Indie rock strips back

Girls on a bus (in the right front seat) Chet "JR" White (left) and Christopher Owens. Photo by...
Girls on a bus (in the right front seat) Chet "JR" White (left) and Christopher Owens. Photo by Rhythmethod.
A rash of internet videos is putting the raunch back into rock 'n' roll. Chris Richards, of The Washington Post, reports.

The September sun had plunged into the Pacific Ocean when Wayne Coyne, of the psychedelic rock troupe the Flaming Lips, found himself on an Oregon beach, hundreds of naked strangers furiously peeling away his clothes.

He was at work.

"These are long days," says Coyne, recalling the 48-hour marathon spent shooting his band's new music video, Watching the Planets a fleshy, six-minute clip starring 300 very naked Flaming Lips fans and one very naked Flaming Lip.

Coyne insists that the shoot was no Caligulan beach party: The work "kind of overtakes the fantastical-ness of being surrounded by literally hundreds of naked people."

These days, bands have their work cut out for them.

As the internet's reach continues to expand, the indie rock playing field grows wider and more level every minute - a gift and a curse that allows artists to reach a vaster audience, yet requires they do more to stand out.

Accordingly, the music video has re-emerged as a powerful promotional tool and thanks to relaxed standards of the internet - i.e., no standards whatsoever - a recent surge of music videos have included nudity to help bands reach new eyeballs.

But unlike the explicit pop, rap and metal videos that populated cable television in various blurry, censored incarnations over the years, these new videos have little hope of airing on traditional networks such as MTV.

Instead, they spread across the web, tagged with four magical letters that serve as catnip for the bored and unsupervised: NSFW.

Nudity has helped recent videos from Yeasayer, Amazing Baby and Matt & Kim rack up page views, but is a "not safe for work" tag anything more than a crass ploy for clicks? Yes, says Ryan Catbird, editor of MBVmusic.com, an indie rock blog that aggregates MP3s and videos.

"I think many people would probably assume that it's the old standard 'sex sells' philosophy, or just some cheap way to appeal to viewers' more prurient interests," says Catbird via email.

"But I think what we've actually been seeing lately in videos like Girls' Lust for Life, or the recent Flaming Lips video, is simply just an artistic choice. I think they've been high-minded in their concepts."

Perhaps bands are approaching nudity more thoughtfully because shock value isn't all that valuable anymore.

"I think it's hard to shock people through a music video because there's something way more gonzo that you can find with four or five keystrokes," says Steven Gottlieb, founder of Video Static, a website catering to the video production community.

And while today's indie bands aren't provoking the Madonna-level gasps of yore, that doesn't mean showing a little skin won't help an artist turn heads.

"One of the downsides of being online is that there's a lot of clutter," Gottlieb says.

"But if you're working with a very small budget, you can probably include some nudity and you're guaranteed to get a few clicks."

The trick for indie bands is to flash a little flesh without making it look like a blatant attention-grab.

The so-called director's cut of Lust for Life, a music video from the San Francisco duo Girls, tried to walk that line, but the comments sections of the music blogs that posted it were filled with clashing cheers and jeers.

Chet "JR" White of Girls was pleased with the response.

"When we came up with the idea, we wanted to do something really polarising and shocking," he says of the low-budget clip that shows friends of the band mouthing along to the song after being nudged into various states of undress.

There are men and women, women and women, men and men ... enjoying one another's company.

White says what started as innocent fun turned into something more.

"This was on the tails of Prop 8, so it started feeling like a political statement," he says.

"And that was really important to us."

When the video hit the internet in late October, blog-surfing oglers couldn't get enough.

Catbird says MBV's traffic instantly quintupled.

The band was already riding a giant buzz-wave for its debut album and was considered shrewd for releasing the unedited version of a video that would send the hype meter into the red.

"People said, `That was a really smart decision'," says Nils Bernstein, director of publicity for Matador Records, the parent company of Girls' label True Panther Sounds.

"Sure, I'll take credit. But it wasn't a ploy ... People really respond to that authenticity and realness."

- Chris Richards of the Washington Post

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