Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Indie Rock and Whiteness

Sasha Frere-Jones has a lengthy article in The New Yorker about the whiteness of indie rock (link originally via Simon Reynolds), along with a related podcast and follow-up blog post. So far the only response I've seen (I haven't looked for others) has been this relatively brief, interesting, but finally wide of the mark exchange between Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla at Tom's Status Ain't Hood blog.

SF-J's main argument is that musical miscegenation is where it's at, and that starting in the early 1990s indie rock disappeared up its own ass, receding into whiteness. He spends a lot of time describing the divide, but then the piece just ends with a couple of perfunctory "reasons", which are interesting but not at all fleshed out. One is "social progress". Since black artists are just as likely as white artists to receive major media coverage, they don't need a Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin ripping them off and thus dragging their music into the mainstream. And, now, they can just post an mp3 on MySpace or whatever and people can just find out for themselves. I find these claims too vague and, as a result, largely dubious. Another cause is the success in 1992 of Dr. Dre's The Chronic, with its star-making turn from Snoop Doggy Dogg. This claim strikes me as too specific, and hence sort of silly.

The podcast is too short for him to really go into any depth, though I found some of what he said in it very interesting (for example, I liked where he pointed out Dave Grohl's disco beat in "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). He talks about R&B/rap and Country still following the assembly-line model of pop music--you have your songwriters, your production team, your performers--and suggests that indie kids are still stuck in the Dylan/Beatles model, where you're expected to do everything yourself. I think there's a lot of truth to this point, and I wish he'd spent more time on it. I think, in fact, that not only is the Dylan/Beatles model dominant in indie rock--performers and, especially, listeners investing a particular kind of authenticity in this model, and its punk/DIY extension--but the assembly-line approach of pop is looked on with suspicion, if not outright scorn. Such people (I include myself) are often suspicious of the attempt to be popular and especially suspicious of commercial radio. To some extent this suspicion is not misplaced (though it's become fashionable for those holding such suspicion to be derided). But what it does, in part, is help reify musical divisions and place odd constraints on musicians. When I was in college, I used to say that white musicians dressed down for authenticity (while borrowing from or ripping off black music), while black musicians dressed up for success. A simplistic formulation, but perhaps relevant. Major black artists don't seem to spend too much time worrying about their fame. For me, personally, though I've had a longstanding antipathy towards commercial radio, at various times in recent years I've looked at the dearth of new black music in my own collection and found it unsettling. I've redressed that to some extent, but the sense of a problem persists, even as I've found some contemporary, popular black music to appreciate and enjoy--and I don't apologize at all for liking the other stuff I've liked.

In his follow-up blog post, SF-J notes that people have already been asking, as Rob Harvilla does in the Status Ain't Hood exchange, "Hasn’t indie become more rhythmic in the last five years?" What with LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture and so forth. Brandon Soderberg makes the good point, in a comment to that exchange, that in general the recent indie rock that has been "more rhythmic" has looked back to either British post-punk bands like Gang of Four, or to the halcyon early-80s NYC period of rampant miscegenation and cross-pollination that SF-J loves so much. White indie rock groups aren't really engaging with present-day black music. I think this point is basically correct (though exceptions no doubt exist), and I think SF-J's point basically is, too. But I don't think he's saying anything in his New Yorker piece he hasn't said many times before, and the shape of the piece seems to point towards a big discussion of causes and implications, none of which transpires. This is unfortunate, because, again, I think that his overall claim--that white indie rock has, in the main, distanced itself from black music--is accurate. He's harped in passing on this insularity several times in the past (plus there was that whole Stephin Merritt dust-up last year, which I'm not going to bother to find links for), and often seems to hint at some dark reasons behind it all, which I'm not convinced are fair.

What I'd like to see is more investigation into how and why this came to pass. SF-J nods in the direction of political correctness, but I think it might play more of a role than he admits. His passages about his own funk band, Ui, and the problems he had, as a white man, deciding how he should sing over what was music inspired by black forms, were telling, and might've pointed towards larger problems white indie rockers have in general. But he doesn't really pursue the idea. I'd also like to ask about the implications of this state of affairs. What does it mean? Is insularity necessarily a problem? Is this anything more than people complaining that certain artists don't play music they like? Simply about taste? I don't think it is, in the main, but SF-J doesn't really name too many names (he starts off talking about Arcade Fire--who he likes, despite their lack of swing--and then picks on Wilco in the piece--Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could, he says, have used some syncopation--and admits in the podcast to not liking the Decemberists at all), and a wider discussion of who we're talking about may help (though the names bandied about at Status Ain't Hood seem, to me, to reflect more a problem of taste and don't really get at the heart of the issue--that is, the insularity of an Animal Collective or a Joanna Newsom seems to me to be a personal insularity, not the insularity of a wider scene, if that makes any sense at all). There's a lot that can be said about this, and I'll probably be saying more once the internet discussions heat up some. I've left a lot of stray thoughts out, that would have required lengthening this post too much.

What do you think?

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