Indie Pop’s Moral Psychology of Boredom

By Josh Kaufman

Over the past handful of months, I’ve been feeling quite bored. This I take to be easily explainable – I’ve only been interacting in-person with a handful of friends whose specific speech quirks now feel like rubbing a numb hand against a blunt cheese-grater, and I’ve been looking at screens so much that the thought of another 3 hour Zoom seminar makes me feel like my brain is going to shrivel into a clump and makes me want to yell at the tech-obsessed kid in Willy Wonka to stop. Or, as I would say honestly in casual conversion, I’m much more than okay by the standards of the day. I am understimulated, cranky, tired, and generally bored. But this is just because a massive amount of the normal non-boringness of life has been siphoned off for good reasons.

What is weird about this boredom though (and what I take to be philosophically interesting about it) is how this feeling is so connected to a vague moral sense that I am doing something wrong. The boredom doesn’t just make me feel that something bad is going on, that something’s bad about my current options, that something’s bad about my preferences, skills, qualities, or previous life decisions. What is this evaluative tingle that I can’t help but feel as I watch the Netflix-grey-watch-next-episode rectangle burst ex nihilo into pixel space? 

There is something tied to the first-person-present about this feeling of ethical failure. I don’t feel the same feeling when looking at my sister who’s in a very similar boat. And I don’t feel this way when I look at past-Josh or even when I channel Thomas Nagel and try to evaluate present-Josh from a view from nowhere. From their impersonal perch, the prosecutors of the moral law can and should charge present-Josh with all sorts of moral failings, but shouldn’t charge him for being bored.

Yet from my personal perch, I can’t help but feel that this boredom means I am doing something wrong. This is true even, if not especially so, when I feel like there is nothing I can do to get the boredom to go away. This ethical failing that I feel is thus not the sense that I should be able to get the boredom to go away. Nor is it even the sense that I should have planned ahead to give myself options to avoid this boredom. And it isn’t even the sense that boredom is something ethically objectionable that we all have a pro tanto reason to prevent and prune. Rather, it’s a much more direct sense that being bored is an ethical failure on my part, of me right here and right now, whose content is hard to pin down. What can this feeling of ethical failing be?

This is our philosophical question. How can being bored feel like an ethical failure, in this direct, personal, and seemingly confused way? It is often awful and confusing when a writer feels they need to present their answer to a question by retelling how the writer themself found the answer. The happenstance of how we connect the dots only seldom latches onto something that is helpful for you, the generic reader. But I want to plug a very specific and underappreciated genre of music, so I will present my answer to my question by going over how I arrived at it: by listening to an absurd amount of indie pop.

Before you ask, no. Indie pop is not just music that’s like pop except it’s much less popular and produced by independent record labels or high-school kids on bandcamp who don’t want to sell out. Indie pop is not a catch-all for the domesticated version of indie rock, characterized by being more mellow with the drums, more jangly with the guitar, and squeamish towards anything that hints of the macho-masculine-side of human anguish. And no – talking to you at Spotify who made the Indie Pop 2000s playlist – indie pop is not Fiona Apple, not Phoenix, not Animal Collective, not MGMT, and not Neutral Milk Hotel.

What then is indie pop? It began as a loose collection of British twenty-year olds in the late-70s and 80s who had once been obsessed with punk and post-punk but increasingly got discontent with these harsher styles and started making a different kind of music. Something softer and more melodic, less angry but more sad. Something not so focused on the big bad isms of the day but instead focused on a more personal and ephemeral loss: Our inability to see any pure, pretty, true, and simply good sources of meaning in the world. If indie pop has any underlying thesis or emotional center of gravity, it is this: We have a deep yearning to see the sweet and the childish in the world, after the spell has been broken, and the best we can settle for are glimpses in dreams and in the start of romantic longing, before we realize the other person is just a person, sex is just sex, and life is just life.

Indie pop, though longing for a past, is not about nostalgia. There isn’t a desire to go back to childhood, so much as there is a want to bring an added childlike sensitivity back into our semi-adult lives. It’s the difference between wanting to go back to a geocentric model of the universe and wanting our post-Copernican worldview now to pick up on something special about where we are in the cosmos. We want something we appreciated – or expected to be able to be appreciated – to be appreciated by us in the here and now.

Here are a couple of good examples. The Field Mice – perhaps the biggest early indie pop band – thus spend their biggest single focused on wandering around a harbor town at 4 am, mourning how what was once Emma’s house is empty and just a house. Belle & Sebastian, in their early days, return again and again to a certain kind of intense and disatistisfed early adults: Those who get immersed into deviant sex, hard drugs, and adult tedium, but want to somehow to reacquire an earnest grasp of the simple and sweet, even if this only comes in chance encounters walking through snow or surreal space dreams. The Aislers Set – in one of my favorite songs London/Madrid – describe being sick, getting lost in a new city and chance strangers, just to wind up wanting to go home.

I return to indie pop again and again after getting somewhere I wanted to go but feeling vaguely dissatisfied at the other side: Arriving at college, arriving at relationships, arriving at new social circles and academic fields, and – I guess now – arriving at the end of college. And as I experience the boredom I do now, and the sense of ethical failing it involves, I increasingly think of myself as a character in an indie pop song. 

I, in being bored, am realizing there is a meaning of a particular kind that I wanted or expected but can’t find a way to incorporate into my current perspective, from where I am. At its heart, this boredom is the sense that as I grow up and move to a more objective, detached, adult, sober-minded perspective, something is going wrong. This ethical failing doesn’t make sense when we try to shift to the more impersonal view from nowhere, because the failure in question is precisely a failure of this shift to the impersonal. The boredom points directly at what we lose in the movement towards the view from nowhere and makes us feel that such supposed growth away from the silly and childish is not all it’s cut out to be.

This isn’t to say that such boredom makes us feel that growing up, drifting to the sober-minded, is bad. Rather, such boredom is our critical attention to the fact that this growth – even if all things considered good – is not as good as we expected it to be. We realize that the drama of figuring out which parties to go, with whom and when, is a very silly and culturally distinct human practice. We realize that what will happen to a surgeon on a television show is incredibly unimportant, all things considered. We come to see the happenstances and concerns of our normal pre-Covid as not the world but merely as a world, which we now can’t see as central as it once seemed. And then we get bored, feeling that a distinct sort of ethical loss has occurred, and that our movement to the more expansive view prevents us from seeing all the meaning that we should be able to see.

Indie pop asks us to be present with this boredom. It tells us to not try to remove the boredom or go backwards, but to live with the boredom as honest recognition that in growing up a frivolous yet still important sensitivity inevitably goes away. It uses boredom as a reminder to hold onto the brief glimpses of the silly and childish meaning that we do find, without morphing such glimpses into merely an entry in our more impersonal catalogue of what meaning there is. It tells us that seeing the world as it is not all we wanted out of seeing. It asks us to reckon with the fact that human life, and the values of objectivity and sensisty, might be trade-off filled even at its deepest levels. It gives us jangly melodies, trite harmonies, and a profound recognition that there is something there to wanting to bring the silly and the sentimental into the sober-minded, even if such a thing cannot be done. 

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