So yeah, I wouldn’t be much of a music-esque blog if I didn’t address Sasha Frere-Jones’ piece in the New Yorker this week. While the entirety of “A Paler Shade of White” is required reading, this will give you the main idea:
I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.
Essentially, Frene-Jones’ thesis is that for a multitude of reasons, the 1990s saw the sonic miscegenation (the merging of races) that defined rock and roll has been replaced by a new segregation, with the leading trendsetters in music dividing along racial lines: hip hop becoming blacker, indie and alternative music becoming whiter. The article pulls no punches, calling out sacred cows of the modern indie movement (Arcade Fire, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) for their lack of rhythm.
My take? It’s an unbelievably frustrating article. On the one hand, there’s a lot of really interesting ideas in here that might hold water, my favourites including the idea that being forced to pay for samples limited mainstream hip hop’s ability to mash genres together, and that white artists are less willing to expropriate black sounds now that black artists have access to the mainstream. And he’s right in one major regard: a lot more indie artists seem to be borrowing more from Brian Wilson than James Brown.
But Frere-Jones loses me almost from the first word, and it’s because he’s chosen a confrontational angle for the piece that seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with borrowing from Brian Wilson instead of James Brown. I’m sure that he’s just doing this to be provocative, but in doing so he gives the article a tone that’s at best off-putting and at worst condescending. Is music only worthwhile if it blends black and white music? Can we really divide music so simplistically into “black and white” anymore?
What is completely missed in “A Paler Shade of White” is that just because some indie music is borrowing less from “black” music – and there are lots of prominent bands like The Rapture or Spoon that Frere-Jones neglects – it doesn’t mean that it’s become self-contained. Artists like Sufjan Stevens are embracing classical music while others like The Knife or LCD Soundsystem connect with electronica. What about a band like Modest Mouse? Or, even better, sample-driven bands like The Avalanches or the Go! Team? To downplay these cross-culture mashes just because they don’t fit a traditional black-white spectrum hardly seems fair, does it?
I’m not the only one who took issue with the article: check out some analysis at Idolater, the Village Voice, and one of the best responses from (of all places) Playboy’s blog (might not want to click on that one if you’re reading this at work).