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.