Where else can you go, if not New York? As the early-aughts New York revival faded to static, the center of gravity in indie rock reverted to its default provincial location: somewhere in the countryside, but not too far away. Suburbs and campuses have always been the genre’s traditional spawning grounds: Even in the New York scene, schools provided a vital space for potential band members to coalesce. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed at Oberlin; an NYU philosophy course assisted in the creation of Interpol. The Strokes? Put in touch through a set of elite private high schools, plus NYU. Ultimately, though, the heart of indie music has traditionally resided outside New York. After the early-aughts rock boom went bust, that heart moved all the way out of America.
It wasn’t as if Canadian musicians hadn’t been making an impact south of their border for some time: Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Nickelback, Sum 41, and Avril Lavigne are just some of the Maple Leaf artists who had found adoring fans and reaped enormous profits Stateside. Canadian indie rock, though — that was a new thing for Americans. The New Pornographers, Metric, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, the Weakerthans, Japandroids — the relative familiarity of their sound to American ears helped conceal the fact that, collectively, their success amounted to a full-on invasion. Though never announced as such, this (peaceful) offensive met little resistance. One early sign of their ascension came with Arcade Fire’s Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album in 2006. Decisive victory would have to wait a few more years — until the same band won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011.
What was so different about the Canadians? The instrumentation wasn’t that distinct from that of their American counterparts. Was it superior polish? Indie though they were, members of the Canadian brigade carried themselves like professionals, but then again, it wasn’t as if aughts indie rock below the 49th parallel (the Decemberists, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine) was any less tame or subdued.
Really, the difference-maker was the women. Female singers featured prominently in the output of many of these Canadian groups: Neko Case and Kathryn Calder in the New Pornographers; Emily Haines in Metric; Régine Chassagne in Arcade Fire; Haines, Leslie Feist, Amy Millan, and Lisa Lobsinger in Broken Social Scene. In a decade in indie when, in America, male voices (with the Strokes and Jack White leading the way) seemed to be regaining prominence while many leading women indie artists who’d emerged in the ’90s (Liz Phair, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney) were going either silent or bad, the high concentration of female voices coming from Canada was refreshing and necessary. These singers expanded listeners’ notions of what was sensible, sometimes quite directly: “Hard to be soft / Tough to be tender,” sang Haines on Metric’s 2008 hit “Help I’m Alive.” But that’s not the whole picture: Culturally or creatively, female freedom never happens in a social vacuum. Why, given so many parallels between Canadian and American indie, didn’t a similar reorientation around women occur in the States?
The difference, I think, isn’t all that transcendent or magical; like many things Canadian, it’s practical, even mundane. There’s a broad chasm between the social and economic services provided by the Canadian government to its citizens and those provided by the American state to its own. The distinction is most pronounced in health care, but it’s sizable in education and infrastructure too. Take the phrase “public assistance”: In America, it conjures up specters of dependence and inadequacy. But the phrase means something different up north: that society has a positive obligation to assist in the creation of a public sphere. In Canada, it is neither shameful nor uncommon for indie musicians to receive government funding for their art.
So is that the lesson — better indie rock through better social safety nets? Not quite, or not entirely. Canadian predominance in indie rock could only take place because the genre as a whole had ceased to innovate. Marginal advantages in polish and coordination, combined with stronger women on the mic, counted for a great deal — especially when taste in indie rock was increasingly dictated by Pitchfork, a website that specialized in hairsplitting calculations, right down to a tenth of a point.
The title of the Strokes’ first album, Is This It, was a sigh of exasperated interrogation, the first sign that the music was the output of clever private-school Manhattan kids, bored by being born halfway between third base and home. But you can also read the phrase as an intuition that the development of rock as a whole had become doubtful. Fifteen years later, the question remains as relevant as the album it titles: Is this it for indie rock in New York and elsewhere? For worse or for better, the genre’s core audience will likely always be white, semi-precious college students and graduates. If indie rock has a future worth hearing, it will be because it’s come to sound the way life after college now feels — deflated, underinsured, underemployed, and not a little angry.
*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.