Phoebe Bridgers was nominated for a Grammy last year even if a “real indie” gatekeeper would scorn the recognition. Indie music is entering the mainstream: Artists like Bridgers and Big Thief are recognized with award nominations and pop heavyweights like Taylor Swift collaborate with indie staples such as The National’s Dessner brothers. Despite this pop recognition, the lesser-known side of indie music is experiencing a renaissance.
Fantastic releases have abounded, headlined by a lineup of elite female indie artists breaking through to the forefront of the genre. In the United States and Australia particularly, a series of fantastic musicians have emerged over the past few years, recently culminating in a group of excellent albums. Artists such as Squirrel Flower, Faye Webster, Maple Glider, Lucy Dacus, Julia Jacklin, Hand Habits and others have proven themselves to be masters of a genre that has historically, and to this day, dealt questionably with issues of misogyny.
Indie music has, to put it lightly, a checkered past when it comes to gender issues. Recent allegations against well-loved artists such as Rhye, Sun Kil Moon and Ryan Adams revealed an oft-ignored darker side to indie music, one obsessed with control over younger women. Pulling away from the male spotlight of indie music, in light of these pervasive issues, has been necessary and refreshing.
Although it feels that indie music is on the brink of an explosion of incredible female artists, this is in no way a new development for the genre. Musicians such as Bjork, Angel Olsen and Fiona Apple have been receiving critical acclaim since the ’90s. In recent years, the popularity of women such as St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers has bloomed, picking up the slack of aging artists.
The landscape of the music industry is constantly shifting as artists vie for domination of seasons, release dates, charts and festivals, but through the noise of competition and collaboration, trends can be picked out. Even if a previous generation of indie artists has proven their staying power, there is a sense that we, the listeners, are being given the privilege of experiencing a changing of the guard. Phoebe Bridgers, Squirrel Flower, Lucy Dacus and others have been on the scene for years but are now solidifying themselves as heavy hitters.
Looking into the work of one of those artists, on “Thumbs,” the lead single for her recent release “Home Video,” Lucy Dacus sings: “He offers us a ride / I reply ‘No, that’s all right’ / And when we leave / You feel him watching / So we walk a mile in the wrong direction / I would kill him / If you let me.” Her description of the tension felt when an oppressive male presence attempts to force itself onto her is such an incredibly upsetting, personal and beautiful piece of lyricism that she initially asked audiences not to record her performances of it.
This openness about issues of gendered oppression, within and outside of music, is not new to the genre. However, this rising, nay, risen collection of female indie artists has harnessed their lyrical, vocal and musical talent to deal with it. This small lyrical glimpse into Dacus’ recent release displays a portion of what makes the genre so alluring — stark lyricism and emotions laid completely bare.
On the opening track of her sophomore album, “Planet (i),” released the same day as “Home Video,” Squirrel Flower sings: “I’m a space rock, burning fast / I’m a space rock, burning fast / I’m an oil tank, burning slow / You didn’t listen long enough to know.” Her description of herself feels like an open window into her position on the cusp of indie stardom — an artist writing slow-burning bangers, proverbially taking off but still less heard than she deserves to be. This is the catch-22 of indie music: To be on the brink of “indie fame” is to be virtually unknown, and to be indie famous is to still be invisible to the vast majority of music listeners.
Despite the excellence of their music, many small indie artists struggle to break through to more listeners. However, a deep search through the web of “artists you may enjoy” pages, music reviews, subreddits and forums can lead to the discovery of incredible songs from lesser-known artists. A quick look down the Spotify rabbit hole has helped me find songs such as Carla Geneve’s “The Right Reasons,” an astonishingly good, sad-but-springy bop. The fact that spending 10 minutes delving into artist recommendations can lead to an amazing find such as this is indicative of the position of indie music right now.
The genre is blowing up in pop culture. Although some of that has to do with cosigns from pop stars and social media’s obsession with the “indie aesthetic,” credit must be given to the talent of the dozens of burgeoning or accomplished female indie stars whose voices make up the soundtracks of thousands of tiny stories playing out through car speakers and earbuds. Even artists who are on the fringes of popularity are producing incredible music, and those who are finding greater acclaim, such as Adrienne Lenker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, are continuing multi-album long hot streaks of profound and enjoyable listens.
For a fan of indie music — in my case, initially, male-led artists like Car Seat Headrest, Vampire Weekend, Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead — the meteoric ascent of female indie artists across the board has been a musical revelation. As a listener, I only hope that this is not a peak in the dominance of female indie artists, but a step toward a new wave of groundbreaking musical work. Looking forward, dozens of artists have proven capable of becoming lasting staples and household indie names, and I anticipate the fast and slow-burning hits to come.