Just Gimme Indie Rock!: The Genre Goes Big Time

Matthew Eisman / WireImage
– Crooked Tame
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and producer and DJ Mark Ronson perform together during Governors Ball Music Festival at New York City’s Randall’s Island on June 3, 2017.

Kanye West, as he often is, was ahead of the curve. When the iconoclastic rapper decamped to Hawaii in 2010 to record his opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a crew of some of the genre’s most sought-after artists, he also brought along someone from well outside hip-hop’s orbit: Justin Vernon, then best known as the architect of hushed indie-folk act Bon Iver.

Vernon delivered some of the most memorable moments on West’s album – that’s his maniacal crooning on “Monster” and his feeble warbling on “Lost in the Woods” – and quickly became the poster child for one of music’s defining trends of the ‘10s: The indiefication of pop.

Just a year prior, Kid Cudi recruited psych-rockers MGMT and Ratatat for his debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, Solange covered sweeping Dirty Projectors’ sweeping anthem “Stillness Is The Move” and paparazzi caught Jay-Z and Beyoncé at an outdoor Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn on the Williamsburg waterfront. But Vernon’s appearance on Twisted Fantasy catalyzed the intermingling between pop, hip-hop and indie-rock. The crossovers soon evolved from in-the-know sampling – The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar sampled dream-pop outfit Beach House, in 2011 and 2012, respectively – to full-blown collaboration.

West brought in Vernon for Twisted Fantasy’s 2013 follow-up Yeezus, and worked with Dirty Projectors leader Dave Longstreth on 2015 loosie “FourFiveSeconds,” which featured Paul McCartney and Rihanna and peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Around that time, West also brought Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig into his writers room – the session didn’t yield any released material – and in 2016, Koenig scored a writing credit on Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning Lemonade for “Hold Up,” which interpolated Yeah Yeah Yeahs and also credited Josh Tillman, the freak-folk trickster better known as Father John Misty. (“Woke up this morning in an unmarked car with a band aid on my temple, a slight metallic taste in my mouth and a Beyonce writing credit,” Tillman tweeted upon Lemonade’s release.)

That year marked a sea change. Koenig’s Vampire Weekend compatriot Rostam Batmanglij worked on Solange’s A Seat At The Table, as did Longstreth and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. Batmanglij also lent his talents to “Ivy” off Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde; other names in the credits of the R&B auteur’s lauded 2016 LP included ex-Dirty Projectors musician Amber Coffman, Radiohead composer extraordinaire Jonny Greenwood, and DIY indie-rocker Alex G. Less than a year later, the latter was onstage backing Ocean for his Friday headlining spot at New York City’s Panorama Music Festival.

Chelsea Lauren / Getty
– Bonye West
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon performs during Kanye West’s headlining set at Coachella 2011.

This week’s cover subject, Tame Impala, headlined Panorama’s Saturday night that year, making the jump from topping bills at boutique fests to headlining the major fests he’s now known for. Few embody the marriage between the mainstream and indie better than the band’s mastermind Kevin Parker, whose rise to music’s biggest stages has transpired concurrently with his parallel career as one of pop’s most coveted writers and producers.

Parker’s forays into the mainstream began innocuously enough. He and Lamar linked in 2014 for a hip-hop-ified reimagining of Tame’s 2012 song “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” and the next year, Parker guested on two songs on Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special, the same album that featured world-conquering Bruno Mars collaboration “Uptown Funk.”

But the floodgates opened after Rihanna covered “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” the 7-minute, non-single closing epic from Tame’s 2015 album Currents, for her album ANTI, released in early 2016. Soon, Parker’s phone was ringing off the hook. Later that year, he co-wrote and co-produced Lady Gaga’s single “Perfect Illusion” with Ronson and BloodPop (Justin Bieber, Madonna). In 2018, he appeared on Kanye West’s ye and made his “Saturday Night Live” debut – alongside John Mayer, flanking Travis Scott, as the ascendant rapper performed a medley that included “Skeletons,” the track Parker worked on off Scott’s 2018 LP Astroworld.

Tame Impala headlined Coachella in 2019, sure, but Parker also joined A$AP Rocky onstage at that year’s Indio fest to run through “Sundress,” which samples an early Tame Impala deep cut. While, like all Tame Impala’s work, Parker created the band’s 2020 album The Slow Rush alone, he also nabbed a credit on “Repeat After Me,” off The Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours.

Though Tame Impala broke out with hazy, retro psych-rock, Parker’s adventures outside of the band have clearly influenced his own product, which now regularly nods to hip-hop, electronic and R&B. In a sense, it’s just another data point in the ongoing dissolution of barriers between genres.

The collaborative spirit has even started to go the other way. Vampire Weekend’s Grammy-winning 2019 album Father of the Bride featured assists from indie-rockers HAIM, but also from BloodPop and DJ Dahi, whose production credits include Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Big Sean, Mac Miller and Vince Staples. Melancholic electro-pop crooner James Blake featured on Lemonade, Blonde, Astroworld, and Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN; Blake’s own 2019 album, Assume Form, featured Scott, André 3000 and Rosalía, a far cry from the sullen, solitary post-dubstep recordings he released at the decade’s outset.

One of this unusual year’s biggest commercial successes came from another unlikely artistic union. On her 2012 chart-topper “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor Swift sneered that an ex was enjoying “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” At the time, indie-rock seemed worlds away from the star’s pop-fluent brand of country. In 2020, she essentially made that record. Two-thirds of Swift’s eighth album, folklore, recorded at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, was done in conjunction with The National’s Aaron Dessner, and “Exile,” folklore’s second-most-streamed song on Spotify at press time, featured a guest appearance from none other than Bon Iver’s Vernon.

The partnership wasn’t just artistically fruitful. folklore debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart and stayed there for six weeks. After a two-week interruption, it returned to the top slot, where it remains at press time. It had 2020’s biggest debut – and no album has notched more non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 since Drake’s Views, back in 2016. Critics and fans alike hailed the record as a creative return to form after the two polarizing albums Swift released in 2017 and 2019.

Stuck inside and off the road, artists have more time on their hands than ever – and if the resounding success of Swift’s return is any indication, more of these cross-genre summits are on the horizon. At the very least, count on some from Parker. s