The trouble with indie rock.

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Oct. 18 2007 5:53 PM

The Trouble With Indie Rock

It's not just race. It's class.

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Ultimately, though, the "trouble with indie rock" may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It's a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off "hipsters" busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded "creative" college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young "knowledge workers" in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it's seldom their main point.) This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it's also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor. This year even saw several indie bands playing in "Pops" concerts at summer symphony programs; that's no sin (and good for the symphonies), but it's about as class-demarcated as it gets.

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Among at least a subset of (the younger) musicians and fans, this class separation has made indie more openly snobbish and narrow-minded. In the darkest interpretation, one could look at the split between a harmony-and-lyrics-oriented indie field and a rhythm-and-dance-specialized rap/R&B scene as mirroring the developing global split between an internationalist, educated comprador class (in which musically, one week Berlin is hot, the next Sweden, the next Canada, the next Brazil) and a far less mobile, menial-labor market (consider the more confining, though often musically exciting, regionalism that Frere-Jones outlines in hip-hop). The elite status and media sway that indie rock enjoys, disproportionate to its popularity, is one reason the cultural politics of indie musicians and fans require discussion in the first place, a point I wish Frere-Jones had clarified in The New Yorker; perhaps in that context it goes without saying.

The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in "slacker"/grunge music, it's now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics (including both Frere-Jones and me) find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)

Yet this is a problem having to do with the muddled state of white masculinity today, and it's not soluble by imitating some image of black male sexuality (which, as hip-hop and R&B amply demonstrate, is dealing with its own crises). Are we supposed to long for the days when Zeppelin and the Stones fetishized fantasies of black manhood, in part as a cover for misogyny? If forced to choose between tolerating some boringly undersexed rock music and reviving the, er, "vigorous" sexual politics of cock rock, I'll take the boring rock, thanks—for now.

If class, at least as much as race, is the elephant in this room, one of the more encouraging signals lately might be the recent mania for Bruce Springsteen—as if a dim memory suddenly has surfaced that white working-class culture once had a kind of significant berth in rock 'n' roll, too. (It's now moved to Nashville.) I was unexpectedly moved by the video of Win and Régine from the Arcade Fire playing "Keep the Car Running" (Frere-Jones' No. 15 song of the year so far) live with the Boss onstage Sunday in Ottawa. The performance itself aside, their presence in front of an arena audience that mostly had no idea who the hell they were shows the chutzpah it takes to resist niche-market fragmentation. (And sure, I'd be at least as happy if they'd been doing it with Stevie Wonder, and even more if they were sharing the stage with Dr. Dre.)

My armchair sociology may be as reductive as Frere-Jones' potted rock history, but the point is that the problem of style segregation can't be solved by calling upon Sufjan Stevens to funk up his rhythm section. I'm as much a devotee of genre-mixing as Frere-Jones, when it works (I've even used the loaded term "miscegenation" in articles for years), but I've noticed that when indie musicians do grapple with hip-hop rhythms, using their own voices and perspectives (my friends in Ninja High School in Toronto, for instance), they're usually lambasted by critics who fancy themselves arbiters of realness for being an insulting joke. The culture-crossing inhibitions exist for reasons beyond mere timidity, and snorting "get over it" is not enough.

The impetus may have to come from the currently dominant side of the pop market—and increasingly that is what we're seeing. Kanye West doesn't much care about the race of the people he samples, while Justin Timberlake cares very much what race his producer is (African-American, please), and OutKast and Gnarls Barkley play teasing, Prince-like crossover games. If it's going to be re-established that such moves are legit, it will happen on the charts for a while before the more cautious and self-conscious rock-in-decline types feel free to do it too. Which, as a turnabout, seems rather like fair play.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic.