Anthropology Teacher Analyzes ‘Empire of Dirt’

Amid England’s cold, rainy climate, an influential musical culture flourishes each day, redefining popular music. GCC anthropology professor Wendy Fonarow explores this scene in her book “Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music.”

A 12-hour flight and a bad case of jetlag may make a trip to England seem unappealing to some, but to the music savvy, England is a musical dynamo and the birthplace of an influential subculture; Fonarow digs deep into the uniqueness of this art and reveals its hidden treasures to the reader in her latest work.

In her book, Fonarow explores indie rock in England as a musical culture and a whole collective movement composed of artists and audiences that came together during the post-punk era to form a community.

After studying British indie rock for 13 years from an anthropological perspective, Fonarow dissected every aspect of the indie community, from what is considered “indie” to the role of the audience and even groupies as sexual predators.

“What do you think oral sex is? It’s more effective than the guest list,” states Fonarow in the chapter on sexuality.

With her background in anthropology, Fonarow developed an interesting method of documenting her subjects.

“I was able to do things like videotape the audience,” said Fonarow. “[It’s] pretty funny because other fans would come up to me and ask for a copy, and I would say, ‘you’re not going to want it; it’s not of the band.'”

The term “indie rock” is simply derived from independent rock, a movement that started in the early ’80s as punk rock and gained popularity as a genre. Due to punk artists’ sometimes unmarketable appeal to mainstream recording labels, many artists started or signed on to independent (“indie”) labels following the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) movement that coincided with the punk movement, resulting in many bands producing their own albums without the help of large-scale record labels.

English indie labels like Rough Trade released records that would have otherwise never seen the light of day.

Rough Trade developed as a record store, then [became a] record and distribution company,” said Fonarow. “They were known as the cartel. They produced an infrastructure to distribute music made by indie artists.”

With the DIY movement being the ideological base of the indie scene, it started to resemble a religion for some people. For these people, indie rock and the philosophy of DIY became a lifestyle, encompassing aspects such as ordinary dress and a puritan ideology to music that encompassed a return to simplicity without the excessive rock ‘n’ roll trappings that characterized the music scene of the 1970s.

During the punk moment of the late 1970s, punk bands set to strive themselves apart with a flamboyant, uniformed style of dress, as Sid Vicious made the shirt held together by safety pins infamous. The post-punk and indie movement utilized plain, ordinary dress such as plain t-shirts and jeans.

While most artists strive to keep their art pure and untainted by outside interference, the British indie scene sought to keep their music original and pure.

“For me it was an entirely religious philosophy that is manifested in aesthetics,” said Fonarow. “I thought I was looking at music and a community, but I’m seeing religion everywhere with DIY, [and with] the notion of ordinary dress and purity. All of these things symbolized a puritan ideology as applied to music.”

For nearly 40 years, England, which Fonarow describes as “the cradle of indie music,” has produced some of the most influential bands in independent music.

Johnny Rotten’s sarcastic smirk led The Sex Pistols to a cult following in late ’70s, and in its wake came The Buzzcocks, The Dammed and The Clash. After punk imploded on itself, the ’80s saw the rise of the post punk and new wave era which beckoned the era of indie rock, featuring bands like Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Fall, and New Order. In the late ’80s and ’90s bands like Ride, Blur and Oasis continued to reshape the indie rock music landscape.
As the British indie scene started to gain momentum, its waves were felt in the U.S. as American bands such as Sonic Youth, Husker Du and The Replacements echoed their British counterparts.

American indie bands were fueled by their punk rock roots; the American sound had a more abrasive, crass sound. The British acts were a bit easier on the ears, but had a more distinct sound.

“British indie rock was more gender-coded as feminine compared to American indie,” said Fonarow. Think of the mellow sound of the Smiths contrasted with the louder, angrier post-punk music of Dinosaur Jr.

The indie scene centered on certain ideas and a type of sound. Bands on both sides of the pond found similar sounds, but due to social differences in both countries, they started to develop their sound based on their country of origin. A certain intangible “homegrown” aspect made for subtle differences that were not immediately obvious, but became a pattern through the music of dozens of bands over two decades.

“The bands are interchangeable. You can have the same band but they would be playing slightly differently in the U.K. than the U.S,” said Fonarow.

Due to the slight differences in sound and musical approach, many British bands gained huge popularity in England, but were just another face in crowd in the U.S.

A prime example is The Stone Roses, who found critical acclaim in the U.K. but fell under the radar in the U.S.

“They were a huge cultural phenomenon in the U.K. and a little blip in America,” said Fonarow. “Most Americans can’t quite get what made The Stone Roses so wonderful, and that just might happen to The Artic Monkeys.”

The Artic Monkeys are a current British indie act whose debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” became the fastest selling album in British history and is slowly starting to make an impact on U.S. soil. One reason that British acts are slow to catch on is the corporate ownership of the media that is so pervasive in America, which favors bands signed to major labels. Another reason may be that the British sound is not as appealing to American ears.
In the U.K., indie rock became a cultural phenomena that appealed to people of all ages as opposed to the American indie scene, which primarily only caught the attention of young people.

In the U.K., music was more than just something used to pass the time during long drives; it was the center of culture and society of English life for people of all ages, whereas in the U.S., an interest in music can start to fade with age.

“Why is it that in our society, it’s [popular music] a youth phenomena, when in other societies, an interest in music is something that varies across generations?” asked Fonarow.

Even though musical taste can vary greatly from person to person, with aspects of culture and belonging thrown into the mix, the British indie scene has embraced many aspects to create a way of life as opposed to a label slapped on a music genre.

In her book, Fonarow showcases a subculture that is still thriving to this day, defining a new generation of music and people as defined by its interesting title that delves deeper into the very fabric of the British culture.

“It [the title] has to do with how meaning is. It’s meant to be like a mystery, like why this book is called this, and as you read the last chapter you realized why it’s called that,” said Fonarow. “In the last section, it’s called ‘My Music Is Your Dirt,’ which really makes it exclusive why it’s titled that. I’m using dirt in the anthropological sense of the taboo, and also [showing] what is valuable and what is not valuable in the world.” Perhaps one person’s dirt is another person’s treasure.

“Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music,” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

As for Fonarow, she plans to go back to Britain for the summer.
“I go to British summer [music] festivals every year,” she said. “They are like my pilgrimages.”