This is a response to A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost its Soul by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker. It’s a long article, so I’ll summerize it for you here: Sasha believes that indie rock is not influenced by black music, as rock music has been from the beginning. And he thinks that’s a bad thing. He’s not anti-indie rock, it’s just an observation. It’s a great article, and I highly recommend reading all 3.5 pages.
I feel like the article opened a can of worms, which is probably why I liked it. He was doing just fine until he brought up Wilco, specifically, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. He brings up that Wilco had been an alt-country band, playing country as the Stones played it.
Wilco and Tweedy, presumably under the influence of other indie bands, drifted from accessible songs toward atomization and noise. On “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the lyrics are embarrassing poetry laid over plodding rhythms. The album features synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback-, which fail to give shape to the formless music. A little more syncopation would have helped.
Ring ring. Um hello, Sasha? Yeah, it’s me music. I just wanted to let you know that I’m evolving.
Rock cannot continue to be derivative of itself after decades of feeding from the same source (black blues, which gave birth to country, then rockabilly, then rock as we grew to love it). It’s a generational thing. Bands today are farther from the black roots of rock than the Stones were. Of course Brian Wilson is a major influence on indie rock. He was one of the few biggies in the 60s who created his own unique style. He was ahead of his time, and he was uniquely American. The British bands of the 60s were so heavily influenced by the blues and black American music — they depleted the source. So, what’s left?
What I hear in indie rock today is the influence of early 20th century white music — banjos, accordions, autoharp, slide guitar, interesting finger picking styles, etc. And it’s a breath of fresh air for me. The sound is richer and I like the emphasis on melody. So what if it’s more European than African? Rock needed to be revived in the 90s, and it looked beyond the old influences.
The pic caption on the first page says, “Why did rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, undergo a racial re-sorting in the nineties?” My answer – Hip hop became more popular than rock and even pop to some extent at that time. Rock has a fundamentally different sound than hip hop, so the borrowing had to end. For the most part, black musicians haven’t been doing straight up rock for 50 years. Who segregated who?
And you can’t tell me this started with indie rock. What about punk? New wave? These were angry and romantic/nerdy white boys speaking their minds for the most part. They were creating bare noise with electric guitars or layers of noise with synths. Neither are very rhythmic.
Maybe I’m biased, but I think the important thing about indie rock today is that it’s more inclusive of women. A lot of the big bands include female musicians and even lead singers. This is a major step up from the Lilith Fair style of “women’s rock” of the 90s. The women aren’t up there as women, they’re up there as musicians, plain and simple. It’s getting us closer to equality.
If this guy misses rhythm in rock, he can go back to his old CDs. Indie rock shoots for beauty above bouncing. It commands you to really listen, not just mindlessly tap your foot or shake your booty. Hip hop talks about sex more than enough for the entire industry anyway. As for indie rock missing “soul”, I don’t know how he can bring up Grizzly Bear and not realize he’s wrong. They have beautiful, soulful voices; it’s just that they aren’t smashed against a wall of beats.
Maybe it has something to do with indie rock being associated with “college music”. I’m not saying that indie rock is more sophisticated than rock in the past or other music, but it certainly appeals to people in a different segment of society.
I think the last page of the article sums everything up great. “Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan.” I think this is key. Even 40 years ago, there was a need to bring black musicians to the forefront by copying them, because they were ignored by the masses. Now, they’re everywhere. They don’t need white man’s sympathy to get acclaim and fans.
It is embarrassing how white the shows I go to are. At Interpol, there was an older black man sitting a couple rows behind me. I wondered what he liked about these downtown New Yorkers up on stage. Maybe he’s never been into blues or soul, or perhaps he’s not as hung up on the apparently loss of soul as Sasha is.