Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Love and Theft

In the new issue of The New Yorker, pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones doesn't mess around:

I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.

The article, "A Paler Shade of White," isn't about race and rock as such, but race and contemporary indie rock. It begins with Frere-Jones's account of an Arcade Fire show in NYC. "If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music." In addition to The Arcade Fire, Frere-Jones takes aim at Pavement, Sufjan Stevens, Panda Bear (both of which "evoke the sound of glee clubs and church choirs"), Wilco, The Fiery Furnaces, The Decemberists, The Shins, and (somewhat more hesitantly) Grizzly Bear and Devendra Banhart. He likes some of these bands more than others, but all of them are symptoms of a music scene that's lost its way, bled white.

Frere-Jones contrasts this current slice of indie rock with popular rock and roll in the late 1960s, when white and black blues, rock, pop, and soul artists freely borrowed from one another. This story is pretty well known, and his examples are familiar ones: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. But this story is a good one, and much better handled than either his long account of race in American music or his slightly bizarre account of his experiences with his own band. (Frere-Jones apparently tried to rap over jazz-soaked interpretations of Zeppelin and Kraut-rock. Pass.)

And in the 1960s, too, I think, is the germ of a really good argument, that Frere-Jones doesn't quite make. The melting pot of early rock radio did provide for a more dynamic interaction between contemporaries of different races and musical traditions than is occurring today. (Right now, the cultural traffic seems to be going in the other direction, with Kanye West sampling Peter Bjorn and John, or Timbaland producing Stereolab beats for hip-hop artists.)

I think this is largely a consequence of the segmentation of FM radio formats, which arguably creates a de facto segregation of musical styles more pernicious than the days of white musical theft/homage that Frere-Jones is somewhat nostalgic for. But this isn't limited to indie rock, and isn't a new phenomenon, but has emerged over the last forty years. Frere-Jones's explanation rests on the success of political correctness (whites -- including, apparently, Frere-Jones himself -- are afraid to appropriate black music) plus the success of black artists and black music, especially hip-hop, on the pop charts. I don't think this has enough explanatory value to really describe what's happening, especially since it rests on a view that I think is mistaken: that indie rock has gotten significantly whiter over the past ten to twenty years than it was in the glory days of The Minutemen or The Clash.

Here I think we need some context. One indie rocker that Frere-Jones doesn't mention in the article is Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, but SFJ has described him and his music in much sharper language than is used here -- calling him a racist, a "cracker," and "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt." This stems from Merritt's comparison of contemporary hip-hop to minstrelsy, his dislike of melisma (where a singer stretches a syllable over a run of notes, a la Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera), and an incident where Merritt said that the Disney musical "Song of the South" had one great song, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." (He also called the notoriously racist musical unwatchable, saying "the rest of it is terrible, really.")

The Merritt throwdown might be chalked up to miscommunication and deep differences of musical opinion, but it's become part of Frere-Jones's critical DNA to hammer away at critically acclaimed alternative bands through the lens of race. It's also been an engine for some good music writing. Frere-Jones's best pieces for The New Yorker have championed pop and R&B artists like Mariah Carey or R. Kelly. They aren't obvious choices for The New Yorker's NPR/high-culture venue, but in SFJ's hands, they become pop auteurs. But in the pages of The New Yorker, Frere-Jones has conspicuously ignored, well, all of the artists he talks about here, even those he claims to like -- which means that one of the most influential magazines in representing popular culture for an elite audience gives a pretty distorted picture of what's happening in contemporary pop music.

My bigger worry, though, is that Sasha Frere-Jones just isn't listening, or rather, that he misunderstands what he's listening to. He writes, "It’s difficult to talk about the racial pedigree of American pop music without being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse, and such suspicion is often warranted." This is absolutely true, and Frere-Jones is guilty. He's working with a really thin, primitivist notion of what constitutes African-American music. It's all about the blues, soul, reggae, and early rock and roll. (This requires some odd twisting of musical categories, such as when he refers to Michael Jackson as a "soul singer." Jackson, especially as a solo artist, was a pure pop act -- I can't think of a single song of his that remotely qualifies as "soul," like Otis Redding is "soul," which is the equation SFJ makes.)

But at some deeper level, black music for SFJ is about drums ("I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness") and sex ("Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a reason the lights were off"). Haven't we seen this before? Isn't this the picture of the happy, musical, sexual, dangerous Negro -- our pop-cultural version of the "noble savage"? The notion that African-American music has a brain, that it can be cerebral and precious and delicate and emotional, all of the adjectives that SFJ equates with asexual, immature, whiteness, is completely absent here. Jazz, Motown, bossa nova, girl-group pop, the sample-collage side of hip-hop, techno and electronica are all not part of this story. And not coincidentally, all of those musical genres have deeply inflected contemporary indie rock.

Let's consider Feist, who's probably the top indie solo artist right now. Musically, Feist is as safe, and NPR-friendly as it comes, but has a lilting, eccentric voice, and pumps out musically adept pop: the perfect artist for the New Yorker audience. And SFJ knows this full well, since he wrote a strong and positive review of her new album back in April. Now, in addition to indie rock and punk (most of which turns up in her other collaborative gig with Broken Social Scene), Feist's biggest musical influences are folk, jazz, bossa nova, standards, and disco-pop. She has a solid cover of Nina Simone's "See-Line Woman" (here called "Sea Lion Woman") that adds electronic flourishes and a ringing indie-rock guitar. This is a Canadian woman who's largely channeling black American music, or pop music itself largely influenced by black music. (Hell, if SFJ can count the German band Can as a group "indebted to black music," certainly Feist can count the Bee Gees.)

But in his review -- even though "visionary pop musician" Andre 3000 from OutKast gives Feist his approval (and by proxy, gives SFJ permission to like her), calling her music "amazing," Frere-Jones isn't so sure, either because those black influences aren't sufficiently or authentically black, or because they don't manifest themselves energetically, in sex and rhythm.
I’ve seen Feist live several times in New York in the past few years, and found myself wavering between admiration for her controlled performances and the quality of her songs—especially “Mushaboom,” a lilting track about a city woman who yearns for a house in the woods, aware that “it may be years until the day my dreams will match up with my pay”—and unease that the indie community, which had previously wanted little to do with commercial pop like the Bee Gees or Sade, was eager to embrace a woman who often seemed content with being merely a deft, twenty-first-century version of those artists.

In other words, even when an indie artist and indie fans go for the kind of R&B-inflected pop that Frere-Jones likes, they're still suspect for exactly that reason. Heads I win, tails you lose.

On the same day that SFJ's piece hit the web, Pitchfork ran this news story about Hot Chip, an indie electronic-pop outfit, who's been tapped to remix singles by both R&B/pop star Alicia Keys and the alternative/pop band Rilo Kiley. In the interview, Alexis Taylor name-drops R. Kelly and Randy Newman, Prince and Phil Collins, string quartets and Terry Riley, The Beatles and Marvin Gaye. About the upcoming remixes, he says "It's nice to do remixes of ladies" -- suggesting that the key adjustment for Alicia Keys and Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis is their gender, not race. Indie eclecticism is alive and well.

We could go on. M.I.A. is as aggressively synthetic as anyone in music today, fusing her tripartite core of hip-hop, Brazilian and South Asian music with a whole range of musical textures and worldwide influences. Amy Winehouse, who might not necessarily be an indie act, but is popular in the indie music crowd, sings (and acts) like Billie Holliday by way of Lauryn Hill. Even the less obvious artists show clear lines of influence: Swedish indie-pop artist Jens Lekman puts together his sample-based records in much the same way that De La Soul assembled Three Feet High and Rising. The White Stripes are still the last best bridge between punk and classic rock and the blues and country traditions that Frere-Jones assigns the main narrative of American music.

He's not interested in dance-punk, the mumble-soul of The Walkmen or Mazarin, the post-rock of Tortoise or The Sea and Cake that borrows as much from dub and jazz as it does from Frere-Jones's beloved Can. He's not interested in all of the indie-pop artists who try as hard to imitate the sound of The Ronettes or Dionne Warwick as the Rolling Stones tried to imitate Stax singles. He's not interested in David Byrne's Luaka Bop, or in Cat Power's own version of Dusty in Memphis on The Greatest, or in Bjork's use of beatboxing as the soul percussion on Medulla, or that Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock uses disc scratches and hip-hop shouts to offset his band's spacy guitars and his own Kurt Cobain-meets-Woody Guthrie-meets-Wayne Coyne-meets-Tom Waits yelp. He hasn't heard Andrew Bird's The Swimming Hour, where Bird manages to summon Lady Day, John Lee Hooker, Northern Soul, and whip-snapping country within just a few tracks of one another.

I don't even think he's listened to The Arcade Fire's "Antichrist Television Blues," with its call-and-response structure, twelve-bar blues chords, driving rock guitars, and Son-House-by-way-of-Springsteen deadpan delivery of lines like "You know that I'm a God-fearin' man," reminding us, despite the irony of the lyrics, that the biggest influence on The Arcade Fire isn't Roxy Music or Springsteen or The Clash, but probably church hymns and gospel music -- which is why everyone acts so reverent at their shows and towards their music, since that tradition is a part of all of our musical DNA too.

Nope. Instead, Sasha Frere-Jones is still mad that like a whole lot of indie rock fans, Stephin Merritt doesn't like R. Kelly or Mariah Carey. Frere-Jones doesn't see what the big deal is about Radiohead or Wilco or Pavement. He forgets that The Minutemen made fun of Michael Jackson and covered Creedence Clearwater Revival. He forgets that the briefest of infatuations with reggae and funk rhythms aside, alternative rock has been pretty white for a long time, and hasn't really gotten any whiter. And for a music fan, he makes The New Yorker a drag to read.

Postscript #1:

Sasha Frere-Jones has a podcast with Matt Dellinger on the New Yorker website. He also responds to some criticism (and praise) of his article on race and indie rock on his blog.

Postscript #2:

These are the last thoughts I will pen for a while on Sasha Frere-Jones's "A Paler Shade of White" 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 #3:

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.


Anonymous said...

It's easy to cherry pick artists in order to make an argument in these multi-genre times. You seem to be doing the same that you accuse SJF of. Your closing paragraph makes it seem as if indie-rock is exploding with many influences when I find it in practice to be largely an intellectual artifice devoid for the most part of groove. But to each its own. I found SJF's article very entertaining.

Tim said...

Hey Anonymous. You're right that it is easy to cherry-pick examples. But I do think my argument here is tighter than Frere-Jones's. For example:

1) I did find over a dozen prominent counter-examples to Frere-Jones's argument, which isn't exactly cherry-picking. It isn't like I just said, "Hey, what about TV On The Radio!" and left it at that.

2) My examples aren't just the low-hanging fruit. Trying to read Jens Lekman, Andrew Bird, and The Arcade Fire (Frere-Jones's counterexample!) as Af-Am-influenced bands is a lot harder than pointing to Sufjan Stevens and saying, "that music's awfully white."

3) Unlike Frere-Jones, my argument isn't a universal one. I'm not arguing that all of indie rock is a bastion of multiple-genre, multi-racial influences. I just think that there's more happening here than SFJ thinks. In particular, I think the current moment is at least as richly multicultural as the punk/alternative scene of the 70s and 80s. As I wrote, "alternative rock has been pretty white for a long time, and hasn't really gotten any whiter."

I could have developed this last point further. I really do think that this is a forty-year-story, and not a ten-to-twenty-year one. I think there are interesting things to say about race and contemporary music, including the indie scene. I just don't think Sasha Frere-Jones is saying them.

Brandon said...

Tim. I love you. You have written a terrific post.

Matt said...

Tim, this was a marvelous essay, even from someone who appreciated SFJ's little Molotov cocktail. I read it today and I was kinda dying to read more thoughts on it, so I'm thrilled you posted about it. I don't really have anything coherent to say right now about either case, but your thoughts here enrich the discussion tremendously

Matt said...

And also, mad props on the use of "mumble-soul."

Tim said...

One molotov cocktail deserves another. :-)

Henry Holland said...

Hi, found your blog via....um....can't remember, there's so much linkage to the SF-J article.

I'm sitting here laughing at the pearls being clutched at the "OMG! OMG! Indie-rock doesn't have a funk backbeat! OMG!" thing on various blogs. Some of us old hippies will recall a sub-genre that explicitly, much more than Stephen Merritt, rejected soul/r&b/blues moves: prog rock. They did this back in 1969/70.

Buried somewhere in my ELP archive is cutouts of a series of letters to the Melody Maker accusing Keith Emerson of being a racist because he'd said something like "I have no interest in r&b. We're white Europeans, not plantation workers in the American South, our roots are classical, the Anglican church and folk".

The context was the still-popular white blues thing (Fleetwood Mac, Zep, Jeff Beck Group, Stones etc. etc.) that dominated English rock at the time. ELP, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, early Yes and Genesis, they rejected that aesthetic completely.

Just look at the way they handled rhythm sections: the bass player and drummer in a prog band were expected to be just as upfront and play as much as the guitarist and keyboard players; the idea of Chris Squire & Bill Bruford or Carl Palmer & Greg Lake sitting back and just "grooving" along to some repetitive material is laughable. If you told John Weathers of Gentle Giant that he should play bass drum on 1 & 3, snare on 2 & 4, with a steady pulse of 8th notes on the hi-hat, fills were used only rarely and that he was expected to "lock in" with the bass player Ray Shulman, he'd have laughed at you.

As usual, the Indie Rock Kids are unoriginal and 20 years late.

Tim said...

Henry, you're exactly right about prog. I said something very similar in my (second) follow-up, Love and Theft, Pt. 3:
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.

Peter said...

I think there is some cyclical influence here too. I've seen plenty of bluesy-rock bands in the last five years that left me thinking "hey, they were pretty cool but isn't that all a little 1970?". I'd kind of rather see something fresher than that.

The second half of Steve Earle's appearance at Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass this year included backup scratches and spinning from a DJ. It was completely bizarre, not sure it really worked, but on the other hand it was good enough to keep me listening. Would be interested to see this develop farther.

Tim said...

You're right about the cyclical aspect, Chinasaur. I mean, if you think about the big musical trends in indie rock this decade, you have:

2001 - Garage Rock
2002 - Post-Punk
2003 - Dance-Punk
2004 - Freak-Folk
2005 - Eclectic Catharsis
2006 - Return of Art-Rock
2007 - ?

But if you're SFJ, you might see it as Shins, Wilco, Sufjan, Arcade Fire, Sufjan again, Joanna Newsom. Not only do these things come in waves, but there are always residual and emergent phenomena.

Chris Monsen said...

I read this post before, but somehow stumbled upon it once again.

"He forgets that The Minutemen made fun of Michael Jackson and covered Creedence Clearwater Revival."

Hmm. Don't see how that counters Sasha's contention that they're an example of a band that successfully incorporated elements of clearly african derived music in their own songs. (The MJ-songs was also apparently written for MJ himself, but since he never answered the letter, the Minutemen recorded it themselves. But that's a side note). Otherwise, I think you've written a good post/response.

Tim said...

Yeah, the bit about the Minutemen isn't really a punch as much as a jab. In general, I think that 1) Sasha Frere-Jones underplays the pub-rock roots of The Clash and the classic-rock roots of The Minutemen, and 2) you can't really look at those two very idiosyncratic bands (three, if you add Public Image, Ltd.) as a good example of what 80s indie rock was all about. (The Clash were never even indie -- they were on Epic.)

Joy Division, The Smiths, The Cure, R.E.M., The Fall, Husker Du, The Replacements, Beat Happening, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr., and Galaxie 500 are in many ways much more indicative of the broader trends in genuine indie music in that decade. And their relationship to reggae, funk, rap, R&B, and soul is at least as elliptical as contemporary indie rock.

What happened in the 1990s is that the classic rock, grunge, ska, and punk-funk bands, bands that sounded like The Clash and The Minutemen, all got signed by major labels. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Garbage, Beck, and later every rock-rap and emo-punk travesty, basically dominated 1990s radio.

These are bands that would have been on indie labels a decade earlier, but the market for them was obvious -- so bands on indie labels began doing different things. This included noise rock, synth pop, shambling twee, lo-fi folk, and avant-garde post-rock. The fusion with the very specific subset of African-American music that SFJ's concerned with was a victim of its own success.