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Is Indie Rock too White?

And should it learn from black 'rhythm' and 'soul'?

By Elaine Corden 1 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden regularly writes about music and pop culture for The Tyee.

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'A Paler Shade of White'?

Before we begin, let me say this: while I consider a Sunday afternoon with an issue of the New Yorker to be a treat of the highest order, I stopped reading their pop music criticism about two years ago, when their staff critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, wrote this about the burgeoning Houston, Texas hip-hop scene:

"The music is unhurried and woozy, as if it had been left too long in the sun. A violin phrase wells up again and again, like a bubble in a blender, while the rappers hew to the sticky beat, drawling about cars, women and diamond grills (the precious-metal moulds inlaid with diamonds that rappers wear on their front teeth)."

Frere-Jones's pedantic, pedigreed explanation of "grills" is the literary equivalent of watching your dad dance at a wedding. And so I stopped reading and started skimming.

In the past weeks, I was forced to revisit this crackery critic's work, namely because Frere-Jones, in the Oct. 22 issue of the magazine, wrote an article that's set the indie-rock community abuzz. In "A Paler Shade Of White," a four-pager that traverses the last 50 years of rock, Frere-Jones launches the opening salvo in a war he's been threatening to wage for a number of years: indie rock is boring, he says, and what's more, it's too white.

If you don't want to read the whole 3,618 words, let me summarize: Frere-Jones makes the argument for more "musical miscegenation." (Gulp! He is playing with semantic fire, here.) That is to say that white indie-rock bands would do well to nick more from black "polyrhythms," because indie rock, frankly, is rhythmless, stodgy and increasingly of a rarefied air.

Never mind the fact that it's easy to agree with him in principle (just listen to The Decemberists, one of indie rock's hottest acts, to hear how uninspired and earnest the genre can get), Frere-Jones puts forth a reductionist argument, not only furthering the definition of "indie rock" as an aesthetic instead of just non-attachment to major labels, but also basically summing up black music's available contributions to white college rock as "rhythm" and "soul." It's little more than Spike Lee's "magical negro" theory dressed up in liberal-arts elitism and David Bowie posters.

Needless to say, Frere-Jones's column has been soundly mocked, most notably on music blog Idolator, which developed a "Sasha Frere-Jones Score" to assess how "black" different bands sound. And The Globe and Mail's Carl Wilson wrote a brilliant response for Slate, which argues that the Aryan landscape of indie rock is as much an issue of class divisions as it is race.

Finally, Frere-Jones put forth a flimsy defence for his argument on his blog, basically stating "it was intended to provoke." His blog also includes a letter of complaint from one Mr. Will Butler of the Arcade Fire, whose music, Frere-Jones indicates in the original article, is a primary perpetrator of the crime of being "too white." Butler took the time to draw specific samples of Arcade Fire songs, and play them back-to-back with "black" music that he reckons he's nicked it from, package the whole thing up in an MP3 and send it to Frere-Jones. You can listen to it here.

There's no denying it's an interesting discussion, especially for a country that pathologically avoids conversations about race or class. Frere-Jones's stated intent to provoke by using words traditionally associated with white supremacy (miscegenation) and attacking some of the most popular bands in the world as "boring" has certainly got people talking. That said, it's kind of embarrassing, in the same way that the "grill" definition was. That upper-middle-class white critics are engaging in this kind of public hand-wringing over whether or not indie rock is black enough is just another step in that genre's slippery slope slide into adult contemporary.

Oh yes, you'd like something to listen to. How about Architecture In Helsinki's "Heart It Races"? It's indie rock, by a bunch of whiteys, that undoubtedly incorporates some of Frere-Jones woebegotten "polyrhythms," and his other stereotype-driven notions of what constitutes black music. I'd love to say I recalled them because my personal lexicon of music is so expansive, but it's all because, reading so much of the debate, I recalled the infamous quote that's silenced many a critical scribe: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." And so now, go dance.

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