About a week ago I came across the trailer for the new Michael Cera-propelled film, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. The movie is aimed at all things indie in both film and music and although the plot seems thin, the brief clips from Nick and Norah have a down-to-earth sense of adventure to them that made movies like Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle so fresh and endearing. Something apart from the plot-points, character, and humor stood out in the trailer almost immediately. Take a look:
Catch that? Chances are, probably not. Like most perceptions of indie or emo or the mixture thereof, the archetype of the “sensitive guy” as a musician is overly used to describe both brands of genre and culture. True to form, chances are most individuals would have a hard time sorting out emo from indie or emos from hipsters/scenesters. While the lines for what does or does not make certain acts like Death Cab for Cutie or Atmosphere appear to be in the realm of emo, when a music-bred subculture enters the realm of cultural output beyond simply creating music, things get fuzzy. Real fuzzy. Especially with indie music, which in and of itself is more puzzling for folks to define than emo.
And so Nick and Norah provides a template for such confusion. Nick is billed as a “sensitive musician,” which, in terms of underground music, would push him in the direction of the realm of emo. But his attire (skinny jeans, band shirt, hoodie and a sports jacket) and the film’s soundtrack of choice suggests more in the direction of general indie music and Nick as the prototypical awkward hipster. Or scenester. Both are associated with the indie scene and are terms attributed to those great subcultures of America’s past. Scenesters and hipsters both use a form of bricolage to recombine music, clothing, and art into whatever the new subcultural creative tract currently is. In my mind, there is a slight difference between the two. A scenester is someone who generally chases after in-vogue underground movements, taking what they will and leaving the rest to the slaughter – basically, the malicious and elitist individuals involved in the underground culture. A hipster is someone who is generally in tune with the ideologies of a particular subcultural movement and a thriving part of that – someone who understands the positive movement of creativity and values that over fashion. It was the scenester more than the hipster who Max Bemis railed against in Say Anything’s “Admit It!!!,” a six-minute rant of a song calling out all the false pretenses of elitism prevalent in underground culture.
There’s a reason that Bemis would become so upset by the presence of scensters and why people often confuse emo with indie and vice versa. As indie is an all-encompassing term for independent music (however you may define it), emo is one of many genres that fits into that general sphere. After all, emo was a vibrant underground subculture a good decade and a half before it hit the top of the Billboard charts. And it’s been in the past few years, when both emo and indie have been vibrant presences beyond underground music, that some general sharing of cultural production would flow between the two shared-genres. And in that, the “sensitive musician” who was very much a vibrant part of indie music for some time (most notably in the guise of The Smiths, an act most people often confusingly attribute to being emo but who have nothing to do with the genre/subculture itself in their lifetime), became a defining part of emo. And the punk-panache of emo was welcomed into the fold of definition for various artists in the indie marketplace. And so the confusion tends to grow.