as pretty flies for white guys are we to the wanton critics

Sasha Frere-Jones is a racist idiot.

Look, it’s fine that he wishes indie rock were more rhythmically enticing, more syncopated, and showed more influence from historically African-American musics. That’s a matter of taste – specifically, his. (Of course, he’s been willing before to enforce his taste on others: if you recall, Stephin Merritt was branded a racist by Frere-Jones, essentially for not having the requisite quota of rappers among his favorite musicians.) But his essay (in which he repeatedly uses the repugnant term “miscegenation” – you can try to revalue that term all you want, but it still reeks of an ugly racist myth, that of the black rapist sullying pure white Southern womanhood and polluting the race with his horrible mulatto infants) insists over and over that those musical and affective qualities listed above are somehow intrinsically African-American. Music produced by white people and influenced primarily by historically white genres is referred to with words like flat-footed, shaggy, sylvan curlicues (all describing Pavement), plodding and formless (Wilco), and lassitude and monotony (indie rock generally). Guess who’s clumsily brooding in the corner over the “sylvan curlicues” of his poetic beard while all the cool kids dance? It’s White Guy! (And hey: if “sylvan curlicues” sounds as if Frere-Jones wants a little more macho aggression to his rhythm, you’ll probably enjoy his left-handed compliments toward Grizzly Bear – a choir of eunuchs, he says – that, toward a band led by a gay man.)

The larger point of Frere-Jones’ article is that in the past, both white and black musicians borrowed from one another’s styles – but now, Jones claims, the white kids are all eating by themselves at the same table. Okay, it’s true that a lot of recently popular indie rock is heavily indebted to Brian Wilson, tends toward the ethereal and abstract rather than the ass-shaking, and draws from non-blues structures and instrumentation. At the same time, my inbox is filled constantly with mp3s from (mostly white) bands hepped up on crazed dance synthesizers, rapping wildly over home-brewed four-track funk, or borrowing production tricks from the murkiest dub records. Something is happening – but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Frere-Jones?

Okay, so he’s just another aging critic (I should talk) whose grip on the newest new stuff is slipping a bit, and so he’s beginning to get nostalgic for the music that got him off back when he had hair on his head: no crime in any of that. What irks me is his racial essentialism: African-Americans are all about the body; whites are all about the brain.

Thanks a lot. Hey, Mr. Anthony Braxton? With all that theorizing, that heady 12-tone pointillist jazz and philosophy, and the heavy-duty MacArthur Fellowship receiving? Cut it out and shake your ass. Mr. Paul D. Miller, DJ Spooky, that subliminal kid, whatever you want to call yourself? Put down the damned Derrida and make me dance!

UPDATE: I’ve since read Carl Wilson’s several writings on this issue – my reply is here.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “as pretty flies for white guys are we to the wanton critics

  1. Andrew Sherman

    I don’t understand. You see some of his points, you disagree with most. So why start by calling him a racist idiot? Is it not possible to disagree without insults?

  2. tris mccall

    race politics of pop have gotten very complicated this year. maybe more complicated than ever before.

    on the one hand, the guy from playboy is right: there are an awful lot of european, canadian, and brooklynonian geeks doing hipster beat music, and sometimes even rapping over it. chromeo, junior senior, northern state, dfa, mstrkrft, sonny j, i could go on and on. most of it attempts to mimic the sound and feel of late-eighties hip-hop. but while some of this old-school faux-reverence has been respectful (all of these guys are, i’m sure, big fans of prince paul), you do not have to be sfj to be concerned about the tenor of these projects. almost all of it is unschooled: these people are not touched in any way by hip-hop culture, and nor are the people they’re making this music for. more problematically, *lots* of it exists in that well-traveled netherworld between emulation and mockery. it’s sort of like, “we might be just kidding here. if we suck, we’re *definitely* kidding. k?” that is the vibe i get from chromeo — although their new joint is better than the first.

    but the more interesting (or frightening, depending on how you look at it) thing is happening over on the rap/r&b side. what has been the most persistent trend among commercial urban-radio musicians this year? borrowing tropes from rock musicians. there’s shop boyz, sure, but it goes way beyond that. rihanna is a “rock star” on her magazine covers and in the “shut up and drive” video, beyonce plays with a rock band in the “irreplaceable” video, puffy fronts a rock band in the “last night” video, lil wayne plays guitar in the “leather so soft” video. i feel like i could spool off twenty more examples. sfj is a big rap fan, so surely he knows all about this trend. he, like everybody else, has engaged with *graduation*, so how does he feel about mr. west sampling can and steely dan and elton john? not since the heyday of de la has a pivotal hip-hop figure gotten more mileage out of whitey’s record collection. and that’s not even to mention the massive shadow daft punk is now throwing over contemporary rap music. “stronger” only made official what everybody already knew — all these guys are trying to sound like *discovery*.

    jay braun told me a story a few months ago about how it’s suddenly his experience that every white hipster band wants the drums to “sound like hip-hop”, and every rap act wants “that rock and roll shit”. i think if you’re tuned in at all right now and not writing for the *new yorker*, you’ve probably noticed some version of this. but is all that cross-pollination opening any ears? i do not think it is. communipaw avenue in jersey city is not feeling northern state, and williamsburg is not bumping hurricane chris “a bay bay”. tropes are getting borrowed for purely aesthetic reasons, and subcultures are not really connecting. you could say that this is better than nothing, and perhaps it is. on a good day i could even be convinced that it’s a sign of better things to come. but i think musicians on both sides are going to have to do their homework better — and open themselves up wider — before it all stops smacking of dilettantism.

    so even though he is factually wrong, and even though he uses much unfortunate language, i cannot completely hate on sfj. i feel his pain.

    lest you think that i am just nostalgic for the pre-nirvana era, well, maybe i am. but i lived through it, and i know that things were different then. ’87-’90, people were listening and understanding, and it seemed possible that we could all move together into a multi-ethnic future. i was young and idealistic then, and i believed that hip-hop could change the world. and of course it did, and more than i knew.

  3. tris mccall

    one more thing, sfj: what about the bigtime mainstream success of gym class heroes? certainly they are not too good, but their acceptance on the warped tour shows that emo kids are willing to disregard genre boundaries, even if the internet rock-critical establishment is not. maybe better days *are* dawning (even if better music isn’t).

  4. 2fs

    Tris – I was hoping you’d reply – since your knowledge of hip-hop is to mine approximately as Einstein’s knowledge of physics is to…uh, a five-year-old girl’s. Assuming you’re correct, I myself wouldn’t be all that bothered by dilettantism (izzat spelled right?) – I’m all about the amateur, and the interestingness of getting things wrong – but would be (am) by that sort of half-assed embrace thing. (Ben Folds is nowhere more irritating than when he’s doing “hip-hop” – even though I suspects he really does like it.)

    Andrew – That is what is known in the trade (the trade of being king of one’s own little nanobyte fiefdom) as a provocative lede. Frere-Jones is certainly not unfamiliar with the role of provocateur – it seemed appropriate. Obviously, if you read the rest of my entry (which, clearly, you did), you’ll see that my actual perspective is a bit more nuanced than that. Difference between my bad behavior and what I call him out on? Well, mine’s strictly personal (not to mention my readership is probably 1/100,000th of his), whereas the assumptions underlying his racialization of certain aspects of music and entertainment are, I’d say, genuinely harmful – at least, they can be.

  5. tris mccall

    i’m sure ben folds *does* love rap music. northern state, i am sure they love it, too. ditto for dfa and the rest, otherwise, they wouldn’t borrow from it so extensively. who wouldn’t want to be ll circa 1986? that’s a hell of a lot better than being the guy in chromeo and having to go on tour while you’re still in graduate school. but are these acts mobilizing hip-hop tropes in a clumsy way because they love them and can’t master them, or are they mobilizing them juuuuuuuust clumsily enough to let their audience know that they not-so-privately believe that hip-hop is beneath them? it’s a fine line. look at junior senior. their music is not satire: they are very bad rappers, and couldn’t be good at it no matter what they tried. yet hipsters go for it. part of this is because the production is so clever. but there’s a darker part, too. by being so clumsy (and so european), junior senior functions as a sendup of rap — a sign for knowing hipster listeners to act mock-enthusiastic about rap conventions. in other words, groups like this — and there are many of them now — are actually using rap signifiers to signify their alleged superiority to hip-hop.

    now on the most important level, it is all much ado about nothing. i look at my *billboard* and i see kanye and 50 and soulja boy tell em. i do not see junior senior “can i get get get”. no matter what the internet rock-critical establishment says, rap music is doing fine. people have been taking veiled, winking shots at hip-hop since the eighties, and nobody has laid a glove on it. so it is easy enough for you and me and al from tennessee to ignore the darker side of this trend.

    it is not so easy for sfj. yes, this time around, he is as factually wrong as he can be. he writes like a man without a radio. but you have to take into consideration the hell he has chosen to inhabit: he is writing for *the new yorker*. he’s a good writer and often a good critic, but at heart, he’s still a bass player who wants to kick out some fresh groovies. and every day he is surrounded by douchebags who feel superior to *all* pop music, and who have cultivated sophisticated, ironclad strategies for defending themselves against charges of cultural elitism. he wants to lash out at these people, but he doesn’t have the argumentative means to do it. (well, he can make his claims, but they’re all going to be sniffily refuted.) it is enough to make you go nuts and start attacking stephin merritt for no good reason.

    you can say that there’s no excuse for taking your frustration out on your readership. that’s true, too. he didn’t have to work for the douchebag flagship — that was his call. and that’s the bigger problem with sfj’s recent writing: like everybody else at that awful magazine, he’s begun to confuse the *new yorker* with actual new yorkers. the kids in the burg are much more noble than he thinks they are. they mostly just dig music, and *will* be turned on by a well-produced rap song that shares virtues with the indiepop they love. you cannot expect them to be feeling turf talk, because that is not the culture they come from. i like sfj as a musician and as a fella, and i say with certainty that he is no racist and that his heart is in the right place. i feel his pain. but if he keeps this shit up, he is going to die of a massive coronary.

  6. 2fs

    I’m sure if I met Frere-Jones, we could talk about these things, and we might get on great. But as I said, it’s a writerly prerogative to play with the rhetoric, and since some of what he said, and how he said it, bugged me, I wanted to get that anger out there. Plus, you know, did Chuck D say “To a degree, I feel that Elvis Presley didn’t give adequate credit to the extent to which his singing, both stylistically and in terms of repertoire, owed much to the contributions of African-American musicians”? No, he did not.

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