Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music

Thoughts on music from thinker’s thinker and a fan’s fan.

Reading the advance praise of UCLA lecturer Wendy Fonarow’s new ethnography of the U.K. indie-rock scene, you’d think the book were a love letter to its subject and nothing more. (Band manager James Endeacott trumpets her because she “knows where all the Beach Boys were born and drives a fuck-off car.” Helpful!) But despite the author’s C.V. as a former employee of London indie label Domino (which launched Franz Ferdinand as well as less well-known but equally beloved acts like Clinic), Empire of Dirt keeps plenty of distance between Fonarow’s subjects and her eye, if not her heart. She knows the scene intimately, but in these pages at least, she’s nobody’s cheerleader, even as she spends a hefty chunk of the book rapturously describing the byways of a live gig .

What’s best about Empire of Dirt is that Fonarow’s equally a thinker’s thinker and a fan’s fan. That’s true even during an opening chapter (“What Is ‘Indie’?”) that mercilessly exposes some of the more questionable aspects of indie fans—their tendency to presume their centrality in relation to other kinds of music fans, for example. (You will seldom read more blinkered music criticism than that of indie rockers who just, like, do not understand why or how anyone else could possibly not care one iota about their marginal bands of choice.)

And Fonarow’s analysis of a typical indie concert is one of the most brilliant things anyone has written about the live music experience. She divides the audience into three “zones”—the first directly in front of the stage (the mosh pit, basically), the second further back (for interested but not besotted bystanders), and the third near the exit/entrance (for talkative scenesters)—and delineates the patterned behavior of each audience segment. Anyone who’s ever gone to a show will immediately grasp Fonarow’s points, and anyone who hasn’t been to one in ages should have it all come back immediately.

A few head-scratching statements aside (like her weird assertion that Americans always capitalize the word “alternative,” whereas the English keep “indie” lowercase—um, what?), Empire of Dirt is one of the smartest books about pop music to emerge from academia—or anywhere else—in years.