Pure taste in popular music: The social construction of indie-folk as a performance of “poly-purism”

A judgement of taste on which charm and emotion have no influence (although they may be bound up with the satisfaction in the beautiful), – which therefore has as its determining ground merely the purposiveness of the form, – is a pure judgement of taste.

- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (1790), par. 13.

Abstract

This article examines the social construction of indie-folk as a genre, defined not primarily as an aesthetic category but as a tool and resource of social differentiation. Drawing from 48 in-depth interviews with musicians, gatekeepers, and audience members, the discourse of indie-folk is analyzed, focusing on how Dutch community members draw social and symbolic boundaries. Analysis shows that they are “poly-purists,” a type of cultural omnivores who consume a broad variety of musical genres yet by staying within the confines of the indie music stream rather than adopting a politics of ‘anything goes.’ By transposing the aesthetic disposition to the historically lowbrow phenomenon of folk music, community members distinguish ‘authentic’ folk from mainstream pop and dance, lowbrow country, and highbrow jazz and classical music. Simultaneously, they choose within these and other genres those items that match their ‘quality’ taste. Therefore, this study classifies indie-folk as a rising genre and contributes to existing research on cultural hierarchy and diversity, arguing that the emergence and institutionalization of indie-folk is part of the ongoing historical narrative of a Kantian aesthetics emphasizing the disinterested nature of artistic evaluation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Following Vannini and Williams (2009, p. 3) I define authenticity as a socially constructed phenomenon, more specifically as a “marker of status or social control” (…). They argue that authenticity consists of “a set of qualities that people in a particular time and place have come to agree an ideal or exemplar.” Drawing from Peterson (2005, p. 1094), they thus argue that authenticity is a “moving target,” first because the qualities people attribute to authenticity can change across time and place (=intergenerational differences) and, second, because authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that various social groups define authenticity differently (=intragenerational differences).

  2. 2.

    Hall defines the concept of articulation as “the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions. It is a linkage that is not necessary, determined, absolute and essential for all time” (Hall, 1996 quoted in Hesmondhalgh, 2005, p. 33).

  3. 3.

    Hesmondhalgh gives the example of rap, which is, on the one hand, homologous with a ‘black’ urban community (reflected, for example, in lyrics emphasizing ‘street credibility’) but, on the other hand, is a product of intertextuality, as it uses sounds – through sampling and parody – from other aspects of American culture.

  4. 4.

    Some of the acts mentioned by Encarnacao have signed records deals with some of the bigger ‘independent’ labels (CocoRosie with Seattle’s Sub Pop – parent company: Warner Music Group – and Devendra Banhart with Nonesuch – owned by Wanrer Music Group). Thus, although these acts started their career within the ‘restricted’ free-folk field (and were involved in ‘lo-fi’ production), they have been able to make a crossover to the (semi-) periphery of the commercial music industry. The distinction between ‘restricted’ free-folk and ‘large-scale’ indie-folk is therefore somewhat blurred, which is why in the context of this article both categories are referred to as ‘indie-folk,’ a more neutral term that covers current trends in the global field of folk music the best.

  5. 5.

    The project is titled Authenticity Revisited: The Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Independent Folk Music in the Netherlands (1993-present) and is funded by the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

  6. 6.

    For the sampling of musicians (n = 14) I used criterion sampling, meaning that either the musicians themselves, their record label, or the press should have positioned them within the category of ‘indie-folk.’ Gatekeepers (n = 10) were selected on the basis of their long-term involvement in the (inter)national promotion and distribution of (Dutch) indie music, and ranged from the head of business operations of a recently established independent music platform to one of the product managers of Warner Music Benelux. For the sampling of audience members (n = 26), lastly, I used maximum variation sampling, aiming to include a diverse range of respondents within the sample, containing male and female audience members from different age groups. Most of the audience members (n = 20) were approached and selected during concerts of folk acts whose music was categorized as ‘free-folk,’ ‘New Weird America,’ ‘freak-folk,’ ‘indie-folk,’ or ‘folk-pop’ either by themselves, their record label, or the press. Additional respondents (n = 6) were approached using the snowball method.

  7. 7.

    Audience members were approached and selected during the concerts of Mumford and Sons (Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam, March 30, 2013), Woods (Paradiso, Amsterdam, May 20, 2013), Animal Collective (Melkweg, Amsterdam, May 27, 2013), CocoRosie (Tivoli, Utrecht, May 29, 2013), The Lumineers (Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam, November 18, 2013), and during the yearly Incubate festival (September 16-22-2013, Tilburg, the Netherlands), and the yearly Le Guess Who festival (November 28-December 1, 2013, Utrecht, the Netherlands).

  8. 8.

    Interviews were originally in Dutch; excerpts have been translated by the author.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my colleagues at Erasmus University Rotterdam for their feedback. Most of all, I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Koen van Eijck, Prof. Dr. Jos de Mul, Prof. Dr. Ruud Welten, members of the Philosophy Ph.D. club, and the anonymous reviewers of the American Journal of Cultural Sociology for their insightful comments, which have considerably improved this article. Last but surely not least, I would like to thank all the interviewees who took time to speak about their practices, thoughts, emotions, feelings, and memories related to their much-treasured indie-folk music; without their help and candor this research would not have been possible.

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Correspondence to Niels van Poecke.

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van Poecke, N. Pure taste in popular music: The social construction of indie-folk as a performance of “poly-purism”. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 499–531 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0033-y

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Keywords

  • indie
  • genre
  • distinction
  • authenticity
  • cultural omnivores
  • symbolic boundaries