The key to this is not music but music genres. You should know the significance of Marvin Gaye and Kraftwerk and should also be able to throw an example artist up for various sub-genres: trip-hop, ska, lo-fi, prog-rock, the Seattle sound and others.
If this sounds like a lot of research don’t worry, it isn’t. Simply consult some helpful list (bless the Web) like Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of all time or something. They should provide you with a couple of sentences summarising the significance of each artist, grouping them into time periods and genres.
Still a general “alternative” lineage can be traced through modern music and these artists have formed the basis of garage band imitations, student dreams of self-knowledge and poseurs’ comparisons at local gigs. In order of initiation you need to know at least the following bands and their major albums: Radiohead, The Smiths, Jeff Buckley, Bloc Party, Sigur Ros, Lou Reed, Beck, Arcade Fire, Tom Waitts, The Pixies.
If you’ve ever read a music review then you’ll appreciate that there is certainly no level of musicological expertise required to comment on contemporary music. No one has ever discussed a specific aspect of music. The use of an instrument, the technical aspects of composition, the choice of lyrics are all secondary characteristics. For the indie music fan only the primary characteristics of sub-genre and similarity to other acts matter. But there is a standard vocabulary to adopt as per Rule 3 of being a PI: vocabulary is nine tenths of an impression. Thus a song becomes a track, album becomes LP, a band’s previous album was their previous release and so forth. Read a couple of reviews on MetaCritic and you should get the gist.
There are also no wrong opinions as long as you play within the rules. You can’t say Katy Perry is better than Radiohead but you can say that Radiohead are better than The Smiths, that The Smiths were better than Bloc Party or that Bloc party were better than Radiohead — in fact you can make all these claims in the same conversation. This is known as the property of indie music non-transitivity. Remember: it is not the quality of your opinions that will matter, but merely the quantity of the opinions and the breadth of artists you name drop.
Because indie music is the field most populated by poseurs, dilettantes and outright phonies, it is fertile ground for the PI. The key fact is that you will at no point need to listen to any of the music you talk about. If you like you could try listening to the odd song and even the 30 second free samples on iTunes will give a rough idea of what these people actually sound like. But what is important is merely referencing the bands and artists at the appropriate time. If someone asks you if you’ve heard Bright Eyes’s latest album, just say yes and that it wasn’t as good as their previous release. That’s all you need to do. Congratulations, you just became someone who listens to cool music.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.