(Updated below/Updated again)
In an article in The New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones discusses a trend in rock music, specifically indie rock music: the move away from rock’s black roots. Reviewing the familiar ground of how early rock and roll relied heavily on adapting, and sometimes stealing outright, black rhythms, genres, and lyrics, Frere-Jones follows the thread into the early ’90s when, with the rise of both hip-hop and political correctness, white and black music underwent a schism: hip-hop for black music, obscure and soulless indie rock for (a sector of) white music. This has culminated, he argues, in the situation we have today: indie rock is almost wholly white, both in performers and in affect, and as a result has lost the power to entertain, to move, and to excite that rock and roll once had. (I’m giving a very brief synopsis of Frere-Jones’s argument to leave room for my own indispensable commentary; I suggest you read the article for the whole story. Just to avoid confusion: Frere-Jones uses “indie” to refer not to the labels, but to the genre, and I’ve followed that usage.)
At the outset, I want to say that while I disagree with Frere-Jones about both the scope of this phenomenon (the separation between white and black music) and the consequences, it is a real phenomenon. The concerts I go to are generally attended almost exclusively by white people, and the difference between rock and soul now is, broadly speaking, greater than it was in the 50’s and 60’s. As for the racial makeup of early rock…it’s hard to say how many people of color really dug a band like the Shondells, but certainly our images of sixties rock and roll include multiracial crowds at Woodstock or Altamont watching multiracial bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Sly and the Family Stone. These are ideals rather than facts, but they may at least be based in fact.
Nevertheless, I found Frere-Jones’s article profoundly irritating. A lot of my objection comes from the sense that he is hostile to introspection and thoughtfulness in music, and equates them with whiteness: he criticizes “retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance,” and he casually describes Wilco’s lyrics as “embarrassing poetry,” which would be annoying enough without the memory of him dismissing Radiohead’s lyrics in much the same way a few months back. I also couldn’t help but think of his insinuations that Stephin Merritt, of the Magnetic Fields, is a racist for not liking rap music: it honestly seems like Frere-Jones is a little too obsessed with negritude to be an effective critic sometimes. Beyond these circumstantial questions, though, I do think there are some important oversights and errors of reasoning in Frere-Jones’s article which cause him, fatally, to miss the point of modern music and what it means to be a music fan today.
First of all, it’s convenient for Frere-Jones to simply ignore clear cases of blending (I’m using that term rather than the more loaded “miscegenation” that he prefers) going on in modern music. One of the most successful indie bands of this century has been the White Stripes, who spent two albums making blues-rock and whose music now sounds an awful lot like Led Zeppelin (when it doesn’t sound like a Scottish-Indian blend; see “Prickly Thorn but Sweetly Worn”). Cat Power’s last album, The Greatest, used Memphis studio musicians and production to create a fairly literal blend of introspective indie and gospel-inspired soul. (More on that album below.) TV on the Radio, aside from actually having black members, uses varieties of soul harmonies in their very indie songs, and just last weekend I saw the multiracial Go! Team performing their blend of soul, hip-hop, and symphonic ballad. Even bands which I think Frere-Jones would describe as pretty white, like Spoon and Yo La Tengo, have some songs which strongly emulate 70’s soul and funk. So the whiteness of indie rock, while definitely a thing, is not nearly as thorough as Frere-Jones puts it in this article.
Frere-Jones also seems unaware, as he waits patiently for the Miscegenation Rock Tour to come to his town, that rock and roll is no longer the only game in town, even for white people. He doesn’t ignore hip-hop, but he does present it as a black musician’s domain (with Eminem as “the exception that proves the rule”), bereft of the kind of interracial interaction he’s looking for. However, there are several white indie-rap darlings (Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Buck 65), just as two of the most exciting acts in soul are Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen; and Gnarls Barkley, a collaboration between a white DJ and a black Atlanta rapper, had one of the biggest hits of 2006 and were huge with the Coachella set. (There’s also Matisyahu, to prove that you should be careful what you wish for.)
More importantly, the blending during the sixties wasn’t all white-black, which is the other reason that “miscegenation” is such a lame term. Elvis drew on black singers and musicians, but he got his start with Sun records singing about Kentucky and touring with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, et al, and it would not only be hard to say whether black music or country music was the bigger influence on him, it would be pointless: country music is also heavily influenced by blues and black folk, and—what do I know?—probably vice-versa. Dylan used blues music, but also Woody Guthrie, the Beats, and, later, the Beatles. Simon & Garfunkel used traditional and contemporary English folk music. The Beatles, on their highest-regarded albums, drew on English music-hall tunes and Indian sitar, for heaven’s sake. By limiting his discussion of musical influences and interactions to a single continuum—white-black—Frere-Jones presents it as a binary issue, rather than one that shifts and evolves.
But I think the larger answer to Frere-Jones’s question about why the blackness has gone from indie rock—and the reason, in my opinion, that indie music is not stagnating, and in fact is as interesting as it’s ever been—is summed up in this response by Joseph Kugelmass to Cat Power’s The Greatest:
I can tell you what Memphis soul sounds like: it sounds like Aretha, or perhaps Dusty Springfield. It has a little fire in its belly. Cat Power’s inability to catch that fire is a huge problem.
I don’t happen to agree with Kugelmass’s assessment of Cat Power here—in my mind, she can succeed, not by exceeding Dusty Springfield, but by blending the two sounds to make something new and exciting, and she often (though not always) pulls it off. The point I want to make with this quote, though, is that we know what soul music sounds like now, in a way that most white people simply didn’t when Elvis hit the scene. Modern white music listeners, unlike (I would argue) those of the sixties and seventies, are quite familiar with the major black musical styles, from blues to reggae to hip-hop, from the 1930’s to today. (Though jazz is a weak spot with me and the kids I know.) I wasn’t there, and anyone who was should comment, but my impression is that early rock and roll wasn’t just a blend of white and black musical styles; it was also a bridge between the white and black musical worlds. Most white people listening to Elvis for the first time didn’t know who his influences were, since their record stores didn’t carry “race records.” Elvis brought them black music, just as groups like the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, in the late ’60’s, brought country music to listeners who wouldn’t buy a bona fide country album if their lives depended on it. Someone buying Led Zeppelin when they first arrived would probably not also be buying Willie Dixon; ditto with the Rolling Stones and Robert Johnson, the Doors and Howling Wolf, Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton. Early rock and roll was largely white artists showing white audiences how great black or black-influenced music could be.
Whereas nowadays the demonstration is unnecessary, and the surest way to demonstrate your indie cred is to know all about the classic blues and soul singers of Chess or Stax. A few years ago, the extremely white and indie movie Ghost World made the scratchy blues recording “Devil Got My Woman” into a favorite among beflanneled twentysomethings; the same movie made fun, through the band “Blueshammer,” of white acts that thoughtlessly raid black music and create something truly miserable. Today there simply is not as much room for musical acts to draw on/appropriate other musical genres and cultures, because the listeners of today, unlike those of forty years ago, are already well familiar with the source material. To impress us, you have to make something new, or at least draw on source material that has not often been drawn on—as Interpol draws on Joy Division, say.
“Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album ‘Double Up,'” Frere-Jones writes at the end of his article. “Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan.” As if we Converse-wearing ironists don’t know who R. Kelly is, and don’t know how to go to our local Amoeba or iTunes Store and buy his record.
Let me close by observing that it is always an extremely dangerous move, as a critic, to say that there’s no good art anymore, or less than there used to be; nine times out of ten, history will discover that there was plenty of great stuff going on, and that you were just a fuddy-duddy unable to adapt. (Think of Arnold Bennett’s stance in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”) Frere-Jones tries (I have to suppose) for a kind of exciting relevance by evoking sex in the blend of white and black music that he remembers: aside from the “miscegenation” references, he twice talks about the old music as music to have sex to: “…it was though your parents had come home and turned on the lights” (the boringness of the new music); “There’s a reason the lights were off” (the greatness of the old). But equating black music with sex has its own problems; moreover, all of this just sounds like the guy who thinks that the Cure is gay, and that real music is music that gets your ass shaking, man. No one can be an effective critic based solely on their memory of how good things were back then, and based on this article it certainly seems to me like Frere-Jones has outlived his usefulness to music listeners.
Update (10/26): In comments, Brandon points to this Slate article by Carl Wilson, which also takes Frere-Jones to task for his oversimplifications, and, more importantly, describes the socio-economic changes, ignored by Frere-Jones, that caused this trend: the resegregation of American communities, the increasing gap between rich and poor. While the article still suffers somewhat from the same narrow-minded view of what rock should be—referring to “boringly undersexed rock music” and calling the Decemberists “fine-arts-grad poseurs” (for the record, Frere-Jones mentions the Decemberists as an indie band he enjoys)—the thesis is convincing and worth reading.
Also, in reference to “boringly undersexed,” let me ask—what is with the sex thing!!! As a culture, can we not get it up unless we’re constantly listening to music with a heavy bassline? That may be a masculinist way of putting it, but I’m being faithful to the source material: after deriding the indie rockers “performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity,” Wilson sneers, “Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.” Yeah, ladies—wouldn’t you rather be dating a real man? Wearing a leather jacket with a big fucking eagle sewn on the back?
Update II (10/27): On his New Yorker blog, Frere-Jones publishes e-mails he received from Will Butler, a member of the Arcade Fire. In addition to defending his band against the charges of whiteness (or whatever) with an MP3 that juxtaposes the Arcade Fire’s music with its purported black influences, Butler makes the same point about ignored Latin influences that Surlacarte makes in the comments:
First, I would encourage you not to ignore the Latin element in rock-and-roll history. “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles is in fact “a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers.” But that 1962 version is a fairly faithful rip-off of La Bamba by Ritchie Valens, which is a fairly faithful rip off of a traditional Latin tune plus a rock and roll beat.
Butler also points out that “miscegenation need [not] be across color lines.” It’s good of Frere-Jones to publish this e-mail, but I think the reason he doesn’t respond is that there is no response: Butler is correct, and Frere-Jones’s original article is generalized to the point of uselessness.