013 :: SONGS

Listen to "013 :: SONGS" on Spreaker.


Boat Songs by MJ Lenderman, released by Dear Life Records in 2022. Listen / Buy direct


The record begins, naturally enough, with a song about the 1997 NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls are in Utah, it's the night before Game 5, and Michael Jordan, at the peak of his career, is keeled over on his hotel room floor. He's sweating, he's weak, he can barely sit himself up. The diagnosis is food poisoning, presumably brought on by the pizza he had ordered the night before – a pizza that, legend has it, was spiked by the local Utah joint that had prepared it. But as the singer tells us, "it wasn't a pizza that poisoned him in Utah". Jordan had just been having a little too much of a good time that night. He wasn't poisoned; he was just hungover.

It's a peculiar subject matter for a song to take up. You might rightfully wonder where the singer is going with all this. But rest assured, the point of this song is not to advance some truther conspiracy theory, or even to set the record straight. Rather, the singer is dwelling on this incident because they find in it a moment of recognition. In this brief window, Michael Jordan, for all his phenomenal prowess, wasn't so different from you or me. As the singer puts it, "I love drinking too / I love drinking too".

It's a wry and not overly serious song, but still I marvel at it, for the economy of its lyrics and how easily they're fitted to its tune. And I love how, at bottom, it's a song about seeing yourself in one of your idols, because that seems to me to get at something of the song's own appeal, and of the appeal of indie music more generally: its ability to close the distance between artist and audience and make greatness feel within our reach.

Though to be honest, I'm not even sure this is indie music, as I've never quite been sure what indie music itself is. In its original meaning, circa 1980, the term was descriptive and literal, signifying an artist's independence from the major labels, which dominated the industry at the time. But this was always an awkward designation, since no artistic genre can truly be defined simply by the socioeconomic standing of its production company. And so, almost immediately, indie music was taken to refer to the kind of music that such independent record labels tended to put out: music with a certain lo-fi, DIY aesthetic, free from the slickness and high production values of commercial pop and rock. But this, too, has always been an illusory definition, since it belies the fact that indie music is no less carefully produced, and that it takes great artistry to create and capture a sound so rough, spontaneous, and free.

Nonetheless, no better definition has ever been forthcoming, and so indie music has remained a nebulous and contested classification. But to my mind, what defines indie music is not a sound or an ethos but what the music represents to the listener, and what it represents is a sense of possibility, the feeling that this music could be made by you and your buddies, and thus that you too could be a rockstar someday. There's no razzle-dazzle, there's no in-your-face virtuosity, and precisely because of this the music feels relatable. Whereas other music makes you want to sit back in awe and listen, indie music makes you want to pick up a guitar and wail.

The irony, of course, is that this isn't some music that could be made by you and your buddies, unless you and your buddies happen to be talented and practiced musicians. For as coarse and carefree as this music may sound, it's all the result of great skill. Every little detail, from the tone of the guitars, to the phrasing of the melodies, to the whimsy of the lyrics, to the snarl and croak of the vocals – it's all been fine-tuned to achieve just this effect. No music just comes out sounding this way. You have to work hard to sound this unpolished.

But like all great art, this music hides its artifice well. What I hear is not the gulf that actually exists between me and this band; what I hear is the potential that exists within all of us to create something moving and memorable. The feeling I get when I listen to this music is the feeling that I, too, could write a song; that I, too, could start a band; that I, too, could make music like this. And maybe that isn't exactly true. Maybe that's not my lot in life. But maybe there should exist a label for music that makes you feel this way. And maybe that's what indie music is really all about.