The Trouble With Indie Rock
It's not just race. It's class.
New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones has often indicated boredom and annoyance with a lot of the critically acclaimed, music-blog, and/or NPR-approved "indie rock" of this decade. This week, in an article, a couple of blog entries, and a podcast, he tries to articulate why. His answer? It's not black enough; it lacks "swing, some empty space and palpable bass frequencies"; it doesn't participate lustily in the grand (and problematic) tradition of musical "miscegenation" that's given American music, especially rock 'n' roll, its kick.
To give bite to the accusation, Frere-Jones names a few names, beginning with the Arcade Fire and adding Wilco, the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, and Devendra Banhart, plus indie-heroes past, Pavement. He contrasts them with the likes of the Clash, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Public Image Ltd., Bob Dylan, the Minutemen, Nirvana, and even Grand Funk Railroad as examples of willful, gleeful, racial-sound-barrier-breaching white rockers of yore.
As indicated in his pre-emptive blog post, the piece is a provocation, as is Frere-Jones's M.O., and that is welcome at a time when musical discussion revolves numbingly around which digital-distribution method can be most effectively "monetized." (Current champ: Radiohead.) But many commentators have pointed out his article's basic problems of consistency and accuracy: Frere-Jones' story is that the rise of Pavement as role models and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rivals in the 1990s marked a quick indie retreat from bluesiness and danceability. Yet the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from "underground" rock goes back to the '70s and '80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.
While it's possible to cherry-pick exceptions ever since, Frere-Jones does so selectively, overlooking the likes of Royal Trux or the Afghan Whigs in the 1990s, or more recently, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Spoon, Battles and the dance-punks LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, and Junior Senior, almost all of whom appear on his own best-of-the-year list in progress. Last March, in direct contradiction to what he says in this week's New Yorker essay, Frere-Jones wrote in an LCD Soundsystem review: "About five years ago, indie rockers began to rediscover the pleasures of rhythm." Where are those indie rockers now? Vanished, because they would mess with his thesis. He isn't really talking about all of indie rock, but a folkier subset that's hardly trying to be rock at all. But to say so would be less dramatic.
The article also tends troublingly to reduce "black music" to rhythm and sexuality, and to elide the differences between, say, funk, soul, disco, folk-blues, Caribbean, and African influences in white rock. While he justifiably frames the issue as an American one, at least half of Frere-Jones' lauded precedents are British, a context in which appropriating black American music has vastly different connotations. His lead example, the Arcade Fire, is likewise un-American, hailing from Montreal (one of its leaders, Régine Chassagne, has family roots in Haiti). The piece also switches at its convenience between mainstream rock history and the "underground" genealogy of indie, while never balancing the scales by addressing current hit-making rockers like Fall Out Boy or the White Stripes, who remain heavier on groove.
One could go on playing "gotcha" at the expense of Frere-Jones' intended thrust, which mainly indicates that this piece needed another draft or two. This is odd, because "indie whiteness" is a subject he's been banging on about in many forums for several years. (Frere-Jones is also a sometime white-indie-rocker himself.) His consistent mistake seems to be to talk about musical issues as if they were nearly autonomous from larger social dynamics. It's the blind spot of a genuine music lover, but it grants music culture too much power and assigns it too much blame.
For instance, the separation of racial influences in American music arguably begins with the 1970s demise of Top 40 radio, which coincided with the Black Power movement and the withering of the integrationist ideals of the civil rights era. Frere-Jones nods in this direction when he talks about "political correctness," but he reduces the issue to an "academic" critique rather than a vast shift in racial relations and, more importantly, expectations. The brands of "authenticity" that both punk and hip-hop came to demand, which tended to discourage the cross-pollination and "miscegenation" of musical forms, are in keeping with the identity politics that became dominant in the 1980s as well as the de facto resegregation of black and white communities that began in the Reagan era. This is the counternarrative to the cultural-level "social progress" that Frere-Jones rightly points out, in which explicit racism has retreated and black entertainers have come to dominate the mainstream.
It's not just because Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were such great artists that white people were afraid to imitate them—they're no better than John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters, and dozens of others whom white artists have happily mimicked in the past. Rather it's that this kind of "theft" became a capital cultural crime, and not just in the academy (how many '90s indie rockers knew by heart the verses in "Fight the Power," where Public Enemy calls Elvis a "straight-up racist, simple and plain"?). If gangsta rap marked a break, it was because hip-hop became coded to reflect the retrenchment of the "Two Americas" and the resultant combative, near-separatist mood among African-Americans. It was deliberately made less assimilable, a development reinforced by the marketplace when white suburban kids turned out to love its more extremist voice.
You could argue that it's always incumbent on the artists to come back swinging by presenting an alternative vision. Some have tried—unfortunately, often in the form of jam bands and rock-rap groups—but the diminished street-level faith in an integrationist future means there's not as much optimism about integrationist music. What's more, racial lines in the United States no longer divide primarily into black and white. When "miscegenation" does happen in music now, it's likely to be more multicultural than in Frere-Jones' formula, as in rainbow-coalition bands such as Antibalas and Ozomatli.
Carl Wilson is a writer and editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto and part of the group culture blog Backtotheworld.net.
Photograph of the Arcade Fire by Jim Dyson/Getty Images.