The Trouble With Indie Rock

It’s not just race. It’s class.

The Arcade Fire

New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones has often indicated boredom and annoyance with a lot of the critically acclaimed, music-blog, and/or NPR-approved “indie rock” of this decade. This week, in an article, a couple of blog entries, and a podcast, he tries to articulate why. His answer? It’s not black enough; it lacks “swing, some empty space and palpable bass frequencies”; it doesn’t participate lustily in the grand (and problematic) tradition of musical “miscegenation” that’s given American music, especially rock ’n’ roll, its kick.

To give bite to the accusation, Frere-Jones names a few names, beginning with the Arcade Fire and adding Wilco, the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, and Devendra Banhart, plus indie-heroes past, Pavement. He contrasts them with the likes of the Clash, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Public Image Ltd., Bob Dylan, the Minutemen, Nirvana, and even Grand Funk Railroad as examples of willful, gleeful, racial-sound-barrier-breaching white rockers of yore.

As indicated in his pre-emptive blog post, the piece is a provocation, as is Frere-Jones’s M.O., and that is welcome at a time when musical discussion revolves numbingly around which digital-distribution method can be most effectively “monetized.” (Current champ: Radiohead.) But many commentators have pointed out his article’s basic problems of consistency and accuracy: Frere-Jones’ story is that the rise of Pavement as role models and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as rivals in the 1990s marked a quick indie retreat from bluesiness and danceability. Yet the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from “underground” rock goes back to the ‘70s and ‘80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.

While it’s possible to cherry-pick exceptions ever since, Frere-Jones does so selectively, overlooking the likes of Royal Trux or the Afghan Whigs in the 1990s, or more recently, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Spoon, Battles and the dance-punks LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, and Junior Senior, almost all of whom appear on his own best-of-the-year list in progress. Last March, in direct contradiction to what he says in this week’s New Yorker essay, Frere-Jones wrote in an LCD Soundsystem review: “About five years ago, indie rockers began to rediscover the pleasures of rhythm.” Where are those indie rockers now? Vanished, because they would mess with his thesis. He isn’t really talking about all of indie rock, but a folkier subset that’s hardly trying to be rock at all. But to say so would be less dramatic.

The article also tends troublingly to reduce “black music” to rhythm and sexuality, and to elide the differences between, say, funk, soul, disco, folk-blues, Caribbean, and African influences in white rock. While he justifiably frames the issue as an American one, at least half of Frere-Jones’ lauded precedents are British, a context in which appropriating black American music has vastly different connotations. His lead example, the Arcade Fire, is likewise un-American, hailing from Montreal (one of its leaders, Régine Chassagne, has family roots in Haiti). The piece also switches at its convenience between mainstream rock history and the “underground” genealogy of indie, while never balancing the scales by addressing current hit-making rockers like Fall Out Boy or the White Stripes, who remain heavier on groove.

One could go on playing “gotcha” at the expense of Frere-Jones’ intended thrust, which mainly indicates that this piece needed another draft or two. This is odd, because “indie whiteness” is a subject he’s been banging on about in many forums for several years. (Frere-Jones is also a sometime white-indie-rocker himself.) His consistent mistake seems to be to talk about musical issues as if they were nearly autonomous from larger social dynamics. It’s the blind spot of a genuine music lover, but it grants music culture too much power and assigns it too much blame.

For instance, the separation of racial influences in American music arguably begins with the 1970s demise of Top 40 radio, which coincided with the Black Power movement and the withering of the integrationist ideals of the civil rights era. Frere-Jones nods in this direction when he talks about “political correctness,” but he reduces the issue to an “academic” critique rather than a vast shift in racial relations and, more importantly, expectations. The brands of “authenticity” that both punk and hip-hop came to demand, which tended to discourage the cross-pollination and “miscegenation” of musical forms, are in keeping with the identity politics that became dominant in the 1980s as well as the de facto resegregation of black and white communities that began in the Reagan era. This is the counternarrative to the cultural-level “social progress” that Frere-Jones rightly points out, in which explicit racism has retreated and black entertainers have come to dominate the mainstream.

It’s not just because Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were such great artists that white people were afraid to imitate them—they’re no better than John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters, and dozens of others whom white artists have happily mimicked in the past. Rather it’s that this kind of “theft” became a capital cultural crime, and not just in the academy (how many ‘90s indie rockers knew by heart the verses in “Fight the Power,” where Public Enemy calls Elvis a “straight-up racist, simple and plain”?). If gangsta rap marked a break, it was because hip-hop became coded to reflect the retrenchment of the “Two Americas” and the resultant combative, near-separatist mood among African-Americans. It was deliberately made less assimilable, a development reinforced by the marketplace when white suburban kids turned out to love its more extremist voice.

You could argue that it’s always incumbent on the artists to come back swinging by presenting an alternative vision. Some have tried—unfortunately, often in the form of jam bands and rock-rap groups—but the diminished street-level faith in an integrationist future means there’s not as much optimism about integrationist music. What’s more, racial lines in the United States no longer divide primarily into black and white. When “miscegenation” does happen in music now, it’s likely to be more multicultural than in Frere-Jones’ formula, as in rainbow-coalition bands such as Antibalas and Ozomatli.

Ultimately, though, the “trouble with indie rock” may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that’s the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It’s a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off “hipsters” busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded “creative” college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young “knowledge workers” in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it’s seldom their main point.) This doesn’t make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it’s also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor. This year even saw several indie bands playing in “Pops” concerts at summer symphony programs; that’s no sin (and good for the symphonies), but it’s about as class-demarcated as it gets.

Among at least a subset of (the younger) musicians and fans, this class separation has made indie more openly snobbish and narrow-minded. In the darkest interpretation, one could look at the split between a harmony-and-lyrics-oriented indie field and a rhythm-and-dance-specialized rap/R&B scene as mirroring the developing global split between an internationalist, educated comprador class (in which musically, one week Berlin is hot, the next Sweden, the next Canada, the next Brazil) and a far less mobile, menial-labor market (consider the more confining, though often musically exciting, regionalism that Frere-Jones outlines in hip-hop). The elite status and media sway that indie rock enjoys, disproportionate to its popularity, is one reason the cultural politics of indie musicians and fans require discussion in the first place, a point I wish Frere-Jones had clarified in The New Yorker; perhaps in that context it goes without saying.

The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in “slacker”/grunge music, it’s now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics (including both Frere-Jones and me) find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)

Yet this is a problem having to do with the muddled state of white masculinity today, and it’s not soluble by imitating some image of black male sexuality (which, as hip-hop and R&B amply demonstrate, is dealing with its own crises). Are we supposed to long for the days when Zeppelin and the Stones fetishized fantasies of black manhood, in part as a cover for misogyny? If forced to choose between tolerating some boringly undersexed rock music and reviving the, er, “vigorous” sexual politics of cock rock, I’ll take the boring rock, thanks—for now.

If class, at least as much as race, is the elephant in this room, one of the more encouraging signals lately might be the recent mania for Bruce Springsteen—as if a dim memory suddenly has surfaced that white working-class culture once had a kind of significant berth in rock ’n’ roll, too. (It’s now moved to Nashville.) I was unexpectedly moved by the video of Win and Régine from the Arcade Fire playing “Keep the Car Running” (Frere-Jones’ No. 15 song of the year so far) live with the Boss onstage Sunday in Ottawa. The performance itself aside, their presence in front of an arena audience that mostly had no idea who the hell they were shows the chutzpah it takes to resist niche-market fragmentation. (And sure, I’d be at least as happy if they’d been doing it with Stevie Wonder, and even more if they were sharing the stage with Dr. Dre.)

My armchair sociology may be as reductive as Frere-Jones’ potted rock history, but the point is that the problem of style segregation can’t be solved by calling upon Sufjan Stevens to funk up his rhythm section. I’m as much a devotee of genre-mixing as Frere-Jones, when it works (I’ve even used the loaded term “miscegenation” in articles for years), but I’ve noticed that when indie musicians do grapple with hip-hop rhythms, using their own voices and perspectives (my friends in Ninja High School in Toronto, for instance), they’re usually lambasted by critics who fancy themselves arbiters of realness for being an insulting joke. The culture-crossing inhibitions exist for reasons beyond mere timidity, and snorting “get over it” is not enough.

The impetus may have to come from the currently dominant side of the pop market—and increasingly that is what we’re seeing. Kanye West doesn’t much care about the race of the people he samples, while Justin Timberlake cares very much what race his producer is (African-American, please), and OutKast and Gnarls Barkley play teasing, Prince-like crossover games. If it’s going to be re-established that such moves are legit, it will happen on the charts for a while before the more cautious and self-conscious rock-in-decline types feel free to do it too. Which, as a turnabout, seems rather like fair play.