New Yorker, You Disappoint Me.

I quote my dear friend and Midwestern-cum-Swedish-transplant biochemist Evan: “Ladies and gentlemen, I present the shittiest article about music ever written.”

Sasha Frere-Jones – A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul, from this month’s New Yorker.

In this article, the New Yorker pop critic, former Ui frontman, and brother to type designer Tobias Frere-Jones (a.k.a. “the talented one”) gives his account of the death of African-American influence in rock music, citing thoroughly unfunky bands from Wilco and Pavement to Arcade Fire and Devendra Banhart. For the most part he’s right: indie rock has become increasingly inward, obtuse, artsy-fartsy, and LILY WHITE in the past 20 years, and as far as I’m concerned it’s really bad news, culturally speaking. But then he kind of veers off into the realm of absolute nonsense by blaming the internet for all of this (the basic argument: white people always existed as great popularizers of black music, and now that the internet allows us average white folk to find out about black music without Elvis singing it to us, there is no incentive for whitey to continue borrowing. Enter Arcade Fire).

Furthermore, he brings hip-hop into the whole mix, claiming that it too has become increasingly devoid of white influence (thanks to more restrictive sampling laws). Frere-Jones portrays the cultural shift from De La Soul’s Johnny Cash and Schoolhouse Rock samples to today’s much less sample-laden post-gangsta hip-hop as a purely economic calculus—”now that sampling is expensive, let’s quit sampling”—and cites this as the reason that hip hop (supposedly) has a lot less white influence in it these days. A few points:

1) Dear Sasha, there’s this guy called Kanye West. I know he’s pretty underground—doesn’t make a lot of media appearances—but perhaps you’ll be able to find some info about him and his samples on the interweb (you know—the one that killed rock).

2) Frere-Jones talks about the dearth of white rappers, and has the following to say about Eminem in particular: “A protégé of Dr. Dre’s who spent part of his youth in Detroit, he had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted—a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace.” OH EM GEE SASHA FRERE-JONES HAS SINGLEHANDEDLY DISCOVERED THE PHENOMENON OF REVERSE RACISM WHAT A MINDBLOWING REVELATION TO COME FROM A LOUSY POP CRITIC SOMEBODY PLZ AWARD HIM AN HONORARY Ph.D. STAT!

3) Is hip-hop really less white today than in 1990? Is it just me, or does all this new-fangled synth-driven hip-hop (Frere-Jones mentions Crunk & Hyphy, but I’m talking Swishahouse stuff too, anything by Timbaland, the Neptunes, basically anything you can hear on the radio EXCEPT Kanye) owe a lot more to, say, KRAFTWERK than it does James Brown, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, or even Dr. Dre? Like seriously, the instrumental of “The Whisper Song” might as well be “Home Computer”.

4) HELLO THERE SASHA! OVER HERE! IT’S ME! CHRISSY! You know, the girly/nerdy grad student from Kansas who once released a 12″ by a white Brooklynite-cum-Belgian featuring Jamaican dancehall superstars Ward 21 and sampling “No Diggity” by Blackstreet? Musical miscegenation is alive and well over here in ravesville, duderino. Just because Indie Rock is in a period of white influence doesn’t mean that’s the case for all music, or that it’s a trend that’s bound to continue indefinitely.

Ok, I’m done. Argue away, blog reading types.

31 thoughts on “New Yorker, You Disappoint Me.

  1. Seems like an exercise in playing with labels to try to prove a statement pulled from the ether. Is “indie rock” even a relevant label in 2007? (was it ever?)

  2. good point. Arcade Fire are on Universal / Mercury, Wilco is on Elektra (and Nonsesuch, an Elektra subsidiary), Devendra is on XL (of all things!) but XL is owned by Beggar’s Banquet now…

  3. I’m liking your critique-the-critics style. I still think you may want to share the comments you sent to Simon Reynolds about his book on rave culture with the rest of us.

    Indie-rock is really just rock that’s not Nickle Back or Matchbox 20, AKA not in the top 40, innit? But even there, you have stuff that slips in, like the White Stripes. They’ve got an “indie” sound but sometimes have hits in the mainstream.

    In fact, Billboard seems to be breaking it down into “Mainstream Rock” and “Modern Rock”, forgoing the “indie” term alltogether. This actually seems more appropriate. Meanwhile true indie-music really encompasses all genres and styles that aren’t on a major label.

    The Billboard Hot 100 is actually quite racially mixed, it just doesn’t contain much “moodern rock.”

  4. for real tho this is the most reprehensible lester bangs wannabe paaaablum i have ever fukn read

    like I AM SURE LISSNIN TO BANDS THAT SUCK AND I AM CONCERNED ABOUT THE FATE OF MODERN MUSIC

    like it is 1979 and SFJ is at a boston concert wondering what happened to ROCK AND ROLL man

  5. I just read the article and I actually found it pretty interesting.

    M-bot, you do make a good point in that musical miscegenation is alive and well in “ravesville”. And yeah, it’s also well-alive in rapsville (Kanye, Cool Kids, Timbaland, Kid Sister, M.I.A.). For that matter what about Mark Ronson’s indie-soul&b productions with Amy Winehouse, and Lily Allen.

    I happen to like Wilco, Magnetic Fields, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead and stuff like that too. There’s no reason all this stuff shouldn’t coincide in my iPod and my DJ mixes.

    And shit! Oakar, I should drop some Boston into the mix too.

  6. I’ve always believed what separates us from them is that we don’t forget. Indie pop (rock = pop in my little world) seems to have a short attention span for anything but itself.

    Whereas the hip hop/disco house/electronic music people care about knowing where music comes from, how it relates to everything else around it, if it can mix it to other things, why the band tried to make that sound, if they can sample it, where the the band is from, what their other projects and their friends projects are/were, who produced it, what the label is/what town/who were the minor players on the label, etc etc etc. Digging is what separates us.

    I’m not sure about the rest of race issue with music. But I think it explains how boring “white” music is. It can’t remember who Willie Colon or the Heath Brothers are. Hip hop currently remembers both its sampling days and its synth days. During the 80’s they coexisted. Now they are again. Big woop.

    “a white Brooklynite-cum-Belgian featuring Jamaican dancehall superstars Ward 21 and sampling “No Diggity” by Blackstreet?” That has a long memory to it, doesn’t it. It understands more than subdividing rock into smaller and smaller subemo categories. It looks out, instead of in. Elvis for all the appropriation he is guilty of, looked out instead of in.

    Rant done. Love you guys.

  7. i hope the new yorker didn’t pay this douche for the writing of this article. music is music and it ALL goes in cycles. there are plenty of reasons why current hip hop sucks these days (none of which are touched on) and there are plenty of reasons why “indie” sucks these days (again, none of which are touched on).

    this article is akin to me shitting on paper and turning it into my existentialism professor and saying “this is my fecal response to jackson pollack and his ideas on death”…

    crap on paper is really what it boils down to.

  8. dj.no.one, that’s kind of ridiculous. i agree that djs/dance music folks may care more about the details and ephemera of music history, but to say that these bands aren’t influenced by or listening to music from decades past is simply bullshit. dance music simply has more specific references and more explicit appropriation. indie music anymore (and frankly, for most of its history) has just drawn on much whiter references – punk, country/bluegrass, bands like the velvet underground, etc.

  9. I agree Katie. A music geek is a music geek. Doesn’t matter what genre. Generally anyone into music enough to be producing/performing could be considered one. I’ve been in “indie-rock” bands and I know for a fact that all the members were super-geeks, at least in their special field of knowledge, if not on a broader range of musical history.

    Devendra makes folk-ish music, is on XL Recordings (originally an electronic label), is into R. Kelly, and in fact enjoyed himself at a DJ party where I was playing in Tel Aviv last year. Perhaps those influences don’t make it into his music but he obviously appreciates a lot of stuff.

    Radiohead may be a better example of a band who is popular, on a major label (formerly?), and actually combines the electronic music they clearly love with their “indie-rock.”

  10. just want to comment on the racial issue here.
    i’m from Toronto, Canada

    and what i wanted to say.. i know black guys who are in indy bands and actually combine some african sounds into their music using trumpets/saxaphones..etc.

    and i also know a bunch of white people who have been signed to hiphop/r&b labels..

    *shrugs*

  11. Anyone who gives props to the Minutemen deserves to be cut some slack and the fact that he gave a shout out to one of my own mixes certainly doesn’t hurt either. Part of a cultural music critic’s job is to notice trends and kvetch about the ones he/she doesn’t like and I am sure that he was mostly interested in starting a dialogue about this perceived phenomenon… apparently it is working

    Personally all of this comes down to taste and now that we are in the digital age it is easy to find the stuff that inspires us and ignore the stuff that doesn’t and that is a good thing. If some poor fool gets pleasure out of listening to Kenny G I’m not going to lose sleep over it (I feel the same way about uninspired indie rock – who cares?) But as a writer for a national magazine he is more compelled to deal with the music that is at the forefront of popular culture and analyze it. For the record, Most of his pieces in the New Yorker aren’t complaints but thoughtful praises of complex artists like MIA.

    What I am realizing lately is that any type of music can get boring after awhile even if it is awesome and performed with the enthusiastic vigor that Sasha misses in most “indie rock.” I was at a Balkan Beat Box concert recently – a perfect example of a band that mixes influences with minor key gypsy horn harmonies layered over wicked fat Hip-Hop beats- I LOVE their records and they really put on a great show, but after about a half hour or so I felt like I had “got it” and was ready to go home and work on my own music. Usually when I go out I prefer listening to DJs who mix lots of styles together in the tradition of DJ Rupture (who actually invited Sasha to be a guest on his radio show a few months back) the type of DJ who will keep a flow going while combining many different moods, sounds and styles all in the span of a few minutes – it isn’t the attention grabbing experience of a live rock concert but its what inspires short attention span music geeks like myself.

  12. I understand why you both say that. I just won’t buy into the idea that white people are boring and black people aren’t. Essentializing that indie “white” music doesn’t listen to outside influences is as stupid on my part as saying that the races have different amounts of rhythm. But the problem remains: rock is boring and you can’t dance to it.

    Still love you cats. Still think indie rock is effectively naval gazing compared to dance music.

  13. I know what you mean, no.one. Good dance-music tends to have more energy than rock these days. Though I have been known do drop a White Stripes tune into my sets.

    Now that I think about it, I would more often tend to play Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles, or ’80s rock. That combined with the fact that a lot of folks are currently trying to become “rock-stars” through electro music does seem to suggest that “rock” in a traditional sense is on the wane at the moment. If history is any indication though, it’s just a phase.

  14. i hope it is just a phase.
    then i won’t hear my favorite music bastardized in car commercials and the music i make will become 3 times more unknown than it already is.
    this vermin’s heading back underground.

  15. Why is everybody sweating over the racial attributes of the producers of different styles of music. We are just perpetuating the ridiculous ideas that shaped our embarrising history (in regards to racial divisions).
    This guys article was interesting, but quantifying musics values based on the race & racial influences of said musician/musics producer confuses me a great deal. If Arcade fire aren’t funky, it isn’t neccesarily because they are white (are they?), or that they don’t take influence from ‘black music’: maybe it is because they aren’t funky (in their soul). There is still plenty of great funky independent ‘rock’ music being produced, just dig a bit deeper.
    On another note, if everything was funky, funky wouldn’t be very exciting anymore.
    I’m off back to the radio where I can’t see what colour anyone is– because it shouldn’t matter.

  16. Chrissy, you disappoint me.

    Though one could — and perhaps should — raise any number of objections to certain details of Sasha’s piece, your response here is shrill, overblown, and largely offbase.

    As I note in my own response to Sasha’s piece (trackbacked above see below), I think we should go easy on him and applaud him for painting in bold, broad strokes. You take him to task for leaving certain things out of his narrative, but I suspect that you are actually in agreement with him w/r/t indie rock whiteness. Sasha is hardly claiming that musical miscegenation is not happening today, but that it is not happening — for the most part — in indie rock. He may not discuss the party/remix/”trad”-“hipster” scene which you (and, sure, I) inhabit, but that’s ok. His article was not meant to be a comprehensive overview, but a focused critique of a particular musical-cultural phenomenon.

    Although I don’t want to go through and debunk all of your points, Sasha actually does cover the Kanye West angle (he can afford to sample), and let’s not forget that Kraftwerk owe a lot of their machinic funkiness to James Brown.

    Perhaps color shouldn’t matter, as one commenter above says, but the fact is that it still does. Arcade Fire don’t sound white to Sasha b/c they are white; they sound white because they retreat into cultural/musical signifiers of whiteness — which is not only problematic for Sasha, but is prolly problematic to all the Mashit heads here who love their beats big, bassy, and bouncy. Dude’s on our side, folks. So let’s weigh our words a little more carefully.

  17. Waitwaitwait. Now certainly the response was shrill and overblown (I’m a shrill, overblown kind of guy), but I stand by it. I don’t agree on his basic point that indie rock is becoming more white. I think that since its inception it has been one of the whitest forms of American music, and if anything it’s becoming less so in the post-DFA era (Notice how Frere-Jones conveniently forgets to mention that LCD Soundsystem opened for Arcade Fire at that show he attended). I think it’s telling that whenever he wants to talk about the history of race-mixing in rock, he has to go to non-indie examples (namely the Clash & Led Zeppelin, who aren’t even American non-indie examples), which don’t strike me as particularly relevant if you’re making an argument about the whitening of indie rock.
    I mean, remember when we used to call it college rock? as in “music they play on college stations”? who generally gets to go to college? privileged white kids. It’s been whiter than white from the very start. I’m fine with that. I think there is a lot of racist bullshit tied up in the assumption that a “retreat into whiteness” (can we stop fucking using the word “retreat” already?) will automatically make for less interesting or worthwhile music. Is this supposed to offend white people (with their problematic cultural/musical signifiers), or black people (who we still openly assume have all the rhythm), or both of us? And for heaven’s sake, how are we supposed to parse, say, Tejano in this framework?
    But as for the indie rock point, whatever. That’s not my main interest, and even though I think it is a thoroughly flawed thesis (read: NOT on his side), it’s not my main beef. It was his lumping hip-hop in that really irked me, and whether he lumped other genres in or not, hip-hop was definitely mentioned as being part of this same trend. The racial origins of Kraftwerk’s music have absolutely nothing to do with my point, which is that hip-hop has a lot of white influence these days. Whether it’s influence from ultra-pale Germans who liked James Brown or ultra-pale Germans who liked Richard Wagner is beside the point. Obviously Kraftwerk were heavily influenced by African American culture—my point was that the very same intercourse is STILL HAPPENING, which Frere-Jones doesn’t seem to think is the case. And as for sampling, yes Kanye can afford it, but my point was more the whiteness of his sources, his DJ, etc. Regardless of whether it is illegal or paid-for sampling, it’s got a big black/white-boundary-blurring effect on hip-hop right now, which Sasha seems happy to write off just because Kanye can afford to pay Daft Punk (or, let’s be real, Virgin) the money he owes them. Yes I was snarky about it all, but I still think it’s true, and I stand by my arguments. Don’t mistake my flippancy for insincerity.

  18. I see some of your points here, Chrissy, but I still think Sasha, for all his elisions and omissions, hits some good nails on the head. He clearly got under your skin, which is interesting. For me the biggest question is whether either Sasha’s critique, or your response, or both, fall into essentialist racial frameworks.

    What I like about the word retreat — and you could explain why you don’t like it — is that it calls attention to whiteness as a cultural thing, as something created by signifiers that have an inherent relation to (similarly slippery) ideas about blackness. In that sense, it’s hardly racist, or “reverse racist,” or even racialist to use the term: on the contrary, it’s anti-rac(ial)ist. Let’s not forget, please, that this is not about who’s “actually” black or white, because, as we all know, black and white are really just imaginary social categories which, nevertheless, a lot of us live by and are affected by no matter how much we might want to escape the pernicious system of racial classification and hierarchy.

    But when you talk about “racial origins” (even if you could care less) or “white influence” you belie an understanding of race which is still, it would seem, rather committed to some sense of real difference between “us” and “them.” You’re implying that there is a “there” there. That race is real not because some of us believe it is and thus act accordingly, but because there are real underlying differences between “blacks” and “whites” (which was proven fallacious by DNA science long ago).

    It may seem like some subtle semantics, but the difference between talking about “white influence” on hip-hop vs. — for example — black hip-hop producers’ embrace of musical signifiers more typically associated with so-called “white” genres like techno (which has itself, of course, been “whitened” in mainstream representations), is — aside from an issue of unfortunately clunkier language — actually a rather significant difference to express. I think that being more careful about how we draw these lines and how we talk about these lines is paramount, and, frankly, I think you and Sasha both play a little too fast and loose with these big, weighted words.

  19. “retreat” feels loaded to me. It makes it sound as if Arcade Fire are purposefully blocking out all non-white cultural sources, and trying to re-create some pre-modern Teutonic (Frankish?) musical ideal. And hell, maybe they are! Or maybe they just like French Horns. Either way, the word “retreat” brings with it some connotations about their motives that I, knowing very little about Arcade Fire, am unwilling to accept without some further data. Ditto for “problematic”, which you also used.
    You say that I “belie an understanding of race which is still, it would seem, rather committed to some sense of real difference between ‘us’ and ‘them'”, and you’re right, I do. It’s not racial though, it’s ethnic. There is a real difference in histories and traditions of different ethnic groups and how those come to inform our lives and habits and musical tastes. We are not all the same (culturally, that is), and to say so is patently ridiculous. Furthermore, I think it is 100% valid to look at music and say “look, this comes from here,” and “that sounds an awful lot like this from all the way over there”, and so forth. Race may be fictive, but ethnicity and culture most certainly aren’t, and THEY’RE the crux of this whole argument.
    Just to make clear, my main issues with the Frere-Jones piece (and why it got under my skin so) are:
    1) I think he picked the wrongest of wrong times to moan about the “whiteness” of indie rock (w/r/t indie’s long history of whiteness, the recent waning of said whiteness as far as I can tell, and the incredible diversity of the music scene at large),
    2) I don’t think “whiteness” is of less artistic value than “blackness” (even though most of the music that personally catches my ear tends to have a lot of African/African-American elements in it), and
    3) I think he used an uninformed and spotty analysis of hip-hop to buttress his argument.
    And finally, I probably do play a little too fast and loose with big, weighted words (especially on keeping crystal-clear the divide between race and ethnicity, and how much of that is real, imagined, or temporarily accepted for the sake of argument). It’s a BLOG, dude: I get riled up over ridiculous nonsense like this and then type about it. Next week, watch Jake & I discuss PATRIARCHY!

  20. Whatevs, dude. You’re conflating race, ethnicity, and culture in some dangerous ways, and your language is shot through with contradictions. Calling Sasha’s perspective on hip-hop “uninformed” is downright ludicrous. Dude would take you to school. He already whips yer ass at writing, regardless of what conventions you want to impose on blog discourse. Just sayin: I like a lot of your posts here, especially the (post)disco archeology, but I think you need to tone it down here, rethink your assumptions and such. I dunno. Maybe read some anthropology. Or critical race theory. Or Sasha Frere-Jones pieces on some of hip-hop’s best producers.

    Peace —

  21. Dear Wayne,
    You have officially crossed the line from “having a friendly debate” to “being an internet asshole”.
    I never claimed to be a better writer than Sasha Frere-Jones (although I did imply that Tobias is a better typographer than Sasha is a writer): my only statement was that I think Sasha is wrong on this one, and in his defense you’ve resorted to personal attacks. Also, as somebody who has been through a lot of schooling yourself, you’re being willfully ignorant if you think I could’ve avoided anthropology or critical race theory texts by this point in my academic career.
    Anyway, I’m really, thoroughly done with your bullshit on this one. I think your semantic workup was of questionable intellectual value to begin with, but I refuse to let this discussion devolve into name-calling and credential-waving.

  22. I suppose we could spin our wheels here endlessly, Chrissy, and so I should be grateful at your expression of being done with this. I ended my last comment with “Peace” as a genial gesture of sorts, despite my serious criticisms of you, and as an attempt at a friendly “last word” (at least for me). But, given that you’ve come back with yet another offbase attack, I’m afraid I feel compelled to respond just once more, whether you consider yourself done with this debate or not.

    I find it deeply ironic that you now accuse me of being an “internet asshole” when it was your own internet assholery and offbase attack on Sasha — far more mean and ad-hominem than my joshing comments above — that inspired my engagement here in the first place, even if your incoherent objections hardly warranted my time and effort. Sure, I got a little snarky in that last comment, but — what can I say? — I grew frustrated at what I perceive to be your stubbornness and, to be quite frank (at least on this topic), stupidness.

    This is not about credentials or academic bona fides (which I could care less about). But it is, as you say, about “bullshit.” Not my bullshit, however (which you fail to specify), but your own bullshit theories of race and ethnicity. Your discussion and defense of “white” ethnicity and culture strikes me as quite out-of-step with recent work in anthropology and critical race studies / cultural studies. (And when I say recent, I mean from the last two decades or so — not exactly cutting edge scholarship or anything.) You seem to want to uphold an idea of a “white” ethnicity or a “white” culture, which is, in my opinion, a pernicious fallacy to uphold. When I talk about “cultural notions of whiteness” that is precisely my way of avoiding implying the kind of fixity around race/culture that you seem to suggest with your ideas about “ethnicity” and which Sasha has also noted is well worth avoiding, for it slides into an easy essentialism and ends up propping up (outmoded, disproven) ideas about racial difference rather than dismantling or writing against them. If you don’t feel me on that, I don’t know what to tell you. (Actually, I’ll tell you to read Ron Radano’s _Lying Up a Nation_, among other things. Try the introduction to _Out of Whiteness_ as well.)

    I don’t expect you to change your ideas immediately, but I would have expected you to be more open and less defensive given what I perceive to be your otherwise progressive tendencies (i.e, self-identifying as “girlie” as a form of anti-macho transgression in a masculinist, patriarchal blogosphere and music scene). But in the end, I don’t really care what Chrissy Muderbot thinks. I do, however, as a friend of Jake and an artist on the label, care about Mashit, and what Mashit represents. And I think you have not put a good foot forward with this post. So that’s why I have been inclined to spend so much time and energy arguing with you here.

    At this point, though, I have to agree with Sasha’s appropriately terse, original response to your incoherent attack: “i couldn’t care less.”

    I suppose you might derive some sort of perverse pleasure from that (and I quote, “bwaahaahaahaahaaha”). Well, in that case, enjoy!

  23. I’m not upholding an idea of “white” ethnicity or “white” culture. As somebody from a “white” ethnic background that has at various points in American history been perceived by the majority as either within, without, or on the periphery of “whiteness”, I am acutely aware of how fictive any unified “whiteness” is, and of the many flavors and experiences “whiteness” comprises. (I’m also well-versed in the literature on the subject, and we both know that we both have corresponded with Ron [you more than me, obviously], so spare me your fucking condescending book recommendations, dude). Sasha is the one who brings up a unified notion of “whiteness”, tying it to a lack of “soul” from the very start (in his TITLE no less!), and all I’m saying is that a blanket attack on white cultural signifiers (for instance, calling their presence in music “problematic”, as you did) is just as misguided as, say, a blanket attack on “black” cultural signifiers (an equally dubious concept) would be. You, Sasha, and I are all guilty of lumping “whiteness” together for the sake of argument in this discussion (just scroll up), and I absolutely will not stand for the insinuation that I’m the guy who introduced these outmoded racial theories into the debate. Furthermore I refuse to accept you calling me “stupid”. Grow the fuck up.
    Note, by the way, that I have held back on the shit-talking about you. And frankly, I don’t see what you mean by ad hominem attacks on Sasha. I certainly mocked his arguments, but I never called him any names. So far you’re the only one to do that.

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