In 2021, trend forecaster Mandy Lee predicted the return of “indie sleaze”, referring to the hedonistic and unfiltered UK and US indie music scene which stretched from 2006 to 2012. As of March 2023, the Instagram account “@indiesleaze”, which shares images of “the decadence of the mid-late aughts and the indie sleaze party that died in 2012”, has amassed over 135,000 followers.
Before indie’s “sleaze” era, the New York music scene exploded in the early years of the 2000s, with bands such as LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and The White Stripes transforming the genre for the rest of the decade.
Its influence is still felt today. Sheffield band, Arctic Monkeys, opened their 2018 album Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino with a lyric referencing the defining band of the New York indie scene: “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes.”
The documentary pieces together fan footage, band video diaries and news broadcasts. These frames are stitched together with audio – some from slick media interviews, others that sound like they were recorded in a tin can.
Indie music is a sonic collision of alternative rock, pop and electronica. The indie artist, like their punk predecessor, is a “bricoleur” – a performer of large number of tasks who takes whatever tools and material that are available to them and creates something new.
The structure of the documentary is presented in a bricolage fashion through its fragmented narration of a city experiencing huge changes. The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001 reshaped New York’s indie music scene. Shock waves were sent through the city and its inhabitants, including a generation of young musicians.
Indie, like the bricoleur, works with a collection of fragments to form something new. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the New York indie scene transformed both sonically and physically, just as bands including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs moved from Manhattan to Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
The impact of 9/11 on New York’s indie scene
To ask Meet Me in the Bathroom to be as expansive as its source material would be an impossible task. The 621-page book follows the New York music scene from 1999 up to 2011, whereas the prominent moment in the documentary is 9/11 and its aftermath.
The claustrophobia and paranoia of the city is represented through shots of news channel coverage of 9/11 as music by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play in the background. The documentary also uses harrowing amateur footage that captures a grieving city and a community of musicians processing that in their music.
Scenes of a mass exodus from Manhattan transition into an acoustic performance of NYC’s Like a Graveyard (2001) by The Moldy Peaches, the first indie band the documentary follows. Although not written as a response to 9/11, the song’s release coincided with the attacks. It takes on a specific meaning, distinct from its original intention, as it is paired with the footage.
A notable shift in the documentary occurs here as gig footage no longer represents the youth culture surrounding indie music. Rather, New York’s indie gigs represent a loss of innocence.
As the camera pans across a sweaty crowd, both audience and musician are experiencing a collective trauma. The experience of both the loss of loved ones and a once-familiar city. In one scene, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O shares that, for her, performance offered escapism.
Walt Whitman’s poem Leaves of Grass bookends the documentary and acts as a reminder of the New York music scene’s resistance, resilience and growth. The music coming out of New York in the early 2000s shaped the next decade of music. But, as Meet Me in the Bathroom shows, it was forged in a time of collective trauma.
Meet Me in the Bathroom is in UK cinemas from 10 March 2023