Through appropriate, though constantly negotiated, presentations of self indie rockers maintained and validated theirs and others membership (or not) in the scene.

The continued existence of a group, in a stable form, depends upon the flow of negotiated behaviors by those who perceive themselves as its members. We reaffirm our group memberships with other members everyday and all the time. By behaving according to group expectations we communicate our willingness to be group members. Our conformity to group expectations and agreed upon rules and procedures establishes our level of group membership. In more formal groups (the military, for instance) we are more convincing in asserting our membership because rules and procedures are written down and made clear, the rational nature of the rules and procedures validate our membership claims. In less formal groups we must engage in intense interactional negotiations to ascertain membership statuses, there is no formally written down evidence that backs-up our membership claims.

Chicago’s indie scene existed as a group because of the behaviors of musicians and other members that validated its existence. The scene was an informal group, however. There were no written rules or procedures that members pointed to as evidence to back up their membership claims. Instead, indie rockers validated their membership claims, and ultimately the existence of the scene, through intense and continuous interactions with each other.

When situations become problematic, when groups’ definitional existences (and thus definitions of self) become ambiguous, group members often insist on orthodox behaviors from other members (Dewey, p. 164). That is, when we do not know what to do, we refer back to the rules and procedures of our organizations for guidance, and insist that other members do as well. If group rules do not supply us with appropriate behavioral responses, then we negotiate new behaviors, we work with other members to bring definitional clarity back to the group situation.

The action orientation of a group, the agreed upon activities in which group members engage, consists of its meaningful objects and, of course, the symbols members use to refer to the objects (Blumer, p. 69). The more formal the group, the more well defined are its objects. In less well defined groups objects are more ambiguous, there are more objects that need to be defined through spontaneous interactional negotiation. Thus, members in less well defined organizations spend more time negotiating the meanings of group objects (rules and procedures) and less time pursuing stated group goals.

Because of the paradox where musicians expected each other to stay loyal to the scene while at the same time trying to move beyond it[i], Chicago’s indie scene, as an informal group, was always in a definitionally problematic state. Members’ attempts at resolving this state took the form of intense interactional negotiations about group identity. Indeed, these identity negotiations were the overriding activity in which indie rockers engaged, probably surpassing even their directly musical activities. Because the action orientation of the scene was not well defined, members had to constantly negotiate the meaning of the scene and, therefor, their own membership in it.

Reference Groups

Some groups, our reference groups, provide our everyday actions and behaviors with consistency because, no matter what the interactional situation, we look to reference group objects, and role-take reference group people and roles, in making our own roles (Shibutani, p. 250). When viewing ourselves from the perspective of others, in knowing ourselves as members of groups, our reference groups come to mind more often than other organizations. Reference groups consistently influence our behavioral choices, whereas less referenced group memberships influence our behaviors only in isolated incidents.

Reference groups serve as social controls on our behaviors, they limit alternative types of behavior for us (Shibutani, p. 254). When making decisions about behavioral choices in isolated incidents, we must select between a myriad of choices, each espoused by different others, different group members, and members of different groups. We will most often choose the path, the behavior, that we feel will fulfill our membership in our reference groups, and least often choose the paths preferred by members in our most isolated groups. Reference groups provide consistency of behavior because we will make the same choice, with regards to similar situations, on a routine basis, choices that reflect our view of members in our reference groups.

Chicago’s indie rock scene was influential for its members, it was very much a reference group. Members referred to it, in choosing their behaviors, consistently, constantly, and across situations. That is, people who considered themselves to be members of the indie scene, who considered themselves to be indie rockers, made mundane life choices that they thought would confirm their indie scene membership in the eyes of others whom they perceived to be indie scene members.

Reference groups, therefore, provide us with our most consistent motive talk (Shibutani, p. 254). We use reference group motive talk in numerous situations, whether we are in the midst of reference group actors or not. What motivates us, and influences us to make the choices we do, comes more often than not from our reference groups, not from isolated groups. The indie scene provides members with language that they use to frame their behaviors, whether among or isolated from other scene members, most notably in referring to selling out.

We do not necessarily personally know all of the other members in our reference groups, they do not have to be small and intimate. Indeed, many reference groups are large, ambiguous, and abstract. They are this way precisely because of the way they influence our behavioral choices across a range of situational activities. The indie rock scene, as a reference group, was large and ambiguous. Indie rockers often did not refer to specific other indie rockers in role taking. Rather they referred to the generalized other of the indie rock scene. So it was a vague sense of what the generalized indie scene was that motivated indie rockers to action, not a concern with the perspectives of specific others.

In situations where group loyalties come into conflict, where perceptions of our group memberships are ambiguous, our loyalty to groups is questioned (Shibutani, p. 259). “Whose side are you on?” is the question here. We are sometimes expected to make a clear choice of group memberships. Our answer to the question will be our reference groups. Indie rockers, by definition, chose what they perceived as the indie scene, along with its motive talk, over other possible groups as their reference group, as the group that most closely defined their identities.

Personal Identity, Self-image

When we are in the company of our reference group members we feel “like ourselves.” We see objects, and see others seeing objects, in a comfortable, seemingly natural way; in a way we most understand and enjoy.

Cooley’s looking-glass self states that our conception of self as a member of a group is a reflection of others’ perceptions of us as group members. If others think we are members, then they act toward us as members, and we, through role taking, view ourselves as members. In less formal groups, those without official roles and objects that signal status positions (i.e. military stripes), we constantly negotiate memberships, constantly interact with others on the basis of negotiating group membership identities. In such groups we constantly work to influence others’ perceptions of us as group members.

Indie rockers, because they fancied themselves members of an informal group (the indie rock scene), had to convince other perceived indie rockers, through presentations of self, that they were, indeed, indie scene members. The presentational convincing took the form of constant interactional negotiations, one form of which is motive talk.

Our self-conceptions are reinforced by these social relationships (Shibutani, p. 217). After imagining how others will react to our behaviors, we act. When others react the way we imagined, our perceptions of self are reinforced. Once we can accurately predict the responses of group members we are full group members. Indie rockers acted based on their perceptions of how other perceived indie rockers would react. The more accurate they were at making such interactional predictions, the more they considered themselves members of the indie scene.

Groups contain factions (Smith [Kotarba], pp. 107-08), each pressing for its version of the definition of the group. So group self-identities, within our perceptions of self, often conflict as we role-take. We must make choices about which factions to placate, which factions to annoy. The two important factions in Chicago’s indie scene coincided with the selling out paradox. Some members felt musicians should stay loyal to the scene, to making records in an independent fashion. Others saw nothing wrong with attempting to construct a career in the indie scene that would lead to a further career in the major label industry.

Our self-identities change as others’ expectations of us change (Ebaugh [Kotarba], p. 156). As our careers progress we will, when role-taking, notice changes in what others expect of us, in how we think others will react to our behaviors. Often others’ expectations of us change before we are ready. We must then adjust our perceptions of how others perceive us, if we want to act consistently with group expectations. Sometimes, however, we fight against newly acquired identities. “I’m still the same,” we might say. When this occurs we behave so as to convince others that we are still the same.

Depending on their “success” within the major label music industry, indie musicians’ perceptions of self and others changed. To move into the major label industry, for example by signing a recording contract, would literally be perceived as selling out by those still in the indie scene exclusively. The musicians signing the contract knew this. They knew, when they signed the contract, how they would be perceived by others, and they acted accordingly.

The Role of Language

We reveal our intentions through gestures (Shibutani, p.146-47), mainly language. For things to run smoothly, for us to be convincing (and convinced) in our claims to group status, the talk between group members must be convincing. We must convince each other, through talk (and other gestures), that we are who we say we are. . .members of the group. Thus it was through motive talk that indie rockers convinced each other, and themselves, of their membership in the indie scene.

Talk thrives on problematic situations, situations in which objects are not clearly defined. When we are not sure of the definitions of objects in the situation, we talk about them, we define them through interactional negotiation. Since the selling out paradox made the indie scene constantly problematic, indie rockers talked constantly about meanings and memberships in the scene.

In defining how we feel about objects, we declare how we intend to act toward the object (we declare our understanding of the definition of the situation). This, in turn, is a direct reflection and assertion about our group memberships. If we define objects (through talk) the same as other members, then we are members; if we define (through talk) objects contrary to other group members, then we are unlikely to be members ourselves.

Indie rocker motive talk was an attempt by indie rockers to agree on the “indie” definition of the situation. No matter that they seldom came to a consensus as to objects’ definitions, it was the behavior that mattered, the performance of definitional negotiation was enough to solidify one’s membership in the indie rock group.


When we role-take we judge ourselves from a moral standpoint (Hewitt, pp. 94-5). We judge our performances as “good” or “bad,” as we think others judge them as good or bad. Thus, we judge our group membership performances as good or bad as we think others judge our performances as good or bad. Indie rockers judged their own behaviors, through their perceptions of other indie rockers views of their behaviors (role-taking), as good indie behavior or bad indie behavior. In their desire to be seen as “good” indie rockers, then, they adjusted their behaviors to fit what they felt others would see as good indie behavior.

Furthermore, we seek recognition from others in their worlds, in their groups (Shibutani, p. 274). We want to maintain acceptable definitions of self in the eyes of fellow group members. We care about the opinions of others about self. So we act so as to maintain positive conceptions of self from the standpoint of others, and thus from the standpoint of self. Indie rockers acted so as to maintain a “positive indie member” sense of self.

Aligning Actions and Motive Talk

We use aligning actions when we perceive that our behaviors are devalued by other group members (Hewitt, pp. 140-41), when we feel that others have a negative conception of our self. Aligning actions are meant to prevent devaluation of self in the eyes of others. Indie rockers used aligning actions when they felt that others saw them as “negative indie members” as a result of their acting in perceived poor indie fashion (that is, if they wanted to be seen as indie members).

Motives and Motive Talk

A specific form of talk, motive talk, arises when an act is called into question (Hewitt, p. 142), either by real or imaginary others (real or imaginary depending on one’s perceptions). Motive talk lays clear the intentions of the act. As an aligning action, motive talk is an attempt to maintain our identity in the face of discrediting perceptions of our actions. Indie rockers used motive talk as aligning actions, to maintain their indie status in light of discrediting behaviors in the eyes of other indie scene members.

By role-taking before acting, we create motives for action (Shibutani, pp. 76-7). These motives are aims, they give direction to our actions. When asked why we acted the way we did, we can fall back on the motives we already created, a set of culturally approved reasons for acting. Reasons that will, in our perceptions, maintain our group memberships. Indie rockers, therefore, had motives for the actions, motives that they kept in their heads. These motives gave indie rockers direction to act in what they perceived as appropriate indie scene fashion.

Important here is that a group’s ability to attract and retain members is directly correlated with its ability to provide a vocabulary of motives (a set of motives to direct members’ actions). We are more likely to stay members of groups that provide motives and motive talk, groups that maintain our positive self-esteem. As I will show, the indie scene provided indie members with motive talk (“Persistence Pays Off” and “Identifying Indie Successful Bands”) that helped them maintain their indie memberships. This motive talk also provided indie members with motives for their behaviors, motives that gave direction to members’ behaviors.

Career Failure and the Need for Aligning Actions

Our expectations of career lines often run up against reality (Hewitt, p. 193). When this occurs, we must remake our selves. Already attained positions are reinterpreted. Indie rockers’ career plans were often antithetical to their presentation of motive talk. This irony provides what I call the Selling Out Paradox, a perception by indie rockers that industry success was defined as failure, and industry failure defined as success.

Our adjusted career aspirations become problems for organizations as well as for ourselves because group members had expectations that coincided with our own expectations. Thus, all group members (including ourselves) were prepared to adjust their definitions of objects as we advanced along our careers. When our careers stall, all must readjust their expectations of readjustment.

Failed indie bands were a problem (as in a problematic situation) not only for the bands’ members, but also for the maintenance of the indie scene as a whole. Other indie members had to fit failed bands into an established motive talk, or create new talk, in order to understand the band’s career path (failure) within the framework of the indie scene. Motive talk explained away failed careers by putting the careers and behaviors in an “indie positive” light.

The Paradox of Selling out: Authenticity and Success

The selling out paradox for Chicago's indie musicians was to create authentically pure art products yet with an eye to constructing stable careers in the mainstream music industry. Art worlds offer career paths unique from others in that art is often thought of as something above and beyond the market place. That is, "pure" art is not seen as a commodity, and those who choose to make art should not expect material rewards. The goal of a pure art career is non-material respect for one's work by those who understand, namely the members of one's art scene. This perspective contrasts with the goal of corporate commodity driven careers, for instance, where success is defined by increasing one's salary through filling ever more important positions within a business. It is not the goal of a pure art career to increase one's salary. The basic contradiction for Chicago's indie rock musicians was that these two career types converged. The music was considered art--pure art--but the act of selling records was a commodity driven enterprise. Thus, the goals of art and commerce were in acute conflict.

Indie musicians wishing to have successful careers in the rock recording industry had to reconcile the conflict between the goals of the commodity driven industry and the goals of indie rock as an art form. Attempts at reconciling this conflict took the form of moral debates over "selling out." The debate served as "motive talk" (Hewitt Dilemmas) that allowed musicians to present their bands as authentically indie rock while pursuing major label contracts. Motive talk, as already discussed, is an effort to preserve socially desirable identities. When social actors succeed in claiming legitimate or understandable motives for their acts, they also succeed in maintaining and reinforcing their identities. That is, they persuade others to see them, and they are enabled to see themselves, as individuals acting in socially desirable and approved ways, and thus to be identified with others and with shared conceptions of the good (225).
Indie rock musicians used motive talk to assure each other that although they might appear to be aiming for recording industry success, they were still grounded in the artistically pure and desirable world of Chicago's indie scene. They used motive talk to maintain their membership in what they perceived to be Chicago’s indie rock scene.

Indie rockers judged bands as being more or less authentic to indie rock conventions. They discussed authenticity in much the same way as Simon Frith discusses it in Sound Effects, it was the perceived sincere presentation of indie conventions. That is, self-identified indie rock audiences had to accept bands' presentations of indie conventions as rooted in the real experience of Chicago's local indie scene, and not as fabricated attempts at capitalizing on industry fad.

Musicians' dual focus on industry success and indie authenticity created a significant quandary. The level of art world activity that indie rockers saw as most authentic was also seen as relatively unsuccessful. In this sense, the purist form of indie rock music was performed by unsigned bands because they were seen as a part of the audiences for whom they played; they were playing "folk" music. The quandary for bands that were successful in the major label industry was that they were inevitably seen by indie rockers as having lost contact with the indigenous scene. They no longer represented their original audience base. They were no longer members of the indie scene. This loss of membership is what Chicago's indie rockers commonly meant by "selling out."

Another paradox for unsigned indie musicians was related to their perceived chances of success within the major label recording industry. Indie musicians realized that most bands did not make it to the major labels. To combat this discouraging reality, indie rockers constructed other levels of success that encouraged and rewarded bands at the local unsigned level. A major indicator of success within the scene was the perception of bands' indie authenticity (their indie membership). Since many bands would never sign major label contracts, they defined authentic indie rock music as something that they could produce. Authentic indie rock music was something at which a relatively large proportion of bands could be successful. The paradox is that bands were comforted or reassured by the rewards for local indie authenticity, but on the industry level this reward meant failure.

At the same time that local unsigned musicians criticized the recording industry and accused major label bands of selling out, some bands that were once considered indie authentic but had made it to the majors were revered for their success. These bands were seen as having beaten the odds and were successful at something at which very few bands were. Although they were not considered authentic indie rock bands anymore, these bands were still regarded as successful and as something to be emulated.

Because indie rockers perceived two levels of success (artistic and industry), musicians could claim artistic success for their bands even when they were not successful within the recording industry. Statements like the following were common among indie musicians in unsigned bands: "We haven't had any financial or critical success, but I think we've had a lot of artistic success" (personal interview). Other bands were apparently industry successful without having earned indie scene authenticity. Indie musicians accordingly felt that the recording industry support personnel had the power to make bands successful on the recording industry level, with or without indie authenticity. The manager of a major label band that was relatively successful on the industry level as well as having earned considerable indie artistic authenticity made the point that "power managers" have the ability to bring industry success to artistically mediocre bands.

"I cringe when I see mediocre bands…just because they have a power manager…they're a mediocre band that happens to become successful because someone was pushing for them. Some bands are great and they're overlooked because no one is really behind them pushing them. At the same time I know so many bands who have an unjustified amount of success because somebody was there pushing them to do certain things. Or they also manage a huge act on that label…like the manager of Genesis on Atlantic will bring in some bimbo Top 40 person, and all of a sudden they're high on the charts simply because he has the clout on Atlantic to make sure they get marketed right." (personal interview)

The manager is suggesting that even artistically authentic bands need the help of industry executives if they want to attain industry success. No band can be successful in the recording industry, no matter how artistically authentic they are, without the help of industry support personnel. All of Chicago's indie musicians believed this to be true. Thus, if selling out was defined as bands giving control over their artistic products to industry support personnel (personnel who more than likely were not part of Chicago’s indie scene), then all bands that made a living at the major label level were sell-outs (they had all become non-members); and all musicians that wanted to make a living at this level would have to sell-out (they would have to renounce scene membership).

Industry Success

Artistic authenticity and indie scene membership notwithstanding, Chicago's indie rock musicians wanted to "make a living" playing music. Artistic authenticity (indie membership) did not compensate for industry success.

"I still want to realize that fantasy of getting signed and going on the road. And that's one of the things I still haven't done. I haven't experienced it at that level. I've experienced performing at a fairly high level, and I've experienced the working of it, and I've experienced practicing, and being obsessed with music. And getting just the right sound, getting this lick down, or the grooving of this particular kind of music. But I haven't gotten to that next step of going on a long tour and having a record, being signed to a label and that sort of thing. And that's the next level up." (personal interview)

Any musician who says "I'm just in it for the art," they gotta be bullshitting. In the long run you definitely want something out of it. (personal interview)

For musicians to consider their bands real successes they had to move out of the local indie scene and into the mainstream recording industry. They had to move to the next level.

And so the basic paradox facing indie rock musicians remained. They wanted to construct careers in the major label recording industry while at the same time decrying major label industry success because they saw it in conflict with artistic authenticity. Yet Chicago's indie rock musicians pursued these two seemingly incompatible ideals simultaneously.

In this section I discuss the skepticism engendered in unsigned indie musicians when viewing their chances of succeeding in the major label industry (and thus leaving the indie scene). I describe two definitional strategies that indie musicians used as motive talk to explain their own lack of success in the recording industry (and thus their solid membership in the indie scene): “Persistence Pays Off,” and “Identifying Indie Successful Bands.” Both of these strategies were more than talk alone. They motivated the ways musicians attempted to construct their own bands’ careers in relation to the selling out paradox.


Musicians in unsigned bands tended to temper their goals of securing major label contracts with skepticism about their actual chances.

M-Are you interested in eventually making this your living?
R-Definitely. But we're not gonna be surprised if it doesn't work out. (personal interview)

Indie musicians' skepticism was motive talk for discussing what, on the level of the recording industry, were seen as unsuccessful careers. Skeptical talk allowed musicians to account for their bands' lack of industry success in comforting ways, comforting in that it affirmed their membership in the indie scene.

In one sense skepticism helped to cushion the blow of failed industry success. By downplaying their chances at a major label contract, musicians in unsigned bands were not disappointed in their lack of success. Two comparative examples are enlightening here. Surfers in Southern California are often skeptical about how the waves will be while on their way to surf. They talk among themselves about how it was a waste of time to get up in the morning (they often surf before dawn) because the surf is going to be bad. Thus, if the waves really are bad, then the surfers will not be disappointed. If the waves are good, it is a nice surprise. Similarly, the skepticism of unsigned indie rock bands about their chances at industry success cushion the blow if they really do fail. If they do not make it to the major labels, it is expected. If they do make it, it is a happily unexpected event.

Another comparative example of skepticism, one much closer to home, occurs when graduate students and recent PhDs looking for jobs talk of how tough the market is. They discuss among themselves how only the lucky few get jobs right away. The rest have to stick it out, and maybe eventually things will get better. Such skepticism is motive talk that serves to deflect ideas that students' failure on the job market may be their fault. Maybe they just are not good enough. Similarly, skepticism engaged by unsigned indie rock musicians deflected implications that their bands did not make it to the major labels because they were not good enough.

In another sense the skepticism of musicians in unsigned bands strengthened their claims to indie scene authenticity (membership). Failing to make it to the major labels was a badge of honor. It demonstrated bands' commitment to the local indie scene. This function of skepticism is similar to Liebow's suggestion that lower-class Black men develop a "shadow system of values" that is "[d]erivative, insubstantial, and co-occurring" (213) with the parent system of middle-class values. Liebow's argument is that lower-class Black men would like to partake in the value system of mainstream society, but they adapt to conditions as "failures" in America's economic order. The shadow system gives the men a set of positive values that give worth to their lives. Similarly, indie musicians' skepticism provided a system of values in the shadows of the mainstream music industry. Musicians wanted to make it into the industry, but in the face of failure, skepticism provided for a system of values emphasizing authenticity by which musicians could feel good about their indie performance.

Persistence Pays Off

The skeptical motive talk of indie musicians took two forms. One was talk of "Persistence Pays Off," the other was "Identifying Indie Successful Bands." First, many musicians felt that their chances for success in the recording industry (and thus leaving the indie scene) were enhanced through persistence.

"I think the key for us, or for any band really, is to be persistent. To stay together as a unit, not to have a lot of personnel changes. Maybe just staying together. Bands that continue playing for years eventually have probably a better chance at succeeding than a band that's only together for a year. One band continues, and other bands, the rivals or competition, keep disbanding. The band that continues, obviously, has a somewhat better chance." (personal interview)

Since many musicians felt that artistic competence was not directly correlated with industry success, other factors were seen as responsible for bands' making it to the major labels. Persistence, in the form of not breaking-up, was one of these factors.

Not only did indie musicians feel that persistence was a way of making it to the major labels, they also felt that persistence was a reward in itself. They felt that bands that stayed together for a long time deserved to have industry success, as the following musician said about a successful major label band.

"Of course they worked. They toured plenty and they made their grass roots connection with people. So they should get their due. However, I never thought their music was particularly challenging." (personal interview)

This drummer suggested that it was persistence rather than the quality of the band's music that entitled them to industry success. He respected them for their persistence if not their music, and thus held them as an example for the effectiveness of persistence.

One guitarist suggested that his band was like a family, and families do what they can to stay together.

"It's the same way, say, your family is all pissed off at each other. You just forget about it. Even though you're mad at each other…you're mad at your brother but you've got to go on vacation together and you've already got everything packed up. What do you do? You don't cancel the vacation and leave you at home because you're mad at your brother. You all go. You have to sit there in the same car no matter what. You just forget about it after a while. And that's how it goes. John (the vocalist) and I weren't speaking to each other the day before that show. He walked out on practice because he was mad at me for something totally stupid. At the shows that doesn't matter, you still play. There's this one thing that's more important than all your petty arguments, your family. Keeping your family together is more important than you and your brother fighting." (personal interview)

Persistence was one of the only aspects of their bands that indie musicians felt they could control in their attempts at moving out of the local scene and into the major label recording industry. Persistence was more than something musicians talked about, it motivated their behaviors. Indie musicians spent much of their practical time simply trying to keep their bands together. Sometimes it was more important to stay together and be able to maintain musicians' claims to the status of rock band than for them actually to engage in the core artistic activities of rehearsing, playing live gigs, and recording. One guitarist said that his band had regular "band meetings" when the members would get together, without playing their instruments, and talk about the status of the band.

"We'll either have the meetings before practice or after practice; like a serious "turn the god damned amp off and let's talk." Or we'll go out and have a beer or two and talk that way." (personal interview)

Musicians’ strategies for resolving their bands’ disagreements were conceptually similar to what Hochschild describes as "gender strategies." These are strategies that husbands and wives use in managing family housework that have direct implications for keeping families together. Spouses construct, maintain, and reconstruct their strategies in attempts to mesh their separate beliefs about gender roles in families with the reality of their own relationship. Sometimes strategies fail and spouses break-up, but this does not negate the importance of husbands and wives trying to develop interactional strategies to keep their families together. Similarly, the ways that indie musicians handled disagreements among their members were strategies for keeping their band together. As with families, sometimes strategies failed and bands broke-up, but the belief that Persistence Pays Off led musicians to develop strategies in an attempt to keep their bands together--Persistence Pays Off was a motive for indie musicians’ behaviors.

Bands also existed as entities above and beyond the membership of individual musicians. For the sake of the band, and its chances at industry success through persistence, musicians were often kicked out of, or voluntarily quit their bands. A band that still had its name was often seen as the same band, even though it may have consisted of only a fraction of its original members. Again, the idea that Persistence Pays Off reinforced the idea that a "band" would still exist above and beyond its members, and thus motivated musicians actions.

Identifying Indie Successful Bands

Along with using strategies of persistence to combat skepticism about their chances for success in the music industry (and leaving the indie scene), indie musicians qualified their visions of making it to the major labels by identifying bands that they considered indie authentic yet industry successful. These were bands that appeared to maintain control over their art products while making records for major labels. That is, they appeared to maintain their indie scene membership while, at the same time, selling out.

"Like Babes in Toyland, or even Sonic Youth, something like that. Who wouldn't want to be in Sonic Youth's shoes? Big, and having the freedom to record and play, but not being a World Theater packing band." (personal interview)

Identifying these kinds of bands was how indie rockers constructed an image of a place in the recording industry for bands that were not willing to sell-out, a place where bands could be successful both within Chicago’s indie scene and outside of it. Sonic Youth might not pack the World Theater (a Chicago-area arena reserved for the top audience drawing stars of popular music), but they could make a living in the industry without compromising their indie authenticity.

Identifying Indie Successful Bands highlights a contradiction in indie rockers' perceptions of selling out. On one hand indie rockers were consistent in their verbal rejection of anything relating to the major label recording industry. Yet, since indie bands were actively trying to make it to the major labels, the identification of successful indie bands in the major label ranks was important as motive talk. Musicians felt there was a desirable place in the major label recording industry for bands that did not sell-out, and they could identify this place through identifying these bands.

Persistence Pays Off and Identifying Indie Successful Bands were strategies used by musicians in constructing "realistic" success goals for their own bands. Many bands stayed together five or more years without receiving any type of interest from major label executives, yet their belief in the motive talk of persistence kept them together. Similarly, the identification of indie authentic yet industry successful bands was important because unsigned indie musicians would try to model their own bands' careers on what they knew of these other bands' careers.

These two motive talk strategies were also ways for musicians to maintain their bands’ memberships in the local indie scene. Persistence Pays Off harkened back to an idea of hard work pays off. “We are still here,” the argument seemed to go, “because we work hard and do not give up. We have not, obviously, sold out.” Identifying Indie Successful Bands gave musicians an industry successful band, a band that had for all purposes become non-members, to mold their own careers after. Both strategies, then, served as behavioral motives for musicians and their bands.


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Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs. 1984. “Leaving the Convent: The Experience of Role Exit and Self-Transformation,” in Joseph A Kotarba and Andrea Fontana, The Existential Self in Society. University of Chicago Press.

Frith, Simon. 1981. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Pantheon.

Hewitt, John P. 1990. Dilemmas of the American Self. Temple University Press.

Hewitt, John P. 1999. Self and Society: A Symbolic Interactionists Social Psychology. Allyn and Bacon.

Liebow, Elliot. 1967. Tally’s Corner. Little, Brown, and Company.

Smith, Roland W. 1984. “And Existential View of Organizations: Is the Member Condemned to be Free,” in Joseph A Kotarba and Andrea Fontana, The Existential Self in Society. University of Chicago Press.

Shibutani, Tomatsu. 1991. Society and Personality: An Interactionist Approach to Social Psychology. Transaction Publishers.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Desert and the Monsoon in the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood's Original Meat Puppets

Here is a paper I completed in the summer of 2009.

The Desert and the Monsoon in the Lyrics of Curt Kirkwood’s Original Meat Puppets

I. Introduction: Biography of Meat Puppets

The original Meat Puppets began in Tempe, Arizona, around 1980. They consisted of Curt Kirkwood (guitar, lead vocals), Cris Kirkwood (bass, vocals), and Derrick Bostrom (drums). Their first release, an EP called In a Car, was released on World Imitation Records in 1981. Their first, eponymous, full-length recording was released on the independent label SST Records in 1982. The lyrics to all but four of the songs on this first LP were penned by Derrick. Of the other four, two were covers, one had lyrics written by Cris and another by Curt.

Meat Puppets stayed with SST Records through 1989, releasing six LPs and one EP. Beginning in 1991 the band released three full-length recordings with the major label London records, the last of which, No Joke!, was released in 1995. The height of Meat Puppets’ popularity came in 1993 with their guest appearance on MTV Unplugged with Nirvana, and the 1994 release of MTV Unplugged in New York, the audio recording of the same performance. Pushed by the Nirvana performance and the radio success of the song “Backwater,” Meat Puppets 1994 release Too High to Die became their best selling album (going gold).

No Joke! was the last release by the original Meat Puppets line-up of Curt, Cris, and Derrick. In the late nineties Curt, now living in Austin, formed a band he called the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra. He renamed the band Meat Puppets and released two recordings: a self-titled EP in 1999 and a full-length, Golden Lies, in 2000. Of the four members, Curt was the only original Meat Puppet in this incarnation of the band. Curt went on to form bands and release one record each with Eyes Adrift (2002) and Volcano (2004), as well as a solo record, Snow, in 2005.

In 2006, after recovering from some well publicized personal experiences (Holthouse), Cris reconnected with Curt and, with the addition of Ted Marcus, a drummer not associated with the original band, released a full-length record in July of 2007, Rise to Your Knees, on the independent Anodyne Records. Their most recent record is Sewn Together, released in May, 2009, on Megaforce Records. This incarnation of the band has toured regularly since May of 2007. Original drummer Derrick Bostrom is not part of the current version of Meat Puppets.

Beginning with Meat Puppets II in 1984, the band’s second full-length release, all music and lyrics of the original line-up are credited to Curt Kirkwood (the exceptions being two songs on each of the last two recordings being credited to Cris Kirkwood, and a cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” from 1986’s Out My Way EP). My analysis, then, of Meat Puppets lyrics for this paper focuses on the songs penned by Curt Kirkwood with the original line-up of the band (Curt, Cris, and Derrick): All songs recorded beginning with 1984’s Meat Puppets II through 1995’s No Joke!, excluding the four written by Cris Kirkwood and the Little Richard cover.

In the remainder of this paper I discuss Meat Puppets as a “desert band,” explore Curt Kirkwood’s lyrical style, pinpoint references to the desert in his lyrics, and investigate two songs in which Curt writes about a unique feature of desert life, the monsoon. In reading this it will become clear that I am not the first to notice the connection between Meat Puppets and the Southwestern deserts from which they sprang. However, I am the first to systematically extrapolate Curt’s presentations of desert life from within the lyrics of his own songs.

II. Research

As mentioned above, findings for this paper come from my own analyses and interpretations of all Meat Puppets’ songs written by Curt Kirkwood beginning with Meat Puppets II and ending with No Joke! (a total of 93 songs covering 8 LPs and 1 EP). Through my analyses I have uncovered a number of themes within Curt’s songs: Escape, mental illness, hallucinations, and nighttime being a few of the salient ones. My extrapolations on these themes are part of a work-in-progress much larger than the current paper.

I chose to focus on the desert theme for this paper because of its early and frequent appearances in Curt’s songs. As I show, lyrics about the desert span all of the albums in question. I limit my analyses to the songs of the “original” Meat Puppets (Curt, Cris, and Derrick; 1980-1994) for a couple practical reasons. First, when I started this project the original band was defunct and I assumed, as I suspect others did as well, that Meat Puppets would not reform. Therefore I felt I was covering the entirety of Curt’s songs with the band.

A second reason for limiting my analyses to the original Meat Puppets, even after their reformation, is that they may now be a band for many years to come. They have already released two full-length records since I began. If they continue at this pace, producing twelve or so news songs every couple of years, my analyses could conceivably never end and I may never come out with a final product. Perhaps in a future project I will deal with the lyrics of Meat Puppets’ second time around.

III. Meat Puppets as a “Desert” Band

Meat Puppets have always been recognized as a “desert” band. Their performances, their presentations of self, and, particularly, their music is seen as intricately linked to the terrain and lifestyle associated with living in the Southwestern United States. In the fourth edition of Trouser Press from 1991, for instance, Ira Robbins suggests that Meat Puppets II is a “brilliant evocation of the wide open world of the Southwest,” and refers to the vocals on the recording Huevos as “out-there-with-the-cacti” (p. 417).

In The Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock (1997) David Fricke writes that Meat Puppets have a “mystical sense of music’s role in desert ecology” and a style “stretched between desert country punk and old-school psychedelic improvisation” (p. 466).

On the web, Mark Prindle mentions that the band is from “Desert Country, Arizona” and, in reviewing the first record, Meat Puppets, writes that “The genre is speed country desert hardcore” (Prindle). They are described as a “power trio from the desert” (Mosenfelder) from a “desert clime” (Hairston) possessing “all of the wonder of the desert” (“Meat Puppets”). They make music “amid Phoenix’s desert landscape,” in the “open spaces of the American Southwest” and “the saguaro desert” (Le Blanc).

Marc Elliot (1996) in Rock: The Rough Guide sums up the link between Meat Puppets and the desert well when he writes that “it was the desert around Arizona, with its coyotes, creeks and empty spaces, that had the greatest effect on their music” (p. 558). He writes that “Plateau,” off of Meat Puppets II comments “on the Arizona desert’s curious beauty,” that Meat Puppets II itself is “an adventure in cactus-filled places,” and the recording Mirage is a “surreal, sad, humorous attempt to come to grips with the desert” (p. 559).

With regards to Curt’s oft-maligned vocals one writer makes reference to his “lonesome desert voice” (Chedsey 1999). In a 1982 interview in Flipside magazine Curt answers a question about his “vocal influences” in characteristically absurdist fashion, “Almost 23 years.” Drummer Derrick, however, answers the question more directly, “Our main influence is the desert” (Helen 1982).

IV. Curt’s Lyrics

As a whole, Curt Kirkwood’s lyrics span a range from absurdly silly,

Petrified lizard antlers
Asphalt orange wheel
Dog-eared alphabetic
Rubber turns to steel
(“Liquified,” Huevos, 1987)

to paranoid hallucinations,

the walls turn into waterfalls
with water made of thoughts that call
“it’s not O.K. to tip the glass
don’t make a noise or shed a tear
you’re not the only one that’s you
things have changed, now we are here”
(“We’re Here,” Meat Puppets II, 1984)

standard rock machismo,

There is a button that makes me go
She turned it on and let me know
That she could be my gasoline
She knew that I was a machine
(“I Am a Machine,” Mirage, 1987)

to nihilist existentialism,

I fall towards a flash of light
That burns the seed of life away
No thing is changed
Nothing arranged
No thing will ever be
(“Nothing,” No Joke!, 1995)

to mention but a bit of his range.

Others, of course, have commented on Curt’s lyrics. Occasionally they are seen as “genius” (Wood) and compared with some of the great rock lyricists of all time, as when Curt Loder, in Rolling Stone magazine, rates him alongside Bob Dylan by writing of his “sharp, Blonde on Blonde-style wordsmithing” (Loder 1984). Others notice the humor in Curt’s lyrics, as when one writer suggests Meat Puppets have the “goofiest, most hilarious lyrics imaginable” (Mosenfelder). Still more find his lyrics “fanciful and confusing,” “simple but hint at deeper meaning,” and, if nothing else, “ambiguous” (Wurm 2005).

Many writers focus on the psychedelic nature of Curt’s lyrics. They are seen as “trippy” (Samudrala) and “enigmatic” (Le Blanc). David Fricke (1997) epitomizes the view of Curt’s lyrics as psychedelic in his review of the band in The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock when he mentions the “trippy paranoia in Curt’s lyrics,” his “free association imagery” and his “bad-trip metaphors and outright nihilism” (pp. 466-67).

Finally, in reviewing Meat Puppets’ 2007 release, Rise to Your Knees, Trouser Press writes that Curt’s more mature lyrics are “contemplative,” as opposed to the lyrics of his younger days which resembled the lyrics of a “stunned tripper in the desert” (Robbins et al).

V. Desert References in Curt Kirkwoods’s Lyrics

Having grown-up in the wide-open spaces of the Southwest and being a purveyor of “trippy” lyrics, one would expect images of the desert both direct and metaphoric to abound in the lyrics of Curt Kirkwood, and they do. In this section I cover some of his more isolated references to the desert; those lyrics where he makes passing reference to the desert in a phrase, line, or even in a single word. I then focus on two songs where Curt addresses a particular meteorological phenomenon of the desert—the monsoon—as a central lyrical theme.

There are two songs on Meat Puppets II, the first recording on which Curt wrote all the lyrics, where the desert gets mentioned. The first is “Plateau,” the same song which was mentioned above as being lyrically “genius” and which Kurt Loder compared favorably with the lyrics of Bob Dylan. The title of the song seems an obvious enough allusion to desert vistas littered with anvil-shaped mountain tops, but there are some lines, especially in the first stanza, that make use of desert imagery descriptively and metaphorically. The first line of the song reads: “Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau,” highlighting the landscape of the Southwest while also using the desert plateau as metaphor for spiritual searching. The last two lines of stanza one suggest that “holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand/to beautify the foothills,” highlighting two ubiquitous features of the desert: Sand and foothills.

On “Climbing,” from the same second recording, Curt writes of always climbing out of bed in the morning “on a mountain made of sand.” Here there is a mountain rather than a plateau or foothill, but it is still made out of sand, grainy, giving way. In many of Curt’s songs the desert is a difficult place to live, adamant in its stubbornness to allowing the easy life. Climbing out of bed every morning on a mountain of sand reflects this difficulty.

On “Too Real,” a song from Up on the Sun, Curt writes: “When drops of sunshine/Start to turn to rain.” Sun, like sand, is a salient feature of the desert environment and to present sunshine as “drops” emphasizes the physical nature of experiencing the desert sun. Drops are things one can feel and touch and be soaked by. The rain, drops of rain, are things to get out of. So too then, as with rain, one should probably seek shelter from the heavy, saturating, “drops of sunshine” that one finds in the desert.

A set of lines from “Liquified,” off of Mirage, bestow an image of the old Southwest, of heat, of desert:

Cow town on the horizon
Boiled in twisted jade

One can see Singer here in the desert. It’s hot. He’s been riding or walking for days, alone. He comes across a small town, maybe a cattle industry type town. He sees it off through the dust and sun and cacti and sweat. The day is hot. The town appears to be boiling in jade, a bit of imagery harkening to jewelry of the Southwest and suggesting a town with Native American or Mexican influence. It is probably in Southern Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. The town is off in the distance. Like a mirage.

On “Comin’ Down” from Too High To Die (1994) Curt takes a standard bluegrass theme juxtaposing people’s earthly and celestial lives and transposes them into a scene of the deserts of the American Southwest rather than of the mountains of Kentucky or Tennessee. “Comin’ Down” ends a recording where many of the songs’ lyrics seem to lament the band’s ascension to the major recording level and the loss of freedom associated with this rise. The song suggests that Meat Puppets have now seen what business is like at the highest level (on top of the mountain). They do not really like the view from on top, so for now they are coming down to hang-out with the ordinary folk of the rock world.

But life in the independent, non-major label, rock scene has it’s problems as well, and Curt uses the desert as a metaphor for life below the major label level and the problems this entails.

Goin’ down to the desert
To the dirty filthy desert
I’ll be crawling through the sand
For at least a couple days

Goin’ down to the desert
There are things there worth avoiding
And it always makes me cross
When those things get in my way

These stanzas suggest that the desert is a harsh, unyielding place full of dirt and sand. One does not come back from the desert clean. One has sand in one’s shoes and hair. And when traveling through the desert one must watch out for things: cactus, rocks, poisonous insects, arachnids, and reptiles. Walks in the desert require concentration. Singer, in this song, is irritated by this concentration.

Finally, there are a number of places where Curt references that most salient feature of desert life, the sun. For instance, Meat Puppets’ third recording is titled Up on the Sun, and its title track describes a harsh environment not unlike the desert: “Up on the sun/Where it never rains or snows/there’s an ocean/ with a wind that never blows.” The song “Sexy Music” from Huevos contains the refrain “Hot as the sun.” From the recording Monsters comes the song “Light,” which is about, well, luminescence, and contains the lines “flaming river burning in the sky/falls in silence/over land to dry” in reference to the ultimate giver of light (the sun) and its parching effect on the desert floor. On “Never to be Found” from Too High To Die Curt sings of looking back upon a past life event, “shining dimly like a mudslick in the sun.” Again, an image of a hot, sunny, desert day comes to mind here. And on No Joke! there is a song with the title “Taste of the Sun” where, in stanza one, Curt makes reference to “simmering rain” that is “boiling over again,” maybe in reference to the monsoon rains of Southwestern desert summers.

VI. Two Songs about the Desert Monsoon

In this section I discuss two Meat Puppet’s songs that focus on a peculiar meteorological aspect of the desert Southwest. The monsoon is the rainy season that occurs during the desert Summer’s hottest months of June, July and August. The songs in which Curt spotlights the monsoon are “Swimming Ground” and “Dry Rain.”

“Swimming Ground” is from Meat Puppets’ third full-length recording, Up on the Sun (1985).

The sun is up and beating down
Hot enough to melt the ground
A little water would do us good
The clouds’d help us if they could
They’d send showers of pouring rain
Get everything wet again
We could go and float around
In our favorite swimming ground
The best place I ever found
Wasn’t close to any town
Was a little swimming ground
Everything just floated around
Out to lunch and out of town
Pretty close to falling down
A little water would do us good
Lyrics by Curt Kirkwood

Thematically, “Swimming Ground” belongs in a common category of some of Curt’s early songs: escape. It is about getting away from the drabness and conventionality of everyday life to a place without worries, without cares, without conventional expectations.

“Swimming Ground” begins with a description of the heat of summer in the desert Southwest. I first wrote preliminary notes about “Swimming Ground” from my home in Southwest Utah in July on the sixth straight day of 110+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures. The sun does beat down on these days. Everything is hot. You do think the ground might melt. To boot, it was the sixth straight year of drought.

A little water would have done us a lot of good in Southern Utah. We were on the cusp of monsoon season, mid-July. Light clouds were beginning to cover our skies. We heard of rains happening a few hours to our south in Arizona. We saw thunderheads off in the distance. We were parched. A little water would have done us good. The first two lines of the song are a great summation of mid-summer, pre-monsoon desert life, written by someone who has experienced this season.

“The clouds’d help us if they could.” It is not the clouds’ faults that we do not have rain. They are doing their best, it is just that the sun is so hot that the clouds cannot get in. But they are trying. And they will be here eventually.

He then tells of the joy of the rain that comes with the monsoon. When the clouds come in, they will “send showers of pouring rain/ getting everything wet again.” Nothing compares to the feel and smell of the first rains of monsoon season. It’s orgasmic! It’s relief. It’s beauty in the highest sense. And it provides escape. Escape from the repetition of sunny summer days (cloudy days in the desert summer are welcomed, to say the least) and escape from the sun itself.

At this point Singer’s favorite swimming ground fills up with rain water. He and his friends can go there and just float around. The lazy days of summer. One can imagine Curt and brother Cris hiking through the rough desert terrain of central Arizona, through a canyon and over a small mountain, and reaching the swimming ground. And then just hanging out.

The written lyrics end with the line “a little water would do us good.” This brings us back to reality. The escape of the swimming ground will not be a reality unless the rains come (and sometimes they do not!). Until then we just bide our time, putting up with the beating sun and the melting ground, fantasizing about escape.

“Dry Rain.”

“Dry Rain” is from Meat Puppets’ 1987 release Huevos.

You said you’d make it grow
You said you’d make it green
But I see dusty fields
Broken rock is all I see

And all around me
I see your storm clouds
Another lies about to fall

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain

It seemed like it was real
Felt like water to my skin
But I stepped through the rainbow
And saw the desert deep within

And all around me
Are roaring waters
But I won’t let me
Be swept away

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain

And all around me
I see the Pharaohs
I see collections
Of hats and guns

Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain, Dry Rain
Lyrics by Curt Kirkwood

It was another warm July evening when I first wrote about this song. The second evening in a row consisting of dark and heavy storm clouds and strong gusts of wind but no rain. Within this context, “Dry Rain” makes perfect sense.

The Monsoon rains are hit or miss. Dense, dark, and ominous clouds come rushing in with huge winds and the smells of rain. You can smell and see the rain falling in cells in the distance. You can watch the storm cells move across the landscape. The clouds are massive! They boil up in the sky and roll straight in for your position. They are so big they scare you.

As when writing about “Swimming Ground” it had been 110 degrees for two weeks straight when I first wrote about “Dry Rain.” That is what brings the clouds in the first place. As the deserts heat up they draw moisture from the Gulf of California up to our dry places. So we wait with anticipation for the arrival of the Monsoon. Because we all know it is supposed to come. And we hope that it will be like that one year, the one year that happens every ten, when there actually was significant rain to accompany the clouds. But it almost never happens. It is usually just the clouds and wind and smell of rain and then. . .and then the sun and the 110 degree heat again! Maybe, when the Monsoon tease is most intense, there will be five minutes of downpour. . . heavy, heavy downpour, and then STOP! And then the sun again.

And that is “Dry Rain” in a nutshell. Interestingly, the disc booklet states the disc was recorded on August 3-7 in Phoenix. Smack in the middle of Monsoon season.

Singer seems to be singing to the Monsoon in this song. “You’d make it grow/You’d make it green.” “But I do not see it happening”, he seems to say, “All I see is dry desert landscape.” Singer is angry at Monsoon. Monsoon promises a lot but does not deliver. Indeed, Singer accuses Monsoon of lying. “I see your storm clouds/Another lies (sic) about to fall.” Singer knows that there is no rain coming. He is letting Monsoon know that he knows that the clouds and smells are a farce.

In the next two passages, however, Singer seems to be lying to himself. We all get so excited about the Monsoon that even though we know very little water will fall, we con ourselves into thinking that maybe this time, maybe this one big cloud that is coming in will be the one to drop enough water to quench our thirst. “It seemed like it was real/Felt like water to my skin,” he sings. Bam! The clouds coming in, the smell of the rain, it feels so real. But then, probably when the clouds start to be burned away by the scorching sun, Singer opens his eyes and sees the “desert deep within.” There is a reason this is a desert. It gets no water!

Similarly in the next passage: “And all around me/Are roaring waters/But I won’t let me/Be swept away.” It often seems there is a downpour happening right over there, and if it would just move a mile or two in our direction we could enjoy some relief. But Singer won’t let being surrounded by thunderstorm cells convince him that he will see any rain. He won’t let himself be swept away.

There is some lyrical ambiguity in this “swept away” line. Singer will not let himself be swept away by his emotions or by the flash floods that accompany Monsoon rains. Television and radio reports during Monsoon season often warn hikers and campers to be extra cautious because of the high potential for flash floods. During Monsoon, whenever and wherever the rains are falling, the water is channeled into washes and canyons. And whenever and wherever the rain happens to fall, it falls hard and fast. So fast that the ground cannot absorb it and fierce flash floods happen in the washes and canyons in a matter of moments. People must beware not to be swept away.

VII. Conclusion

I have only met Curt Kirkwood in passing. Twice in one day, in fact, in the Spring of 1994 in Chicago. It was as part of an acoustic promotional tour for Too High to Die that Meat Puppets played an afternoon gig at Northwestern University where Curt (as well as Cris and Derrick) signed my CD, and an invite-only gig at Schuba’s in the evening where on my way out after the show I cornered Curt, shook his hand and said something like, “Thanks for the music, man.” So I may be awry in my interpretations of his song lyrics. As he quips in a 2009 Playlist online magazine interview regarding his lyrical style:

I am just having fun with it more than anything, trying to make stuff that sounds cool along with the music. I try to write things that are confusing and stupid (Golden 2009).

Never-the-less, as I have tried to show, I am not the only one who senses the desert in the songs and lyrics of Curt’s music. Specifically in this paper I have fleshed out those places in Meat Puppets’ songs where Curt does make relatively direct references to the deserts of the American Southwest. Some of these references are to the geography of the desert, some to the lifestyles of those living there, and still others to desert climates (i.e. the Monsoon). Whatever the reference, it is apparent that the desert is a recurring theme in the lyrics of Curt Kirkwood’s original Meat Puppets.


“Meat Puppets.” Sputnick Music. June 2009.

Chedsey, John. “Meat Puppets: Forbidden Places.” 1999. Satan Stole My Teddy Bear. June 2009.

Elliot, Mark. “Meat Puppets.” Rock: The Rough Guide. Eds. Jonathan Buckley and Mark Ellingham. London: Rough Guides. 1996. 558-559.

Fricke, David. “Meat Puppets.” The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock. Ed. Ira Robbins. New York: Fireside. 1997. 466-467.

Golden, Beth. 2009. “Meat Puppets.” Playlist. June 2009.

Hairston, Stephanie. “Meat Puppets: Biography.” Paradise. June 2009.

Helen. “Flipside Interviews the Meat Puppets.” 1982. Operation Phoenix Records. June 2009.

Holthouse, David. “Shooting Star.” The Austin Chronicle. June 2009.

Le Blanc, Ondine E. “Meat Puppets, The Biography.” Musician Guide. June 2009.

Loder, Kurt. 1984. “Meat Puppets II.” Rolling Stone. June 2009.

Mosenfelder, Jed Leigh. “Meat Puppets.” Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews. June 2009.

Prindle, Mark. “Meat Puppets.” Mark’s Record Reviews. June 2009.

Robbins, Ira, David Fricke and Jay Pattyn. “Meat Puppets.” Trouser Press. June 2009.

Robbins, Ira. “Meat Puppets.” The Trouser Press Record Guide. Ed. Ira Robbins. New York: Collier. 1991. 417-418.

Samudrala, Ram. “Too High to Die.” Ram Samudrala. June 2009.

Wood,Greg. “Album Review: Meat Puppets—Meat Puppets II. Themelesswonder. June 2009.

Wurm, Madeleine. 2005. “Too Good to Pass By.” Epinions. June 2009.


Eyes Adrift. 2002. Eyes Adrift. SpinArt Records.

Kirkwood, Curt. 2005. Snow. Little Dog Records.

Meat Puppets. 1981. In a Car (EP). World Imitation Records.

Meat Puppets. 1982. Meat Puppets. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1984. Meat Puppets II. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1985. Up on the Sun. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1986. Out My Way (EP). SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1987. Huevos. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1987. Mirage. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1989. Monsters. SST Records.

Meat Puppets. 1991. Forbidden Places. London Records.

Meat Puppets. 1994. Too High to Die. London Records.

Meat Puppets. 1995. No Joke!. London Records.

Meat Puppets. 1999. You Love Me (EP). London Records.

Meat Puppets. 2000. Golden Lies. Breaking Records/Atlantic.

Meat Puppets. 2007. Rise to Your Knees. Anodine Records.

Meat Puppets. 2009. Sewn Together. Megaforce Records.

Nirvana. 1994. Unplugged in New York. DGC Records.

Volcano. 2004. Volcano. Skunk Records.


Nirvana. 2007. Unplugged in New York. Geffen Records and MTV Networks.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Meat Puppet Interviews

Here are some interviews I did with two Meat Puppets: Derrick Bostrom and Cris Kirkwood back in 1993. These were first published by Derrick.

Chicago's Indie Rock Music World

Here's another paper I wrote; this one in 1997.

Chicago’s Indie Rock Music World

Art worlds consist of artists, audiences, and support personnel (Becker). Artists produce the art, audiences consume the art, and support personnel bring artists and audiences together. In this paper I describe a system of nightclubs, college radio stations, and arts periodicals that served as support personnel for some Chicago musicians to produce and present a particular type of art form, “indie rock.”

Chicago’s indie rock music world of the early nineties was a place where support personnel in the form of nightclubs, college radio stations, and arts periodicals provided musicians with arenas to present their music as well as rationales for their existence. Nightclubs provided bands with spaces to present their art form, indie rock music. College radio stations broadcast bands’ music, giving them a performance outlet and an aesthetic rationale for creating indie music. Arts periodicals served as barometers for indie rockers to check on the progress of local bands and, in writing about indie rock, created and aesthetic frame for understanding the music.

Finally, in the Conclusion I argue that descriptive empirical ethnographies such as this are essential to our understandings of rock music worlds. They are the first step in the creation of theoretical constructs about generic rock worlds.

The Research

Data for this paper come from two years of participant observation fieldwork, from 1992 through 1994, I the world of unsigned Chicago indie rock bands. During this time I attended an average of two live rock shows per week, was a columnist for a Chicago-based indie rock fanzine, and a disc jockey at a college radio station.

The research began in June of 1992 with five weeks of observations with an unsigned band named Rustbucket. I attended Rustbucket’s rehearsals and live shows as well as spending time with band members in casual, non-band related activities. Through the members of Rustbucket I met other members of Chicago’s rock world, and through these other members I met still others.

By means of this snowball sampling technique I conducted forty-two interviews (Table 1). Two aspects of the world studied define it from others. One was the local unsigned status of the interviewed, a second was the self-definition of these people as “indie.” First, thirty-nine of the forty-two interviews were with individuals familiar with Chicago’s rock music world, and twenty-five were musicians in unsigned bands. All of the fieldwork was conducted in Chicago, and as a journalist and radio disc jockey I participated in Chicago’s rock world.



25 Musicians in Unsigned, Local Bands

5 Owners of Independent Recording Labels

3 Musicians in Major Label, Non-local Bands

2 Musicians in Major Label, Local Bands

2 Recording Engineers

1 Band Manager

1 Booking Agent

1 Musician in an Independent Label, Local Band

1 Nightclub Owner

1 Rock Music Journalist

The second defining aspect of the data stems from the results of snowball sampling. Because interviewees provided contacts for further people to interview, I collected a non-random sample of friends and associates. The term these friends and associates used to refer to themselves and their world was “indie.” They spoke of “indie bands,” “indie rock,” indie recording labels,” and an “indie scene,” assuming a general understanding of the term. For indie rockers, “indie” was short for “independent,” as in independent from the mainstream recording industry.

Chicago’s Indie Rock Music World


Chicago’s live indie rock world centered around twelve nightclubs that can be arranged in a hierarchy based on the percentage of bands they featured with major and independent label recording contracts (Table 2). The clubs were all located within the city limits, and they all presented live music at least four nights a week —- Wednesday through Saturday.



2 Upper-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (13%, n=8), Independent Label Bands (23%, n=14), Unsigned Bands (64%, n=39)

4 Mid-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (6%, n=3), Independent Label Bands (13%, n=6), Unsigned Bands (81%, n=38)

6 Entry-Level Clubs:

Major Label Bands (0%), Independent Label Bands (0%), Unsigned Bands (100%, n=47)

Chicago’s two upper-level indie clubs featured more major label bands than either the mid- or entry-level clubs. The upper-level clubs also featured more bands with independent label recording contracts. Mid-level clubs, on the other hand, featured some major label bands and some independent level bands, but the focus was clearly on unsigned bands. Finally, entry-level clubs featured unsigned bands exclusively.

In constructing their careers, Chicago’s indie musicians expected their bands to move from opening gigs on slow nights (i.e. Wednesday and Thursday) at entry-level clubs, to headlining weekend gigs at mid-level clubs, to opening gigs for major label bands on weekends at one of Chicago’s two upper-level clubs. Dan, of Rustbucket, in discussing why a particular gig was poorly attended, touched on the urgency with which musicians wanted to progress to better gigs within the club world.

"You wouldn’t want to play too many nights like that last show. There was nobody there. Two unknown bands on a Wednesday. Well, you’re never going to get many people to a show like that." (fieldnotes)

To become integrated into Chicago’s mid- and upper-level clubs was seen as the mark of a successful band. Said Terry, Dan’s bandmate in Rustbucket:

"I wanted to headline the Avalon [a mid-level club] on a weekend. I wanted to open for a band at the Metro [an upper-level club] on a Saturday. We’ve reached all of the goals we set out for. Thus, I consider this band a success." (fieldnotes)

Dan and Terry are describing what many musicians saw as the hierarchical structure of Chicago’s indie nightclubs, a structure that corresponded with the label affiliation of the clubs’ bookings. To move beyond opening for a major label band at an upper-level club was to move beyond playing the local network, to tour. And, in fact, this was the goal of most musicians: “The thing I want to do the most is go on a tour” (personal interview).

Nightclubs played different roles in Chicago’s indie world based on their position in the hierarchy. Entry-level clubs provided a number of services to both the rock world and the community at large. Mid-level clubs, on the other hand, were live rock clubs exclusively, featuring a mix of independent and unsigned bands. Upper-level clubs concentrated on the upper-echelon of nationally and internationally known rock bands, making it difficult for local unsigned bands to secure gigs. What follows is a discussion of exemplary clubs from the three hierarchical levels.

Entry-level Clubs. Entry-level clubs were multipurpose venues, functioning as both neighborhood bars and rock music clubs. Representative of such clubs was the Beat Kitchen, a three hundred person capacity club on Belmont Avenue. The Beat Kitchen was a long, rectangular club consisting of two rooms. The front room, which patrons entered from the street, was a bar and pub eatery. The back room, separated from the front by swinging doors, was the live music room. Because of the separation between the rooms, patrons could come to the Beat Kitchen without seeing or, when the doors were closed, without hearing the performing bands.
The Beat Kitchen featured live music, and sometimes theatrical productions and films, Monday through Saturday nights. Monday through Thursday patrons paid a cover charge of $2 or $3, and then only if they wanted to go into the back room. On slow nights they could lounge in the front room for no charge other than food and drink. On weekends, however, patrons paid a $7 or $8 cover charge to get into the club as a whole.

The life blood of entry-level clubs was their regular clientele, patrons who come without regard for the club’s entertainment. These clubs did not try to compete for live bands with higher level clubs. The manager of the Morseland, for instance, conceded that he sometimes booked bad bands because his club was not high enough on the competitive agenda of musicians.

"If a band plays once or twice a month in Wicker Park, why would they want to come up to Rogers Park to play the Morseland? Nobody would come up here ‘cause they know they could see them down there. So we’re at kind of a competitive disadvantage, and so we have some not so good bands sometimes." (fieldnotes)

The Morseland was at a disadvantage because of its location. It was too far away from Wicker Park, a neighborhood considered to be the center of Chicago’s indie scene, to draw a decent crowd. As a result, they booked a lot of non-rock (jazz, world music) bands and, as with many other entry level clubs, had “open mic” night on Wednesdays, where anyone wishing could get on stage and perform. Entry-level clubs, therefore, were not solely rock clubs. They were bars that catered to the diverse interests of local neighborhoods.

Mid-level Clubs. Mid-level clubs specialized in live rock music. The Avalon, a club located on Belmont Avenue east of the Beat Kitchen, was a representative mid-level club. It had a maximum capacity of 750 people, and was open from Wednesday through Saturday only.

Unlike entry-level clubs, the Avalon was strictly and obviously a rock music club. The sound system was exceptionally loud, the lighting was dim to none, and since there were but four or five tables in the entire club, most of the patrons were forced to stand or mill about. The Avalon did not serve food. “When you come here,” said Avalon owner Roger, “you’re in a rock and roll club. There’s no doubt about it” (personal interview).

The Avalon’s role in Chicago’s indie music scene was ambiguous. Twenty-five percent of the club’s bands were affiliated with independent recording labels, and they featured three unsigned bands a night, four nights a week, both as headliners and openers. For this reason indie rockers saw the Avalon as a club that took chances on unproven bands. One reason for the club’s ambiguity among indie rockers, however, was their inclination to book bands from outside the indie music genre. For instance, Wednesday nights at the Avalon were devoted to heavy metal bands.

Another aspect of the Avalon that hindered its credibility in the indie scene was the perceived substandard talent of many bands that performed there. Avalon’s bands were seen by some as
bands "that will exist for six months and then disappear. They’re not really committed musicians or anything. A lot of those are sort of goof off bands." (personal interview)

Roger defended his club by emphasizing its commitment to local unsigned talent. He admitted that some of the bands he booked were not very good, but this was because he booked as least sixteen bands a week. He felt the Avalon was an important part of the indie rock scene because he regularly booked unsigned bands to open for well known independent label bands, an act he felt supported unsigned bands on the road to mainstream industry success.

Roger’s perception of the importance of his club was echoed by indie rock musicians. When describing their goals or important moments in their careers, musicians often spoke first of opening for independent label bands and then headlining weekends at the Avalon. They felt that playing the Avalon (or any other mid-level clubs) on weekends was an early sign of success and integration in Chicago’s indie world.

Upper-level Clubs. The upper-level club most accessible to local unsigned bands was the Metro, an 1,100 person capacity club on Clark Street near Wrigley Field. The Metro’s accessibility was due mainly to their Wednesday night series when they featured three or four local unsigned bands. Because this was often the first time bands played the Metro, and because playing here on weekends was a priority, musicians felt Wednesday night shows important to getting the attention of the Metro’s talent buyer. Doing well on Wednesday night “is a way of showing the Metro that we are a band worth booking on future dates” (personal interview).

Lounge Ax, the other upper-level club, featured indie genre bands almost exclusively. Lounge Ax was located in Chicago’s Lincoln park neighborhood and held 250 people. Local unsigned bands had their best chance of opening a gig at Lounge Ax on Wednesday and Thursdays, with weekends reserved for more popular label affiliated bands. Unlike the relative ease with which bands seemed to get Wednesday gigs at the Metro, however, unsigned bands found it difficult to get booked at Lounge Ax.

"We’d like to play Lounge Ax, but that’s a whole political problem because it doesn’t seem like the owner is very into local talent. It’s a battle, but we’ll keep trying. I’m not gonna lose any sleep over it because we can easily play other venues." (personal interview)

This sentiment was echoed by a number of musicians in unsigned bands, bands that had played Wednesdays, and even opened on weekends, at the Metro. Because of the caliber of talent that Lounge Ax booked on a regular basis, however, it maintained its status on the upper-level of Chicago indie rock clubs.

College Radio

College radio stations played two roles in Chicago’s indie world. First, they maintained a rationale that justified indie rock as a music genre. Second, they gave unsigned bands their first opportunities to be heard by local indie rockers.

WNUR, Northwestern University’s radio station, was operated entirely by Northwestern University students, instructors, and staff. Along with the Rock Show, the station had a Jazz Show, the Continental Drift show (featuring world music), two hip-hop music shows (Street Beat and 6 Feet Unda), a blues show, a ska music show, a free form show (any style of recorded sounds could be heard during this show), a soul show, a classical music show, a folk music show, and acid jazz show, a heavy metal show, a punk rock show, and a reggae music show. The Rock Show, however, occupied more hours than any other show (nine hours per day, five days a week) and was on the air during the station’s prime hours of 2:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M.

Much of WNUR’s respect in the indie scene came from its structural status as a college radio station. In Manic Pop Thrill Rachel Felder writes about the structural position of college radio and its effect on programming.

"Financed by university funding instead of commercials, college radio works outside the commodity system--and so advertiser pressures—of American commercial radio and thus can take those playlist risks." (12)

Those “risks," for Chicago’s indie rockers, meant playing music that was not on the playlists of commercial radio stations. Since commercial stations played music which came almost exclusively from major recording labels, the risk that college radio stations took was playing unsigned and independent label recordings. A look at WNUR’s “Playlist” suggests that the station took such risks. On four different weekly Rock Show Playlists, from July 23 through September 24, 1993, only five of 160 songs (3 percent) came from major recording labels.

Another indicator of WNUR’s lack of commercial constraints was seen in the way music was picked for broadcast. Rather than having a prepared playlist, as commercial station often do, WNUR disc jockeys were in control of the music they played. The criteria for picking music was not commercial viability, but individual disc jockey taste.

College radio stations supported Chicago’s indie rock world in two ways. First they were indie rock aestheticians that literally defined “good” music for listeners.

"I started listening to WNUR. I discovered them. They would play a song, and I would listen and write it down and go out and buy like ten albums a week." (personal interview)

WNUR brought this musician into the scene by defining indie rock as “good” music. It helped create a rationale for him, and others, that legitimized indie rock as music worth pursuing as both a fan and a musician.

A second support service of college radio was providing entrĂ©e for unsigned indie bands to be heard over the airwaves. Rick, of the major label band Eleventh Dream Day, told how WNUR was playing his band’s music early in their career. "They were playing our demo at Northwestern. The people back there were really nice. We sort of got to be known a little bit." (personal interview)

WNUR played recordings by many local unsigned bands. Ten percent of the top forty most played songs on the four playlists mentioned earlier were unsigned Chicago bands. If, as mentioned, college radio provided a rationale for the legitimacy of indie rock, then unsigned bands whose music was broadcast on the stations were provided with a rationale for their very existence as indie rock bands.

Airplay. One WNUR show in particular served as entree for unsigned bands into Chicago’s indie rock world. The show was “Airplay,” it broadcast on Saturdays from 4-7 PM, and focused exclusively on local music. In addition to playing local compact discs, vinyl records, and demo tapes, Airplay broadcast local bands love from the station’s studio.

If local bands considered WNUR as a first outlet for their recorded music, then they considered Airplay to be an outlet for their music before they had recordings. Airplay’s importance to unsigned and unrecorded bands is evident in the promo packs sent to the show. Musicians created promo packs to promote their bands to specific other people, in this case the producer of Airplay, so that they might be invited to perform on the air.

The quality of promo packs received at WNUR varied greatly. Some were not more than a piece of notebook paper with a few scribbled lines mentioning the band’s name, the fact that they would like to play on the Airplay show, and a phone number or address where they could be reached. At the other extreme were promo packs that came in professional looking folders. On the cover of the folder was the band’s business card (including the name of the band, a contact phone number, and the name of the band’s manager). Inside the folder would be the band’s bio (a band biography) written on band letterhead stationary, a five-by-seven black and white photo of the band, a demo tape and a gift (T-shirts with bands’ names were most common).

Another indicator of Airplay’s importance in the eyes of Chicago’s indie rock community is how upset some musicians became when they found out that the overall sound at WNUR’s studio was relatively bad, and that it had no vocal monitors. The following story concerns a specific band during one Airplay show. The situation was repeated three times, with three different bands, in my tenure as producer of Airplay.

WNUR's live music room in 1993-94 lacked some of the basic equipment expected by rock musicians in a live music situation. The main piece of equipment it lacked was a vocal monitor, the result being that vocalists could not hear themselves over the din of the other instruments. Most musicians were disappointed when they found this out, but went ahead with their shows anyway. But on occasion, as in the following story, musicians got quite upset at not having vocal monitors.

The band Dick Justice played Airplay in May, 1994. Once the band loaded their equipment into the studio, we (myself and my assistant) set them up for broadcast. This consisted of putting microphones on each amplifier, two or three microphones around the drum set, and microphones for each of two vocalists. When everything was set up we did a sound check. Dick Justice played a couple songs prior to broadcast, allowing us to set the volume levels of the instruments and mix them together. We recorded the sound check on tape.

The members of Dick Justice were not happy when they found out that we did not have vocal monitors. How were the vocalists supposed to sing harmonies if they could not hear themselves? When they listened to the sound check tape, they were really unhappy. One member suggested that the band not play the show, he felt it would to them more harm than good to broadcast a bad sound. I convinced the band members that to break their commitment to Airplay was unprofessional, so they did their show. For the rest of the evening, however, two of Dick Justice’s three members did not speak to me, they spoke only to my assistant.

Dick Justice’s story highlights the importance that local bands gave the Airplay show. On the one hand the band was excited to play the show. They recognized that a lot of indie rockers, people from the community of which the wanted to be a part, would be listening. But they worried that the quality of the sound would turn off these very same people. So, because Dick Justice wanted to be successful within Chicago’s indie scene, and because they considered WNUR an important support mechanism for such success, they played Airplay without vocal monitors.


Three free arts periodicals were integral to Chicago’s indie rock world: The Reader, The Illinois Entertainer, and New City. These periodicals supported Chicago’s indie world in two ways. First, they provided show listings by which indie rockers kept track of local live gigs. By looking at current issues indie rockers saw exactly what bands were playing, on what dates, and in what clubs: “Our name is in The Reader almost every week. I like to look through The Reader and check up on bands” (personal interview). This statement highlights two features of the show listings in the periodicals. The first was just mentioned. Musicians “checked up” on bands by browsing the listings.

Show listings also gave musicians an opportunity to have their own bands’ names in the periodicals on a regular basis: “If anyone is into the music scene here I’m sure they’ve heard of us” (personal interview). If musicians’ bands’ names appeared consistently in the club advertisements, moving from one club level to the next at an appropriate pace, then their claims to success in the scene were legitimated.

A second way the periodicals supported Chicago’s indie rock world was through the “Classified Advertisements” section. Classified Ads served as a meeting ground for musicians looking to join already formed bands.

E-I decided I better try to get some people to play with. So I started going to band auditions.
M-Through The Reader?
E-Yea. Well, The Reader and The Entertainer. I think I found these guys in The Entertainer. (personal interview)

Eleven of the thirty-one musicians interviewed (35 percent) were either in bands that gained new members from, or became members of their current bands through Classified Advertisements.

Classified Ads in the periodicals were written, quite literally, in code. That is, in looking for the “right” kind of musician, bands placed advertisements consisting of indie rock genre conventions (Weinstein).

LEAD GUITAR PLAYER wanted (21-30 year old, city resident, w/car) for melodic indie-rock band. Ready to play out and record. Call [phone number].
BASSIST NEEDED TO complete band in vein of Jesus Lizard, Shorty, Shellac, Rodan. Don’t call unless you’ve heard of these bands. Mike [phone number].

Both of these Classified Ads provide the basic information needed for an interested musician to decide whether the band is right for him or her. That information includes: Age, location, necessity of transportation, general style of music, and band career stage (in the first); and musical influences and sarcastic humor/intelligence test (in the second).

Tail Spins. A periodical of a different sort that covered Chicago’s indie music scene was Tail Spins. Tail Spins fit Felder’s description of a “fanzine,” periodicals that
write about specific music for specific fans; they offer them a more focused option, an alternative, if you will, to Rolling Stone, which covers a broader musical spectrum to reach more readers. (14) The specific music for Tail Spins was indie rock, and it was written for and by indie rockers.

Tail Spins was run by one man, Brent, out of an apartment in the northern suburb of Evanston. It began as a promotional arm of the independent record label Happy Tails Records. Tail Spins was a more profitable venture than Happy Tails Records, however, so Brent folded the record label and put all of his resources into the fanzine. Within a year Tail Spins grew from promoting Happy Tails Records to a self-sufficient indie fanzine. Volunteers distributed it throughout the Chicagoland area where it was free, and it was increasingly distributed around the country, where it cost $1.00.

All of Tail Spins’ articles were written by volunteers, usually Brent’s friends, or friends of his friends. Most of the writers considered themselves part of Chicago’s indie scene, and many were in bands. This point was important to Tail Spins status as an indie fanzine. Its staff writers were not trained or professional journalists, they were indie rockers. They contributed interviews and articles about local indie bands and personalities, many of whom were their acquaintances. In this way, much like the snowball sampling conducted for this work, the writers and their topics for Tail Spins came from a self-selected group, many of whom identified themselves with Chicago’s indie scene.

Tail Spins, as with other fanzines, reviewed numerous recordings, most of which were on independent labels. The October/November 1994 issue of the fanzine contained 140 record reviews, 133 of which were on independent labels (95 percent). It was not just the percentage of independent label recordings reviewed that was important to Tail Spins’ indie status, it was the language the writers used in reviewing the recordings. As with Classified Advertisements in arts periodicals, Tail Spins reviews were written in code. The following is a review from the October/November 1994 issue.

Oblivion-Shop Thief
(Johann’s Face Records)
It occurred to me that nobody has thought of this before, . . .or at least not in this way. Oblivion is a goofy inventive alternative band that has this quite intensely fast tempo. It has got that catchy thing goin’ too. Every song is hooks galore with the unexpected blend of many para-song rifts that keep it interesting. Enjoyable loud. [address]

The main point of the review follows an indie rock convention of “catchiness,” it is a good record because of its catchy character. It is recommended in indie rock terms for indie rockers.
As with positive reviews, negatively reviewed recordings in Tail Spins were critiqued based upon indie rock conventions.

(Tim/Kerr Records)
This is backbone free music. Dreck like this should be squelched. (Reading the promotional info would clue you in to what shit this is.) Nice makeup, too. [address]

This review lets the indie rock reader know that this is not indie music. Therefore, it is simply thrown into the category bad music. The final statement about the make-up is also negative, for it assumes an indie rock convention that emphasizes a non-look over a look.


Sociology is concerned with the empirical world, with real people doing real things together. Sociological research, then, begins with empirical description. It provides us with a clear picture of the inhabitants of the world being studied: people, places, and things. Similarly, sociological theory should be applicable to real people doing real things together, it should be constructed from observations of real people.

This is an empirical paper. Although I think there are some interesting theoretical possibilities, I leave it up to the reader to discover them. I do not discuss the consequences of musicians’ behaviors, I do not explain why they behave the ways they do, I do not link the behaviors of indie rock musicians to the behaviors of actors in other sociological worlds. I describe the world I observed.

I do not compare the structure of Chicago’s indie rock support personnel to the support personnel of other rock worlds. This is the next step in the research process, operationalizing the findings and applying them to other worlds. What do the nightclub structures of other scenes look like? Do they have hierarchical orders similar to Chicago’s indie nightclubs? What role do radio stations and magazines play as support personnel in other rock worlds?

In answering these questions the picture of rock worlds, as generic sociological worlds, will become clear. The components that are common to all such worlds will be discovered. In the meantime, studies like mine need to be published in order to develop our data base of rock music worlds, to develop our understanding of how rock musicians and support personnel make music together.

Works Cited
Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California, 1982.

Fairchild, Charles. “’Alternative’ Music and the Politics of Cultural Autonomy: The Case of Fugazi and the D.C. Scene.” Popular Music and Society. Spring 1995: 17-36.

Felder, Rachel. Manic Pop Thrill. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1993.

Jipson, Arthur. “Why Athens? Investigations into the Site of an American Music Revolution.” Popular Music and Society. Fall 1994: 19-32.

Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Lexington Books, 1991.