Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Love and Theft, Pt. 3

These are the last thoughts I will pen for a while on Sasha Frere-Jones's "A Paler Shade of White" (see how it began here) but I wanted to strike while the iron was still hot.

First, a concession. When you listen to SFJ's podcast and read the notes on his blog, his argument sounds much more nuanced and conciliatory than it appears in his initial article. For one thing, the section on gangster-rap, which hangs like an old matzo ball in the magazine piece, seems to be much more important to his overall thinking about "musical miscegenation" than it first appears. SFJ appears to be saying that with indie rock on one side and hip-hop on the other, increasingly, these are two audiences, and two sets of musicians, who don't really understand one another, and that that misunderstanding hurts both genres and their audiences.

If hip-hop is really your secondary focus in all of this, then it makes a lot of sense to look at the early nineties, since that's when the audiences for rap and alternative rock briefly broke through and mingled, and then seemed to go their separate ways. But if you're thinking about the history of American music writ large, the early nineties seem completely arbitrary. You could make exactly the same argument about the early seventies and psychedelia, singer-songwriter folk, country-rock, heavy metal and prog -- all of which left the African-American imprint of mid-60s rock behind and diverged much more sharply from ballad-y soul, disco, and hard funk than nineties alt-rock ever did.

Likewise, I can't agree with this section at all:

The indie genre emerged in the early eighties, in the wake of British bands such as the Clash and Public Image Ltd., and originally incorporated black sources, using them to produce a new music, characterized by brevity and force, and released on independent labels. The Minutemen, a group of working-class white musicians from San Pedro, California, who were influential in the late eighties, wrote frantic political rants that were simultaneously jazz, punk, and funk, without sounding like any of these genres. But by the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock.

First, while The Clash and PIL were punks interested in reggae and dub, this wasn't true of the larger post-punk scene. Arguably, the indie genre emerged when Motown was about to sign the British post-punk band The Fall, and fired up their new song "The Classical," only to be greeted by dissonant guitars and the sound of Mark E. Smith mumbling, "Where are the obligatory niggers? Hey there, fuck-face!" Again, there's a hard sheen of fuck-you irony here. But for the most part, alt-rock fans in the 1980s were listening to The Replacements and R.E.M. and Husker Du and The Smiths and Black Flag because they really didn't like disco or Michael Jackson or any of the much more racially mixed-up pop music they were hearing at the time. I love these bands, but there is a reason why skinheads love punk, and it's not because they just didn't get what "Guns of Brixton" was all about.

If anything, things got better in the early 90s, as Madchester made it cool for indie rockers to dance, Nirvana made it cool for hard rockers to like Leadbelly and The Pixies and David Bowie (and, you know, not hate gay people), Fugazi and Jawbox and the whole Dischord crowd (following Bad Brains) actually found a way to make hardcore punk and reggae work together, and labels like Merge and Thrill Jockey and Drag City and even Matador started making indie labels much more interesting, eclectic vendors of a wide range of music. I know that like a lot of fans, SFJ might weep over the loss of Gary Young, Pavement's original acid-fried drummer, but that's hardly a reason to take it out on everyone else.

In no small part, it's Frere-Jones's choice of examples that makes no sense to me. Really, the alternative band from the seventies and eighties that did the most to fuse punk and rock and country and soul and funk and pop and dance and sonic experimentalism and even hip-hop is Talking Heads -- my favorite band of the last thirty years. But Talking Heads is also probably the most influential act on the current wave of popular indie rock bands, including most of the ones SFJ takes to task. I'm not really sure how he would make sense of that contradiction, but I would love to listen to him try to sort it out.

In my earlier article, I took issue with what I thought was Frere-Jones's primitivism, his odd reduction of authentic black music with danger and sexuality. I also wonder whether there isn't a touch of musical homophobia in his critique. Look at the bands he praises: Zeppelin, The Stones, R. Kelly, James Brown, Snoop Dogg -- all represent a virile, masculine, aggressive, sometimes exploitative, and above all hetero sexuality. The indie bands he dislikes, above all Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, he dislikes for being fey, literary, obscure, asexual.

And even though he praises individual artists in other reviews, in this essay on rock music as a whole, Frere-Jones doesn't talk about music made by women. At all. He even goes out of his way to attribute Mick Jagger's dancing to an imitation of Little Richard when everyone knows Mick learned how to dance by watching Tina Turner. The Arcade Fire and The Fiery Furnaces have female co-vocalists, but you'd never know this just by reading SFJ's article.

One last gripe. I know Brian Wilson, with his high voice, weird lost albums, and simultaneous reputation for clean-cut pop and druggy experimentalism makes for an easy target. But to call him "a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music," and framing him as the "indie rock muse" who led the current crop of artists astray is just way off-base. I do think that Wilson is a tremendously gifted musician, and that he is hugely influential on American and British alternative rock, from at least The Jesus and Mary Chain onwards. But anyone who spends any time listening to those Beach Boys records can clearly tell that the biggest influences on Brian Wilson have always been Chuck Berry and The Ronettes. He is as much a part of the story of the great, musically integrated mid-60s as anyone.

Postscript (to the Postscript): Do read Carl Wilson's "The Trouble With Indie Rock" in Slate. Wilson finds Frere-Jones's essay flawed in many of the same respects that I do -- and even uses many of the same arguments and examples -- but adds a smart take on the changing class dynamics in popular music that is genuinely illuminating:
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.

Unlike Wilson, I don't think that Bruce Springsteen is the answer -- the current indie fascination with sailors and vagabonds isn't far off from Bruce's 70s ballads, and if anyone helped to popularize the sensitive, nerdy guy writing about, not from, blue-collar authenticity, it's the Boss, not Sufjan Stevens. And the guys in Wilco, The Flaming Lips, and Modest Mouse certainly didn't come from a "comprador class." But when you think about the audiences for these bands, Wilson is definitely on to something. It's the beginning of a conversation at once more comprehensive and more particular than the one that Frere-Jones tried to begin.


LPS said...

Hm, the only thing I take issue with here (i.e. the only thing I feel qualified to chime in on) is the claim that Zeppelin, the Stones, R Kelly, and James Brown represent unequivocal hetero-masculinity. In my view, their masculinity and sexuality are pretty frickin' camp. To get all Butler on ya, the outrageous performativity of their stage personas seems to do nothing more than expose their masculinity and heterosexuality as drag.

In the case of Stephen Merritt, I think you may be conflating asexual/impotent with homosexual, which I don't think quite works. (This isn't to say that SFJ doesn't do the same thing... I don't know.)

I definitely buy that there's a dichotomy going on here, but I'm not sure that gender identity or sexual identity are the best ways to interpret the oppositions SFJ sets up. The exoticization of primitive or uncontrollable sexuality (be it hetero-, homo-, or whatever), and accompanying racialization this entails, might be a safer accusation to level at him in this case.

Tim said...

I may not have put the right distance between what I might take away from the artists you mentioned and what SFJ takes away. There's definitely a camp aspect going on in the rock performance of male sexuality. But SFJ works pretty hard to remove any kind of queer element to what they do. I mean, even Little Richard reads as straight in his article!

Maybe my reading is more Epistemology of the Closet than Gender Trouble. My take is that in SFJ's discourse, productive sexuality is male and hetero, black male sexuality adds a frisson of danger, and asexual/impotent -- and in an odd way, literariness -- is a kind of unconscious code for gay. This is a big pet peeve of mine, where homosexual or homosocial desire gets re-classified as either asexual, androgynous, or hermaphroditic, or when gay male desire is desexualized or feminized.

Gavin said...

I'm sure you've already seen this, but Slate posted a piece on SFJ, and at least half of it echoes your major theses.

I'll give SFJ this, his points may be wrong, but he seems to have started the right discussion.