Culture Rover

#181 - Feel the Heat

Sasha Frere-Jones lays down the gauntlet of race at indie-rock's shoe-gazer feet this week in the New Yorker (there is also a podcast and continued blog discussions).

Frere-Jones worries that American popular music, especially rock and roll, has lost its miscegenatin' ways, its tradition of racial masquerade and borrowing (particularly the white "love and theft" of black music, but also black uses of white sounds and styles). While he nods to the inequities and injustices of this process, to its down and dirty ways, Frere-Jones also seems to believe that the b-side of musical miscegenation has always been a dream of one nation under a groove, of an integrated soundscape in which the sounds of all of American society (and perhaps even global society) might breathe, mingle, flourish, and, most importantly, dance in the streets.

Frere-Jones hears this cathartic sound in groups such as The Clash, but not in more recent white rock, such as Pavement, Wilco, The Arcade Fire, or Grizzly Bear. He identifies a final split in the late eighties and early nineties between black-oriented and white-oriented music. And Frere-Jones bemoans the embrace of non-danceable and rhythmic styles by indie-rockers, who in the 1990s grew interested in a kind of anti-aesthetic of mumbles, noisy atmospherics, and bad beats. To him, rock went from integrating sounds to just grating sounds.

There is a dangerous essentialism that lurks in Frere-Jones polemic, however. He readily admits that his definition of black music is problematic in his podcast interview. After all, is it really fair to equate a racial category -- blackness -- with a particular sound? Why restrict black musicians to a particular sonic palette? Even empirically, considering the range of black music, there are plenty of sounds that do not possess, as Frere-Jones puts it, "swing, some empty space and palpable bass frequencies."

One of the oddest rhetorical tactics in Frere-Jones's essay is the quoting of indie-rock lyrics to "prove" their un-blackness. This harkens back to an age-old trashing of rock and roll as kitsch -- think of those old Steve Allen routines of reading lyrics to "Tutti Frutti" and other songs as if they were poetry. How odd that Frere-Jones would adopt what was previously an elitist strategy to dismiss rock as non-art in order to dismiss indie-rock as too pretentious, as too-much art!

Something is all mixed up here in terms of what's hip and what isn't, whose elite and exclusionary and who is populist and inclusive, who is integrating and who has got to keep 'em separated.

Even Frere-Jones's musical examples begin to raise questions. For instance, he lambasts Pavement for eschewing black music, but as a friend once pointed out, one of the most fascinating aspects of Stephen Malkmus's singing with the indie-rock band of all indie-rock bands is its sing-song echo of rapping. Moreover, there is arguably an interest in groove, rhythm, space, and bass in much of Pavement's music. It just depends on how one hears the beat.

There is also a more general blurring of concerns in Frere-Jones's essay. What is he worried about exactly? Is he worried that indie-rock became too white in the 1990s, or is he concerned that it grew too anti-commercial?

Here, the accusation of music as "rockist," a charge that Frere-Jones has controversially leveled against certain indie-rock-type musicians, echoes, but is not quite the same as, labeling music racist. Rockism privileges artistic integrity, anti-commercialism, and authenticity, while Frere-Jones, as a so-called "poptimist," wants to love music for its messy vernacular idiom, for its embrace of the masses implicit in commercialism, for its calculations to get bodies moving on the dancefloor rather than staring up from the stadium seats or sitting, staring blankly into the mocha, at the coffeehouse. But are indie-rock's anti-commercial suspicions necessarily racist? Are its associations of authenticity with the avant-garde, "difficult" margins of commerce somehow anti-black?

Maybe they are, but instead of fudging the difference, one wants Frere-Jones's essay to elucidate on the tenisons between indie-rock's anti-commercial aesthetic of authenticity and his own vision of rock and roll's authenticity in hybridity. Why is mixing it all up more "real," more cathartic, more inspiring to Frere-Jones? And why his particular remix of this mix-up? Why not other iterations, combinations, pastiches, collages, interactions?

It's not that Frere-Jones is wrong to think carefully about the relationship of genre, ideology, and race -- one just wants a more thorough working-through of the problem. He's written a hook, and a passionate one at that, but the arragement needs development to make his essay a hit. Nonetheless, Frere-Jones should be acknowledged for raising race as an issue in indie-rock at all. He has opened up a conversation that needs to happen.

Building on his polemic, and adding sophistication to the argument, Carl Wilson has a wonderful response to Frere-Jones in Slate. Wilson notes that racialized musical miscegenation has often been at the expense of women: that the Led Zepp or Dylanilic imitating of black music has often been in the Maileresque "White Negro" vein, barely masking, at times loudly blaring, a troubling misogyny.

More intriguingly, Wilson broadens the topic from race and gender to class: white indie-rock as a response by a particular privileged class-fraction to the transformations in the economy, in labor, and in social life, since the Reagan era.

Now we're getting somewhere. Race, gender, class -- they are some of the accent notes against which the backbeat throbs, as the kick-drum ricochets and the banjo snare reverberates, and as, through imitation and inauthenticity, through sounds close to home and far afield, through mistakes and retakes, through retribution and reconciliation, we all try to land on the one.

19 October 2007

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