Hong Kong Retrospective

(Content warning: mentions of mental illness, depersonalization, death) 

I. May 28, 2016, 7:49 PM HKT 

As I write this, I am hovering above the Pacific Ocean, somewhere in the straits between Taiwan and the Mainland, avoiding working on my last remaining Civ assignment. For the past few days now, I’ve been thinking that I must write something about my experiences before this plane lands at John F. Kennedy Airport in approximately fifteen hours. Because I know that the moment I set foot on that jet bridge in Queens, everything that happened here, everything that feels so prescient and visceral and clear, will rapidly fade into unreality. My memories of these ten weeks will feel like an extended dream sequence; it’ll feel unreal in the way my first relationship or my family’s first apartment feel unreal. The bellows of my Hong Kong experience will compress while those of life back home will expand; I’ll eventually slip back into my American life and wonder, in the words of Krusty the Clown upon seeing “Worker and Parasite” (a Soviet-esque substitute for “Itchy and Scratchy”)—“what the hell was that?” 

Construction in progress near Central, Hong Kong Island

I wrote a fairly long blog post on the second week of the trip, and initially planned to write at least once a week or so. But throughout most of the program, I found it really hard to write, but hardly due to lack of time. It was more an issue of what I call “brain-energy.” There’s probably a more technical term for this, but it’s basically the mental or emotional energy needed to do a certain type of task. Generally, I had free time once I depleted much of the day’s brain energy on things like “school” and “homework,” and when I did have the brain-energy to write, I needed to use it on other things like “paying attention in class” and “eating regular meals.” Throughout the program, I feared that if I didn’t write consistently enough, I'd forget what I wanted to write about in the first place. I found the voice in my head reformulating what I’d be experiencing in a given moment as how I would write about it, in a futile attempt to say the same thing so many times that I’d remember it when I actually had the energy to write it down. 

Bathroom in the bookstore at ACO (Arts and Cultural Outreach), Causeway Bay

Something I keep coming back to when reflecting on my experiences here is that Donald Rumsfeld quip, about the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” Though not quite what Rumsfeld intended, I found the framework that he unintentionally established to be a really good heuristic for thinking through my time here. A couple weeks back, while talking to two of my friends after class one day, one of them remarked that this quarter had been his least stressful in all of undergrad. Which got me thinking–though this program wasn’t terribly strenuous academically, the types of stresses that we encountered in Hong Kong were very different from those back home. In Chicago, for the most part, I find that most of my stressors during the school year are “known knowns." Though of course things happen that are outside of my control, I find that I can generally anticipate what will be the most stressful parts of a given quarter–midterms, finals, deadlines and so on.

Going into Hong Kong, I knew that it would not be the best ten weeks of my life. I knew that I would be far away from my support systems. I knew it would be challenging, and that I would spend a lot of time alone. But much of what made Hong Kong so stressful is that so many of the routine things that I took for granted in Chicago became challenges themselves. Things like figuring out how to ride the bus, or where to scrounge up dinner because we had no access to a kitchen but had to pay for most of our own meals, navigating the language barrier that was more substantial that I had been led to believe, negotiating different logics of pedestrian etiquette, and so on, weren’t things I'd have to actively think about much back in Chicago. Each single action, or negotiation, or awkward moment was obviously not excruciating. But the combined cognitive energy of dealing with so many changes in habit and routine became itself an “unknown unknown” that sapped me of energy I wish I could have used to study harder, to write more, to work on my own projects. 

Then of course, came the more drastic “unknown unknowns” that meticulous planning couldn’t have prevented–attempting to stay awake during an all-day tour in Macau because one of your roommates got extremely ill from food poisoning the night before and you didn’t get a wink of sleep; getting bedbugs in our bedroom and having to switch to another one; getting more bedbug bites even after switching rooms and losing a full night’s sleep because of your itchy legs; finding out through Facebook that two of your friends back in Chicago passed away within three weeks of each other; the loneliness and isolation that makes you fear you’re losing your grip on reality...Not exactly the stuff they brag about in the Study Abroad brochures.  

Small shrine next to a restaurant in Aberdeen, Hong Kong Island

One time, when coming home late from wandering around the markets in Mong Kok by myself, I just missed the 69X minibus from Causeway Bay–the fastest route back to the hotel from where I was. Exhausted and demoralized, I saw a 5 minibus waiting at the bus stop just behind the 69X. Though I didn’t recognize the names of most of the intermediate stops, it terminated at Aberdeen Centre, which was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Knowing it would get me at least within walking distance of where I needed to go, I decided to hop on instead of waiting for the next 69X. While the 69X took the Aberdeen Tunnel straight through the mountains at the center of Hong Kong island to get from Causeway Bay to Aberdeen, within minutes of getting on the 5 I realized we were taking a very different route. Instead of the tunnel, the 5 bus zoomed up the steep, narrow streets of Happy Valley, which quickly gave way to switchbacks as it climbed further up the mountains. Up here, we briefly looked down on Hong Kong’s sparkling neon skyline, before plowing through the Wong Nai Chung gap. Descending the winding roads of Shouson Hill's gated townhouse estates that Hong Kong’s wealthiest call home felt like a roller coaster as the bus driver rocketed around the bends while his speedometer crept dangerously close to 80 kilometers per hour (the legal limit for minibuses here). At least twenty minutes after the 69X would have gotten me back, the bus pulled into Aberdeen Centre, and I trudged the rest of the way home.

Elevator lobby in an industrial building, Wong Chuk Hang

As cheesy as it sounds, this particular bus trip is a good extended metaphor for my time in Hong Kong. The journey may not follow the route you intended; it might have some twists and turns (literal and otherwise); it might take longer or be more inconvenient than you expected. But somehow, eventually, you’ll get where you’re trying to go. And you’ll see some pretty incredible things along the way that you couldn’t have encountered otherwise. And though you may be tired, you won’t regret it.

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Bathroom facility, Lamma Island

II. If someone made a movie about my Study Abroad experience, there would be an extended montage of me walking, alone, through malls, markets, shopping centers, escalators, pedestrian overpasses, underground tunnels, and MTR stations. I have likely walked multiple marathons through these types of spaces, as it is impossible to avoid them. American malls, which are typically accessed by car in suburban locations, are destinations in and of themselves. For the most part, Hong Kong’s malls are hardly the main attractions; rather, they’re nodes in vast networks of multilevel, interconnected urban spaces. An escalator from an MTR station emerges inside a department store, whose second floor sky-bridge links up with a mall inside of a larger office tower; an overpass lets eager shoppers pass between two malls without ever setting foot on a dense street below; an escalator built into the side of the mountain carries businessmen up to their Mid-Levels apartments at the end of the day. Malls and other similar transitory spaces constitute much of Hong Kong; its standard streets are only a fraction of its larger urban fabric. (For more on this, the book Cities Without Ground is a great reference). 

View from the top floor of a double-decker bus, Sheung Wan

At the beginning of the program, I began to carry around my tiny CUBE camera, and use it to film footage of my daily experiences and adventures. After looking back through the first fifty-odd clips, I realized that the vast majority of the footage I had collected was while on various forms of transportation: the MTR, the double-decker buses, the green mini-buses, the Peak tram, the Star ferries, the streetcars, the escalators, the cable cars. A city with such a varied, diverse, and inconsistent set of geographical features needs modes of transportation that suits them. As such, I feel that the most “authentic”* experiences I have had in Hong Kong are those spent in some form of transit—taking the three-minute ferry trip across the channel from Aberdeen to Ap Lei Chau; zooming down switchbacks steep hills on the minibuses at midnight; navigating labyrinthine underground networks of tunnels to reach the right MTR train. It’s a cliche that “it’s the journey, not the destination” but Hong Kong makes it difficult to distinguish the former from the latter when it’s essentially a terrain of continuous interstitial spaces. 

The cliche of loneliness in a densely-packed city of millions became astoundingly real in Hong Kong; on the weekends my roommate traveled, I sometimes went two or three days without speaking to anyone in person, besides maybe the cashiers at the dumpling + bubble tea place in Aberdeen where I became a regular. This is not to say I had no friends in the group or actively disliked anyone; I very much appreciate the interactions I had and the friendships I made. However, I often found group outings to be very stressful (i.e. difficulties reaching consensus led to logistical nightmares, and made me very anxious) and many of my own interests didn’t quite line up with the group’s. After trying to organize a couple of trips and getting little interest, I found it easiest to run off on my own. My most memorable moments here largely happened in solitude–hiking up to the hulking metal power lines bolted on to the side of the mountain overlooking Tin Wan; swimming in the shadow of a power plant while aging hippies blasted dub and reggae and dogs frolicked on the beach as the sun set; belting Titus Andronicus lyrics from a mountaintop on Lamma Island; running across Waterfall Bay to find a geocache tucked in a crevice besides an abandoned concrete house-like structure (and inadvertently trashing my desert boots in the process); petting the shoe-wearing Samoyeds at the Cyberport’s waterfront park. I appreciated having so much time to myself, to spend with myself, but when left alone for too long with my own brain, the fine line between solitude and loneliness begins to blur, and ultimately fade altogether. 

This feeling of interstitiality, of existing in liminal space, perpetually on the periphery, soon extended beyond urban morphology to encompass my own self-perception. I was never so self-centered to think that this city would mold itself to my desires and narratives, or even care that I was there; the metropolis waits for no one, especially not a transient American white girl. But the more time I spent wandering this overstimulating city alone, the more I felt like an extra in films about other people’s lives. When an overly affectionate teenage couple blocked the shelf next to the Art books section at Eslite in Causeway Bay, I was “Bookstore Patron #3” in their high-school TV drama. When the party-yacht patrons blasted “Genie in a Bottle” and grinded on each other, I was “Distant Beachgoer” in their MTV special. When the guy hiking with his girlfriend on the Peel Rise about a hundred feet ahead of me, not realizing I was there, squeezed her butt, I was “Unintentional Voyeur” in their romantic comedy. The times spent in simultaneous physical and social peripheries would compound my loneliness and intensify my depersonalization. But it wasn’t always that bleak, of course; ultimately, I found my solo wanderings to be a rewarding break from the demands of the academic year.

It is humbling to go to a place where your existence matters so little.  

Lanterns, Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wan

Honeymoon/Conflict/Recovery/Adjustment

Content warning: mentions of mental illness, depersonalization, sensory processing disorder

Ah, Study Abroad–that Liberal Arts rite-of-passage meant to broaden our horizons, or a Quarter-long vacation disguised as an academic experience (depending on who you ask). As yet another American student to spend time outside the States and write about it, my experiences and revelations are hardly unique or noteworthy. College-student-travel-writing as a genre is admittedly pretty tired, but I’m going to take my best stab at it nonetheless. I am not interested in giving a laundry-list rundown of my day-to-day activities. Rather, I’d like to use writing as a tool to work through and synthesize my various experiences here and link them to other things that I have been thinking and learning about. So let’s dive in.

Street in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon

There’s a consistent thread that runs through so many narratives and testimonials of Study Abroad, echoed by many friends and family members before my departure: it’ll be SO much FUN; it’s going to be the BEST ten weeks EVER; it’ll CHANGE your LIFE. Though I’ve only been in Hong Kong for a little over two weeks, there is some truth to that; this is an incredible city and I am so lucky to be able to study here. But those narratives create a set of unattainable expectations, offering up a cynical interpretation of the unofficial motto of my former dorm’s Scav Hunt team: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Under such criteria, there is little room for anything short of exuberance. Am I allowed to be disoriented, depersonalized, isolated, confused, and exhausted, or should I just shut up and be thankful I’m here at all? Can I be unhappy without seeming ungrateful?

On the trolley, Central 

I’ll be blunt: these first few weeks have been emotionally taxing in ways I did not anticipate. “Culture shock” in and of itself hasn’t been the main issue. Rather, the rapid shift in environmental and social conditions has amplified my already-existing potpourri of mental illnesses and other cognitive difficulties in ways that are only further intensified by cultural and linguistic differences. Hong Kong is a dense and dynamic metropolis that can overwhelm pretty much anyone, but throwing Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) into the mix (amongst other things) only makes it worse. Having SPD basically means that I am sensitive to, or react weirdly to, certain kinds of sensory stimuli; in short–I get overwhelmed more easily than the average person. Culture shock didn’t induce my panic attack at Victoria Peak, or make me leave a sleazy Lan Kwai Fong nightclub at 3am to crouch alone on the curb and breathe deeply while my peers danced on inside. But being in a still-relatively unfamiliar place sure didn’t make these moments any easier.

On the trolley in the rain, Wan Chai

I’ve found myself needing much longer stretches of alone-time here than I did back in Chicago, which has social ramifications in a cohort of nineteen other students. Since graduating High School, I have largely shed the “quiet girl” label, but I sometimes feel myself slipping back into it, and fear my peers will interpret my quietness or intermittent absences as standoffishness, or worse, contempt (as that has happened to me on numerous occasions). Though these fears most likely stem from social anxiety rather than any tangible realities of the situation, they nonetheless appear from time to time. Though obvious cultural differences both large and small have affected the adjustment process–cars drive on the left side of the road! The only restaurant near our hotel with an English menu is McDonald’s! We can’t do our own laundry! There are 7/11s on every block and none of them sell Cheetos!–the most difficult part of the adjustment process has been coping with my own exacerbated mental illnesses, while attempting to create new routines and coping mechanisms that fit this new set of circumstances, and will allow me to enjoy the program as much as possible. It’s a process, but I’m getting there.   

Alley in Causeway Bay

Apartment buildings in Wan Chai

But enough navel-gazing. Let’s talk about something a little more exciting–like urban morphology. Urban morphology, a key aspect of geographic analysis, looks at the physical shapes and forms of human land use and settlements, as well as the processes by which these forms are created and transformed. The mountains that protrude from the center of Hong Kong Island largely force urban development into clusters of densely populated apartment buildings and office towers into the valleys and coastal lowlands (or are sometimes built right into the hillsides). Unlike the regimented, standardized street grid of Chicago, Hong Kong’s roadways zig and zag in ways that appear nonsensical on a 2D map, but make perfect sense in person, as they tend to ebb and flow with the topographical changes themselves.

The neighborhood of Sheung Wan, just West of Central; an area characterized by steep slopes. Note the slightly-thicker red lines are stair-streets. Map via OpenStreetMap.

(Home Sweet) Hyde Park, Chicago. Chicago is notoriously flat, and Hyde Park almost exclusively follows a gridded street plan (not including a few urban renewal-related aberrations, such as I.M. Pei's University Towers on 55th Street). Map via OpenStreetMap

Arterial thoroughfares give way to winding roads and mysterious alleys which are further stratified by changes in elevation and linked to one another by staircase-streets, creating a stacked, interconnected, multi-level urban landscape that I’ve never quite experienced in America. And this landscape creates the need for new forms of transportation infrastructure; there’s a literally a public escalator that goes directly up from Central (the Central Business District) to the Mid-Levels, a largely residential area. During the morning rush, the escalator takes commuters downhill, and for the rest of the day brings people back up the side of the mountain. Hong Kong’s urban morphology is a big part of what makes it so overwhelming, but also makes it a truly exciting place to explore.

View from an Overpass on the Mid-Levels Escalator

Journey up the Mid-Levels Escalator

Dinner at a hole-in-the-wall in Causeway Bay

Hong Kong is very much a city of layers—of tangled urban infrastructures and transportation networks; of multi-functional and repurposed spaces; of colonial legacies and uncertain futures; of overlapping institutional histories and personal narratives. And the longer I am here, the more I can continue to examine and peel them apart.

Fall 2014—Pitchfork Festival 2014, or The Narcissism of Small Differences

This is a piece I wrote for Punk Royko, a Chicago-based print zine, in the Fall of 2014. 

I had never been to a large-scale music festival before this July, and I initially had no intention of going to Pitchfork. Though the lineup was solid – a genre-traversing mix of artists like breakout noise-punk critics' darlings Perfect Pussy, '70s disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, electronic duo Majical Cloudz, infectious rapper Danny Brown, and headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Kendrick Lamar – I didn’t think it was quite worth $120 for a three-day pass. However, through my affiliation with WHPK, the University of Chicago’s community radio station, and the work I had done for the WHPK zine, I was offered a three-day promotional ticket, which I gladly accepted. As it inched closer to July 18th, the first day of the festival, and I still hadn’t received my ticket, a series of missteps on the part of Pitchfork’s publicity company ended with my landing a spot on the festival’s VIP list. So not only was Pitchfork my first ever experience at a large-scale music festival, but I was granted the privilege of experiencing it as a “Very Important Person,” laminated badge and all. The benefits didn’t end there: upon my arrival through the fairly discreet VIP entrance at the eastern edge of Union Park, one of the bouncers asked to see my ID, which clearly said, “UNDER 21,” then gave me an alcohol wristband nonetheless; this happened again on Saturday and Sunday. And thus began three days of collective effervescence.     

While not in the crowds attempting to partake in the musical festivities, I spent a lot of time in the roped-off VIP area, milling about alone, if only for the short bathroom line and brief respite that it provided from the sun- and festival-induced sensory overload. As I knew nobody else with a VIP pass, the shady grove of musicians, journalists, and those otherwise deemed “important” had something of an über-hip high school cafeteria vibe, where everyone already knew everyone else and I was back to being the quiet loner girl. But when I would leave my friends in the chaos of the main grounds to visit the relative calm of the VIP section for another free cup of hard cider, I felt a little torn; I worried that they’d judge me as an elitist for ditching them simply because I could. But even through the occasional pangs of guilt, I still felt a little special for possessing the credentials bestowed on me from above. I could hold up my head and think, Here I am, check out my badge: I’m very important. I was fortunate enough to experience my first music festival through the rose-tinted glasses and the privileges they bestowed on me that came along with my pink-and-blue badge. Although I lacked a shiny silver Press badge to cement my quasi-journalist status, my note-taking was definitely not subtle. I spent much of the three days frantically jotting down observations, with varying degrees of snark, in my little blue notebook.

Pitchfork provided many diversions, both inside and outside the VIP area, for those seeking breaks between sets, including a craft fair where local artisans sold their organic soap and leather-covered flasks, a record fair dotted with offerings from nearby record stores and labels large and small, and an alleyway lined with tables showcasing artists’ silkscreened concert posters. While Pitchfork organizers stressed their commitment to hosting booths run by independent merchants and local restaurateurs on their website, they appeared to have no qualms about accommodating large corporations, some more visibly than others. Nestled in the festival grounds between the rows of port-a-potties and park benches, there was a live screenprinting station giving away custom Pitchfork merch, courtesy of Topman clothing, and a tent where you could reserve a free Chipotle meal for you and your friends.

For a festival ostensibly dedicated to independent culture and enterprise, there seemed to be a whole lot of corporate sponsorship; three of the festival’s major partners were Whole Foods, Jim Beam, and Beats Headphones (though Dre himself did not make an appearance). But this type of sponsorship isn’t exactly passive. It’s very deliberate, and it has a name: experiential marketing. It’s a hot method of branding and advertising that writer Grayson Currin, in a recent piece for Wondering Sound, defines as “tak[ing] a brand’s logo off of festival posters and banners and put[ting] the product in front of a captive crowd.” Festival organizers seek out sponsors with deep pockets in order to subsidize the immense costs associated with booking festivals at such a large scale, but the companies who pay up won’t settle for a mere billboard. They want to associate their products with the “hip” and “edgy” crowds in attendance. Even at a supposedly “independent” festival like Pitchfork, this type of dynamic marketing was impossible to avoid. And since attendees were confined to Union Park (re-entry was prohibited), marketers had a perfect captive audience: A small stage run by Ray-Ban offered free haircuts (but no shades!) to sun-dazzled festivalgoers; Chicago-born brewery Goose Island, now owned by Anheuser-Busch, ran a real-life “Missed Connections” board where attendees could leave small paper notes, written via typewriter, for mysterious strangers who caught their eyes; twentysomethings carrying tote bags full of Hostess cupcakes and coffee cakes offered us free baked goods while we were waiting in line for the water fountain; a woman wearing a tank top printed with a Johnny Appleseed logo approached me and my friend and asked, “Do you girls like hard cider?” She then offered to take our photo with an instant camera and wrote the hashtag #LETTHESTORIESFLOW on the bottom edge of the print.

All of this raises the question: has “independent” been co-opted as the next trendy aesthetic, used to appeal to demographics less easily reached by traditional marketing, or does it still have potential as a viable creative mindset? And is independent merely a way of saying that an artist isn’t contracted to a major label, or does it imply a more politicized outlook on creative production? Just by looking at the festival's lineup, it’s easy to see that independent is less a description of an artist’s modus operandi than a description of genre. Two of the three headliners, Beck and Kendrick Lamar, are signed to major labels or subsidiaries, as are many of the festival’s stand-out acts, including guitar heroine St. Vincent, Odd Future associate Earl Sweatshirt, and reunited '90s shoegaze act Slowdive. In the age of file sharing, YouTube, Spotify, and frequent collaborations between mainstream and indie artists (see: Bon Iver’s guest vocals on Kanye West’s “Monster,” etc.), the role of major labels in ensuring commercial success has largely been diminished, thus blurring once-rigid distinctions between the realms of mainstream and independent music.

Publications that specialize in the promotion of independent music have coped with this change in drastically different ways. The long-running punk zine Maximumrocknroll, first published in 1982, explicitly states on its website that “nothing on a major label, car company label, or with exclusive distribution through the majors’ fake indies will get a review or any other coverage in MRR.” Pitchfork, on the other hand, seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the breakdown of the record-label hierarchy, granting space on its homepage both to little-known acts and to megastars like Kanye West. While Maximumrocknroll denounces blatant commercialism, Pitchfork welcomes it; a quick glance at its homepage reveals content sponsored by the likes of Converse and Jim Beam. But while Maximumrocknroll is largely print-based, produced by volunteers, and shuns corporate sponsorship, Pitchfork is a veritable multimedia empire: in addition to its eponymous website, which receives over 3.5 million unique hits per month, Pitchfork Media hosts large-scale annual festivals in Paris as well as Chicago, publishes the quarterly print publication The Pitchfork Review, runs the video site Pitchfork.tv, and has a staff of over fifty (which doesn’t even include freelance contributors). Though Maximumrocknroll and Pitchfork supposedly share the same mission - of supporting and promoting independent music - Maximumrocknroll abides by a far more orthodox, politicized, and sometimes stifling definition of what it means to be an independent artist, while Pitchfork does so by defining “independent” as a nebulous aesthetic rather than a particular means of creative production. And as such, when “independent” is used to describe a particular set of commodities, whether it’s music or artisanal bath soap, its original meaning becomes diluted and murky, and it becomes a label for people to affix to their identities.

Much of what I encountered at Pitchfork Festival brought to mind the “the narcissism of small differences,” a phrase initially coined by Freud but later used by postmodern cultural critics to describe the emphasis that individuals place on relatively minor characteristics in order to create a surface-level sense of their own individuality. But this narcissistic behavior isn’t limited strictly to taste: we tend to feel threatened by those who are similar to us, and the insecurity caused by not being suitably “different” thus drives us to differentiate ourselves even further, and take excessive pride in our own perceived uniqueness. It was easy to see how this idea played out through the festival’s meticulously curated craft- and record-fair tents, its almost exclusively “organic,” “artisanal,” or “fair trade” food offerings, and the attire of festivalgoers themselves; all of these markers of taste are (or have been) considered “different” in some respects. I passed time during set breaks by keeping tallies of the groups represented on people's band tees – an easy and obvious way to tell the world what you listen to. Some highlights were the couple wearing matching Swans “Filth” shirts (full disclosure: I wore my Filth shirt to the festival as well), three different young men near the front of the crowd at Perfect Pussy’s set wearing the exact same Perfect Pussy tee, and four people over the course of the weekend wearing shirts emblazoned with the motto of indie label Enemies List Home Recordings: “No Fun. Not Ever.”

The ubiquity of certain band shirts brought the narcissism of small differences to the point of absurdity. If so many other people here are wearing the same shirt as I am, which is in effect a representation of my tastes and values to the outside world, does it actually express anything about me as a person, or does it simply show that I’ve bought into the lifestyle and aesthetic associated with a particular group? It’s hard to say. But regardless of which visual markers of identity I and the thousands of others who attended Pitchfork choose to wear, Pitchfork and the companies that use its festival as a marketing platform will continue successfully curating a particular aesthetic, one that’s derived from the notion of independently-produced media and merchandise, in order to brand themselves as authentic purveyors of independent culture. And this large-scale cooptation of smaller (and often more radical) alternative subcultures is just one in a long line of many, which arguably began with the hippies in the late 1960s, followed in turn by the mainstreaming of the once-shocking “punk” aesthetic of studded jackets and brightly-colored hair during the early eighties and the bursting of the post-Nirvana “alternative” bubble in the early nineties. It figures that “independent” would be the next to go.

Soon after the sun had set on an unseasonably mild mid-July Saturday, once-reclusive nineties indie stalwarts Neutral Milk Hotel took the main stage for yet another festival appearance on their months-long reunion tour, their first in over fifteen years; I call it the “Oh shit, we have to retire and send our kids to college” tour. Sipping on yet another cup of hard cider (it was so watered down that even six cups over the course of an afternoon didn’t get me remotely drunk) while Jeff Mangum’s voice warbled over a single acoustic guitar, the twentysomething woman standing beside me sees the older man in front of me pull a pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of his cargo shorts and asks if she can bum one. The older man asks her how old she is; she replies, “22.” He says that he’s 42 and asks her how she knows Neutral Milk Hotel. “Neutral Milk Hotel is my life!” she gushes, telling him how important they were to her when she was in high school and how they’re still one of her favorite bands. Surrounded by thousands of festivalgoers, the man tells her about the time he saw Neutral Milk Hotel play to a crowd of 100 people in a basement back in 1995, and smiles warmly after telling her that “Two Headed Boy” was his wedding song.

Two people, two generations, and two very different meanings of independent. While one of these experiences is technically more independent, the other reflects an aestheticized expression of what “independent” music has come to mean in 2014. This isn’t to say that at this moment in time it’s impossible for any truly independently-created music to thrive without corporate bankrolling or co-optation, but that the meaning of “independent” itself has in many respects shifted from a mode of creative production to a nebulous aesthetic manufactured in part by the companies that align themselves with what the “cool” kids are doing. At the end of all our theorizing, the music remains. But who’s really profiting from it?