In other words: “Meh?” This isn’t just knee-jerk meanness. It’s more like the response that turned seventies listeners into punks—growing bored and skeptical about tasteful rock and roll (not unlike Wilco’s), thoughtful singer-songwriters (not unlike Feist), and idea-driven progressive music (not unlike, say, Radiohead’s). Music fans still spend plenty of time making subtle distinctions between the acts they find challenging and the acts they fear might be lapsing into Coldplay’s realm, but the music world is now fragmented enough that we have the luxury of ignoring things we don’t like, rather than rebelling against them—which is why you’ll see more people shrugging and “meh”-ing over this stuff than yelling and spitting. Still, that vague sense of dissatisfaction can lead listeners in new directions. One great sign about new independent rock bands, over the past few years, has been a noticeable uptick in the number whose names are vulgar jokes, or deliberately inappropriate—in other words, mission statements that tasteful professionalism and the approval of sober-minded adults are not among their interests—and who play music that’s abrasive or adventurous enough to match. (It’s been awhile since my listening ran through so many acts like Death Grips, Pissed Jeans, Fucked Up, and Child Abuse.) Respectability, for the moment, looks like something that might be worth avoiding.
This is not, of course, the seventies. Our tasteful professionals aren’t saps shoved down our throats by giant record labels; our sophisticated rock bands aren’t pompous millionaires with silly ideas. (They’re bashful millionaires with sensible ideas, like finding global warming worrisome.) Neither is this the nineties: Acts like Wilco and Feist aren’t slick, pandering constructions. For the most part, they’re independent musicians who’ve scrapped their way to an audience. It’s only recently that major labels have figured out how to groom and market acts for this space—the nook that serves all the purposes of middlebrow adult-contemporary listening, and some of the purposes of indie music, at the same time. That’s one of several reasons music-lovers haven’t gotten too punkishly unreasonable about a band like Wilco pouring out inoffensively pleasant music—another being that there are always a billion other things to listen to. But the great “meh” remains in circulation, and Tweedy’s right that no amount of subtle, well-crafted twists on his format will entirely dispel it.