October 25, 2007

Can you imagine Doobie in your funk?

Filed under: Music — tomemos @ 12:40 am

(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.



  1. Not to mention that Devendra Banhart was raised in Venezuela. Not sure about his ethnicity. Does it matter? Is Devendra Banhart a white artist? Would he identify as such? And what the hell does that even mean? Or is Frere-Jones just essentializing based on skin tone?

    In other words:
    1) It’s not even enough to question whether specific musical styles can be hybrid to the point where you can’t decide if they’re black or white or none of the above or all of the above. If the ethnicity of the artist can be used to fit a piece of music into the category of “black” or “white” or even to deny that it belongs to one category or the other, there’s some serious essentializing going on.
    2)How does Frere-Jones manage to exclude the largest minority in the U.S. from the entire contemporary history of music?

    Not to say that black and white don’t function as signifiers in the production and reception of music and that musical taste doesn’t play a role in the production of blackness and whiteness as signifiers – I’m not trying to pull a Walter Benn Michaels and somehow banish discussions of race simply because race only exists as a cultural category rather than as an essence (this is true, but not a reason to stop talking about the cultural category). But Frere-Jones seems all too comfortable with race as an essence (of a type of music, of a type of artist, etc.). Would it be possible to reformulate his claim in a meaningful way without such essentialism?

    Comment by surlacarte — October 25, 2007 @ 4:10 am

  2. Everyone dug (and digs) Tommy James & The Shondells! Dale Smith

    Comment by Dale Smith — October 25, 2007 @ 6:36 am

  3. Surlacarte, I agree that Frere-Jones is excessively essentialist here, and your point about Banhart’s putative ethnicity is a good one. To be fair, SFJ does make some interesting points about the liminal space between racial/musical (musico-racial?) categories, as when he writes about his own experience as a musician in an all-white soul band. To me the biggest problem with his essentializing is that it leads him to identify white-black “miscegenation” as the determining factor in whether music is fun or not, which is reductionist to the point of nonsense and leads him to his most embarrassing mistakes: repeating, essentially, the canard of indie music as too thoughtful (leaving black music as…); the sex thing.

    Dale: Thanks for your comment. It was (and is) a different time.

    Comment by tomemos — October 25, 2007 @ 10:48 pm

  4. You can check out this response in slate which, as the title helpfully indicates, argues that the problem in indie rock isn’t race, but class. So, someone’s already beaten WBM to the punch:

    Comment by Brandon — October 26, 2007 @ 9:28 am

  5. What a great read! To me, part of what’s going on now is linked to the fact that the technology once needed to produce a record is now available, to a great degree, to the mainstream. The gap between Artist and Listener has decreased, which means more people can give music a try. This is what’s created the plethora of genres, sub-genres and cross-over genres.

    What’s also interesting, paradoxically, is that “indie” is becoming more mainstream while the mainstream is getting smaller because of its many independent tributaries.

    For some people it’s created a glut of very average music, because not everyone who puts out music is a superstar. This is true, and there are a lot of non-superstars these days. Finding the superstar is like trying to find the piece of hay in a stack of needles.

    For other people it’s created a well-spring of opportunity and creativity. This is also true.

    It’s definitely not about social re-segregation. It’s about what happens to a diverse society when things suddenly become global. In the 60’s, U.S. society was fighting for diversity. Now, the diverse society is full of people just wanting to be themselves in a diverse globe. This is a totally new phenomenon. It’s created a need for precision in expressing who you are… again, this is related to the sub-sub-sub-genres.

    Also, music doesn’t have to be protesting for R-E-S-P-E-C-T the same way anymore. It doesn’t have to have the same sass anymore. Aretha did her job well. A lot of hip-hop reflects this, paradoxically, in the way the sass has morphed into violence and anger. I say “paradoxically” because of the much-publicized hip-hop attitude towards women. Aretha did her job well, but we’ll always have more work to do.

    For me, it’s no surprise to hear white indie music described as soul-less. While I don’t think it’s an accurate label at all, to be white and independent means to do things on your own, your own way, to be yourself. It never intended to be mainstream, at least according to theory. It started as anti-mainstream. And, today, it’s just reflecting what it’s like to be a white independent person these days, reaching for a global perspective while also reaching for individuality so as to not get swallowed up.

    Soul-less? Hardly. Serious? Too. It’s like, “OK, you can emote. I get it. You have emotions. Noted.”

    Someone like Aretha was FUN back then. So happy doing what she was doing. So pleased with herself. It was easy to take her seriously because it was fun to take her seriously. Now, a lot of artists seem so desperate to be taken seriously that the fun part gets thrown out. It’s not that the soul is gone… it’s that the fun has taken a leave of absence.

    Comment by Shawn — October 26, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  6. I appreciated, at least, that Wilson acknowledges the reductiveness of his “armchair sociology” in the end. I think the biggest problem that shows up clearly in both articles is that nearly all of the examples end up too brief to do justice to the diverse stylistic impulses of the individual artists discussed, let alone their demographics. Wilson points out the sampling bias in Frere-Jones as well – he conveniently chooses examples that support his conclusion and ignores those that don’t. It seems to me like we’d get a lot farther by doing complex and careful socio-economic and stylistic-genealogical readings of individual artists than we can get with vague generalizations about a whole genre whose whole raison-d’etre is anti-genre. This seems to be one of the best impulses of your post, tomemos – all those counter-examples that aren’t so easy to categorize.

    Comment by surlacarte — October 27, 2007 @ 12:15 am

  7. Shawn–thanks a lot! You’ve identified a few trends which I think are very relevant to this discussion, especially regarding the decreasing distance between audience and creator and the corresponding glut of bands. Nick Hornby has said that the next Beatles won’t be The Beatles; they’ll just be another good pop group among many.

    I do like your points about the relationship between being fun and being taken seriously. “Respect” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” are both important feminist songs, but neither one would be out of place at a wedding reception. (She didn’t write either one, but never mind.)

    At the same time, who is being overlooked in all this? It’s Bob Dylan, the other most important musician of his generation, who has always been taken seriously and has always been criticized for being too cerebral, not fun or danceable enough. “It’s All Right Ma” is a great song, but I don’t think anyone would describe it as fun to listen to, precisely. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is fun to listen to (and talk about miscegenation—”blues” is right there in the title!), but it’s wordy and obscure, full of what sounds like social commentary. Dylan may not be parallel with the over-emoting artists you’re talking about—even at his most personal, you wouldn’t call him “emo”—but he revolutionized music and song-writing without ever sounding particularly pleased with himself.

    So while I see the connection, I’m nervous about saying that fun is always what we enjoy about music, or even just pop music. Too often it ends up being an injunction against thinking too much. When you add race to that, as Frere-Jones does, you end up with a fairly ugly bit of essentialism: white as the superego, black as the id.

    Comment by tomemos — October 27, 2007 @ 8:57 am

  8. Leaping in from the lurkersphere to agree with your comment “what is it with the sex thing!!!!” from a different angle —

    (although first, to connect it to race, there’s a lot you could do with the racial stereotypes about black and white masculinity — the “oversexed” vs. the “cerebral” etc. that brings old racial assumptions right back in to Wilson and Frere-Jones’ debate.)

    But, my complaint about “Pity the indie-rock girlfriend” is the obvious one on gender: what, girls don’t actually listen to music (of any specialty), we just fuck people who do? Maybe we really are back in the early 60s, with a bunch of black-clad beatniks sitting around discussing the importance of “black” vs “white” music while “their girls” sit on the sidelines without any words or opinions of their own.

    And that’s leaving aside the whole issue of gender and _producing_ music as a musician, indie or not.

    Ok, just had to rant for a bit there.

    Comment by Sisyphus — October 27, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  9. My bad — I should probably read the linked article _before_ jumping off into a rant. (My Yeah Yeah Yeahs? They are mentioned. I’m happier.)

    There’s interesting stuff about *childhood* and extended childhood in relation to sexuality in that piece that would be worth picking apart a bit more — this reminded me of the 90s rave scene, with the trends of pajamas and glow-in-the-dark pacifiers and hugging. But I hated that scene so I don’t have the experience to go by and build up some sort of point about it.

    Comment by Sisyphus — October 27, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

  10. Sisyphus, I still think you have a good point. It’s profoundly weird to suggest that women can sing about their feelings but that men need to rock out with their cock out. Aside from reinforcing gender stereotypes, it kind of puts women in the role of Victim Musicians, which corresponds with the “pity the girlfriends” comment.

    Comment by tomemos — October 27, 2007 @ 3:06 pm

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