Letter to the Editor: Some more thoughts on “indie” music at Calvin

Last week there was an article published in the op-ed section of Chimes which observed that the Calvin student activities office (SAO) seems to only invite/book/care about “indie” musical artists for the yearly concert series.

The term “indie” is never defined in the article. This can be problematic because “indie” has several definitions and connotations. One common use of indie is to refer to “artists on an independent label/unsigned artists.” Yes, for the most part, Calvin generally does book artists who are not signed to a major label. But this definition doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about a particular artist’s popularity, sound or style. For example, Jack White/The White Stripes, Macklemore, Jason Aldean, Adele and Taylor Swift are a few “top 40” artists that fit into this definition of indie, yet I don’t think many Calvin students would categorize these as indie artists.

Indie can also mean a particular genre — that is, a particular sound/style or lyric themes that many SAO artists have in common. This is equally difficult to claim. Indie can sound like many things to many people and is actually more often a combination of genres than an actual genre itself (pop-rock, folk/country-rock, electro-punk, jazz/bluegrass-influenced pop, etc). It is easy to classify music as indie because many artists transcend basic genre boundaries. Indie is a mixed breed.

Indie often becomes a synonym for obscure, unknown and new — all of which carry their own negative connotation in various degrees. Genres, in general, give listeners an easy way to place an artist in a category, in a box. This can be limiting. Once an artist is placed in a category, it’s easier to think of them uncritically and harder to engage and learn from them. It’s easier, but less wholesome than choosing to interact with new, unfamiliar and (potentially) difficult art.

SAO was established as a way to express Calvin’s mission to engage and discern a wide swathe of pop culture. The office of Ken Heffner and John Williamson is headquarters to both the dorm cultural discerners (CD) and the campus-wide concert and film series programming. In both of these faculties, SAO seeks to empower and equip students to engage with pop culture — to hear and discern the good, to mute and discard the bad.

To be clear, SAO does not exist to provide weekend entertainment for Calvin students — although that is often a welcome and natural side effect. SAO is not concerned with entertainment. SAO is concerned with engagement. Understanding this distinction is the key to understanding why Calvin is a host to many artists that students may not recognize. Certainly, SAO wants to host artists that students care about, but the main goal of SAO is to give students the opportunity to engage with artists who are doing interesting things musically, interesting things lyrically and interesting things socially. At Calvin concerts, this engagement typically involves a conversation with the artists and an attentive and careful audience during the show. SAO is continually looking to book a diverse array of artists from all over the country (and the world). While this isn’t always done perfectly, it’s usually done well. SAO is not merely student programming, it is student programming with a discerning, engaging intention.

SAO is looking for artists that are pushing the musical envelope of genre, invading the lyrical and thematic comfort of their listeners (or even, in some cases, their label), and driving a Calvin audience to experience something new. Regardless of the popularity of an artist, or the genre, the biggest reason SAO chooses to book someone is because they believe listening to that artists will be enriching for students — will maybe give them a glimpse of truth, a glimpse of the gospel.

The student activities board (SAB) meets every Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the Commons Annex to discuss upcoming events and compile a “dream list” of artists to pursue. If you feel like you know of an artist that fits into this fundamental goal, attend the meeting and let your voice be heard!