Carl Wilson (who also blogs at the why-on-earth-hadn’t-I-linked-to-it-before Zoilus) addresses the brouhaha over Sasha Frere-Jones’ essay both at Slate and in a handful of recent entries in his blog (some thoughtful comments from readers there, too). Wilson usefully complicates the issue by suggesting that the key issue is class rather than race (of course, the two tend to run parallel paths) and points out that part of the stylistic issue for indie rock is that, insofar as it’s defined or definable at all, it’s defined in opposition to mainstream rock – and mainstream rock is clearly marked by its strong influence of ’50s and ’60s R&B. So what Frere-Jones really wants to know is why isn’t there more hip-hop in indie rock – not why there’s less blackness in indie rock.
The class issue begins to address that, I think. Upper-middle-class, highly educated white Americans tend to be very self-conscious about their privileged status, and well aware of the history of exploitation, often at the hands of their class ancestors. So while the Brits who made up Led Zeppelin might swallow old blues records whole, as if they were merely folk music (forgetting that many of their composers were alive and well and would have quite happy to get a nice royalty check), and in a less sensitive era, a horde of Pat Boones might have covered songs by black artists to make the world safe for Patty Duke, indie rockers are aware of the fact that they are not poverty-stricken black youth from the most desolate corners of American cities. (Nor are all hip-hoppers, of course – but the dynamic there is quite different.) And (as Wilson also points out) hip-hop, in jettisoning the most transferable aspects of music (melody and harmony) in favor of tracks that are essentially sound, rhythm, and rapping, may well have quite consciously attempted to render itself less assimilable. At any rate, hip-hop as a genre strikes me as one of the most overtly political genres around – and that politics is essentially a racial politics: it’s the poetry of blackness in America today. The distance between indie-rocker Steve at The Sylvan School of Expensive Coffee Shops and the urban milieu portrayed in many hip-hop records is sociologically immense, so much so that I suspect many indie rockers who might like and respect a lot of hip-hop records don’t do hip-hop themselves – because it strikes them as almost a sort of minstrelsy to do so. There are, of course, exceptions – and there are also plenty of indie rockers who, even if they’re not doing hip-hop per se, certainly let their strong connections to its rhythmic structures beat through clearly in their own music. (New Jersey’s Tris McCall, who contributed two cogent comments on my last post on this subject, is an excellent example: his music has become stronger the more his lifelong love of hip-hop has shown up in his tracks, even though he remains a highly educated white guy from (I’m guessing here) a middle-class background.)
It’s not just indie rock, though, whose rhythms seem ever further removed from the sort of classic R&B ass-shaking pulse that Frere-Jones loves. I know even less about metal than I do about hip-hop – but what I have heard seems to have moved almost completely away from the notion that a beat is something to dance to. In terms of sound and approach, it’s moved very far from its blues-rock origins as well. Black Sabbath’s first album is pretty much a straight, hard-rock take on the blues – most recent metal that I’ve heard is as distant from that base as could be imagined. European and prog influences abound in the harmonic structure, and the beats seem more concerned with conveying raw impact than compelling anyone to dance. Again, I’m sure there are exceptions.
Wilson’s larger point – that Frere-Jones’ article would have been a lot stronger had he narrowed his musical focus on the one hand but broadened his cultural focus on the other – is relevant here, because the increasingly wide economic gap has increased the distance between both races and classes. That distance, though, isn’t a physical one: a Yale undergrad playing bass for the Sylvan Curlicues most likely is aware that, say, the support staff for his university is drawn largely from impoverished neighborhoods that surround his ivy-strewn redoubt. I think that kind of self-consciousness actually has much to do with what sorts of borrowing are (and are not) audible in his band’s music: folk and psychedelic musics that he thinks of as distant in time, German electronic music distant in both time and place, and maybe some Finnish music his grandmother sent him. But there aren’t many Finns in New Haven. (If there in fact are, sorry.)
And here’s where I come in. I’m a white guy from an upper-middle-class background who went to school far too many years to get too many liberal arts degrees. The annoying group of women one floor above me in the dorms my first two years at the University of Michigan, who came from families far wealthier than my own, seemed to think it reflected favorably upon their openmindedness and liberality to be into various dance musics (although what I mostly remember hearing is the Tom-Tom Club – whose grating and gratuitous referencing of African-American musicians by the very upper-class Tina Weymouth is about the best signifier I can find for this sort of thing). Something about that whole scene reeked of appropriation to me. In later years, many of these same folks (and their boyfriends, husbands, or lovers – the story was gendered at first only because that was the immediate example) were merrily buying “world music” CDs to enjoy with their wine. Nothing wrong with any of that in itself…but I often found myself wondering, don’t you have your own music to enjoy? And you know, when I discovered things like the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms – music unmistakably the product of guys who’d had a bit too much to think, who probably didn’t have to earn dollars by means of a shovel, who had the sorts of complexions that blotched red in their rare exposure to daylight – I was like, ah, this is my folk music.
And I can’t blame Sasha Frere-Jones, or anyone else who wanted to dance and have a good time, for thinking this music was rather ill-suited to that. They’re correct: the rhythm’s more like that of an overcaffeinated hand shakily tabling a coffee cup while nervously awaiting a fourth refill than anything you can actually dance to. (Assuming you can dance, of course – and that stereotype about white people and dancing is certainly true of me.)
So what’s Frere-Jones’ point again? Is it that he wishes there were more music that he likes? (Everyone wishes that – at least he’s a musician who can make more music he likes.) Is it that he thinks various marketing forces prevent that music from being heard? (No doubt true…but true of pretty much every non-chart genre.) Maybe it’s that a lot of indie rock seems content to dig itself into its own little tiny hole in the ground, that some of it doesn’t engage with anything beyond itself. That might be true – but notice that popular music generally has become far more niche-centric over the last twenty-thirty years. And as I said, insofar as “indie rock” is a genre, to the extent it defines itself in opposition to mainstream rock is, almost by definition, going to avoid the key aspects of that music’s rhythm and feel – and therefore, eschew mainstream rock’s R&B and blues roots. The so-called garage revival is a partial exception: its problem is its almost constant accompaniment by quotation marks. (And it’s increasingly difficult to figure out what “mainstream rock” might be – aside from some derivative of indie rock, which has by this point, tracing its ancestry all the way back to punk, been around for longer than mainstream rock had been around before punk showed up to kick its flabby but impeccably coutured ass around. And “indie rock” itself is a fabulously diversified entity: Wilson points out that not a few months ago, Frere-Jones wrote an article praising the resurgence of more dance-oriented rhythm in indie rock.)
So I’m not really sure what Frere-Jones expected his article to have achieved (other than a brouhaha full of ballyhoo and balderdash in the indie-rock blogosphere). But I’m left thinking he concludes too much from people’s musical tastes – and not all of their taste, only that part of it that, as musicians, shows up in the music they play. After all, many musicians might enjoy listening not only to music that sounds like their own music but also to jazz, classical, and Bulgarian folk music. Few of them try to put all of that into their own music. And ultimately it seems odd that Frere-Jones doesn’t notice this: it seems like every interview with musicians that I’ve read lately suggests exactly that musicians tend to like a lot of music – and a lot of it is hip-hop, whether that’s an audible influence or not.