Etymology of Indie

“Indie pop is literate, low-fidelity, oft-downbeat music that doesn’t sell very well and is usually distributed by undercapitalized independent record labels.” –NY Times

I was struck upon first reading this. Ever since I was introduced to the word “indie” I have struggled to fully understand what this potent, counter-but-popular-counter culture term means. More than terms like jazz, blues, pop, or even country, the label indie evokes a certain way of living that is defined in multifarious ways by the people who consume its music and lifestyle. It is a collective impulse to be independent.

But lets get back to the words. We are the words we say.

Indie: Independent record company. Shortened from the word independent (see below). It was first coined in 1920s by film companies and later adapted to pop music in the 1980s. Refers to people who independently own their own businesses or musical styles. It is often used to describe people who wear clothes from second-hand shops.

Literate: from the Latin, li(t)eratus, which means educated or learned, one who knows the letters. It is taken from the Greek word grammatikos which is connected to the  Latin lit(t)era which means ‘letter. ‘It’s primary definition is knowing how to read and write, but in popular usage it also means having knowledge beyond reading and writing. Literate is now a synonym for educated. Therefore, indie music represents a mind-set and population that is literate beyond reading a book and spelling correctly.

Low-Fidelity: Middle English from the Old Norse lagr meaning low. It is also from Old English licgan meaning humble in rank (socially). It’s connected to the adjectives ‘lowbrow,’ a person who is not intellectual, and ‘low-life, a person who is ‘disreputable or vulgar.’ Fidelity is from the French fidélité, which is from the Latin fidelitatem meaning faithfulness and adherence. In contemporary lingo, the term describes music that is recorded with distortion and background noise, usually from recording on analog sound equipment. Basically it sounds like you recorded it on your Mac with Garage Band. If you like the scratches on the old vinyl records, and buy them purposely for that, low-fi is a fitting adjective for you. See the movie High Fidelity for further inquiry into the malleable definition of fidelity.

Downbeat: from the word “down” from the old English ofdune meaning downwards. Since 1610 used to mean  gloomy or depressing. Downbeat is the first downward stroke a conductor gives to an orchestra, later adapted to mean depressed from the association of the word down, since the beat itself is no more pessimistic than the upbeat, which is optimistic. Today, used as an adjective to describe a down or sad mood. It can also be used to describe someone with a relaxed or mellow personality.

Undercapitalized: provided with an insufficient amount of capital for something like an enterprise or business. Not sufficiently profited from, i.e. not non-profit for-profit websites.

Independent: From the French independant and Italian independente meaning not dependent, controlled, or influenced by others in matters of opinion, conduct, musical taste, etc. It was later used to describe people not acting as part of a political party, a foundational mantra of the United States. It is a still a deeply entrenched part of the American dream, even for the DIY kids who listen to indie music.


~ by Em on July 1, 2009.

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