Thursday, October 18, 2007

review: indie rock hates black people [now with addendum!]


[sure to be edited later for typos when i can be motivated to give a shit.]

[ok, still not edited, but new addendum to follow at the end.]

well, maybe less a review, more a (rambling, natch) open letter, but either way, since i'm sick of pontificating about the fall tv schedule, i thought i'd weigh in on that sasha frere-jones article in the new yorker that laments how white rock music is. my initial reaction, naturally, was something along the above/best jpg of all time.

what's next? why aren't there more black artists making rockabilly? how does kathy from the thermals sleep at night knowing the drums on the last (excellent) record were so far from funky? since racial musical fusion equals credibility why does nobody praise the insane clown posse where praise is due?

then i started wondering when sasha frere-jones (now just f-j-- i'm lazy and his name, while not his fault, strikes me as pretentious) decided to be rock crit's point man on race; let us remember a year or so ago he went after the magnetic fields' stephin merritt for alleged racist tendencies. the accusation wasn't based on stephin's music, because if you're going to equate all dry, synth-y music with racism, then you'd have to expect every erasure or new order concert to turn into a klan meeting, and this is not the case. a gay pride parade, mayhaps, but f-j has not chosen homophobia as his cause (even though that's much more rampant in popular music, across several genres, including/especially those genres considered black, but that doesn't make for a sexy new pitch).

stephin merritt was outed as a racist for making a passing comment about how much he enjoyed the music from everybody's favorite incredibly offensive disney movie, "song of the south." and while the movie is more certainly racist, the song "zip-a-dee doo-dah" isn't so much, and it happens to be featured prominently in the film (which you might not know since disney prefers to act like "song of the south" never happened).

[photo: stephin merritt, face of hate (or at least a disdainful quip)]

mr. f-j also cited an article in the times in which merritt was asked to name a handful of his current favorite records, all of which were made by white people. oh, and merritt said in time out ny that he doesn't like rap music and named some specific black artists he found distasteful. thus, stephin merritt was labeled a racist. by these standards, most people i know over 40, white or black, are racists, but whatever.

because what you'd think f-j would know, as a knowledgeable rock critic for the paper of record as well as a former professional musician in the band Ui (which reached the height of their "popularity" during the indie rock heyday of the early/mid-90s just when the magnetic fields also peaked), is that stephin merritt is a cranky, drole, misanthropic gay dude who caps every sentence with a sigh and considers himself more of a composer than a rock musician. in other words, that merritt doesn't like rap, or doesn't acknowledge the forgotten, toxic context of a classic song, isn't only unremarkable, but totally meaningless. maybe it would be interesting if he pulled a paul simon, went to the congo, and returned with a record that sounded like cole porter meets fela kuti, but his failure to do so doesn't exactly put him on par with don imus.

so now we have round two, this new yorker piece that shows the general removal of black influence from white music, and even though its general assertion is nowhere near as hollow as his attack on merritt, it still seems awfully misguided. when johnathan franzen wrote that piece in harpers attacking the modern novel, he at least through down the gauntlet for someone, namely himself, to get fiction out of its rut.

but what is f-j trying to do with his platform? arrange a sit down between radiohead and al sharpton? because what he's actually doing, at least as far as i'm concerned, is doing what every rock fan over the age of 30 does when they talk about music, whether they're paid to do it or not-- bitch about how much better it used to be, whether that means it was more "pure," more "original," or, to chose f-j's approach, more "black."

[photo: "wilco? hell no i will not!"]

and every one of those fans can reel off examples, give loads of supporting evidence by way of naming all the bands they used to love in high school. rock critics might consider themselves more objective, but at the end of the day, it's hard to pretend that you weren't once a 16-year-old who truly believed that husker du/pavement/the arcade fire saved your life. and if you're chosen rock criticism as your career, you really do buy the life saving bit, because otherwise, you wouldn't have entered a field that pays you less than a part-time gig at wendy's, but garners you even less respect.

but, while being a "serious" critic and writing about music that's maybe slightly more obscure than you're average 3 star special in rolling stone is more artistically satisfying for the author, it's also often about as interesting to read as a description of someone else's dreams. [and i'm not talking here about interviews/band profiles, i'm talking straight up criticism-- record/concert reviews, essays like the one in question, etc.]

if you're writing for what you know is a knowledgeable audience, like a review for arthur or wire, you're a, not getting paid, and b, essentially wasting your time unless you have something unfavorable or provocative to say. because a positive review will read like an effusive, flowerly shopping list of the band's equally excellent influences, and besides, if you're writing to an audience of record nerds, they're probably aware of the record already and don't really care about your opinion. unless of course your opinion is vitriolic and controversial. (but not so vitriolic as to anger the record company so they cease sending you promos, the sale of which to used record stores being your only reliable source of income since, remember, you're not getting paid.).

then again, magazines and the critical musings therein don't carry the weight that they used to, if only because it's easier to just download a cd and make up your own mind than read what some schmuck has to say before going through none of the trouble of finding a torrent. of course, some rock critics are just fun to read, or at least were, but lester bangs died a long time ago, and those who emulate his style these days often read like that high, overly-serious, talky asshole at the party who really needs you to understand why this band he just saw at that warehouse near that restaurant by where that other club used to be is the best band and how their mixture of feedback, noseharp, and a singer who wears pantyhose over her jeans (and also has big tits) will change your MOTHERFUCKING LIFE.

[photo: lester bangs-- fan of rock music, cough syrup, and prophetic garments]

f-j acknowledges the way the internet's changed music-- he asserts that easy access is part of the reason that musical strands don't intersect-- which, when you think about it, seems to be the opposite of true. while i grew up in the age of having to get tapped into a secret rock society by some elder statesman/your friend's sister in college who'd then guide you to an unrest cd, these days kids can get entire discographies in a fraction of the time it took me to hunt down "fuck pussy galore and all her friends." if anything, music is mixing at such a rapid rate that you don't even notice what influences come from where.

when the stones "borrowed" from the blues, it was innovative and exciting. 40 fucking years later, when robert johnson and muddy waters are now a permanent part of rock dna, going back to the lab and adding more blatant blackness to rock music results in korn and limp bizkit-- not only shitty, but ├╝ber-white, if that's possible. but often, either because these cross overs are so commonplace we don't notice them or because these influences are coming from so many places that they aren't easy to place, the music produced these days is as much of an indiscernible slurry as the contents of your fridge put through a cuisinart.

there might not be any obvious "blackness" in the arcade fire's music (music, which, by the way, sounds a lot like 3 mile pilot/isn't music i particularly like)-- none of the heavy percussion or ye olde call-and-response that f-j refers to (and which, when singled out that like and given african roots, has a jimmy-the-greek quality to it that gives me the willies)-- but i guarantee you it's there. if they're borrowing from virutally any band from the 60s, then they're borrowing from black music second hand. or third hand, since they're canadian.

one thing f-j also fails to remember, despite being a rock critic and a former musician, is that the influences a band names and the influences you hear on their records aren't always the same thing; eg, i once read an interview with L7 in sassy where they sincerely claimed to be influenced by del tha funkee homosapien. f-j lists of a handful of black influences on Ui, but i saw this band twice in my life, and to me they sounded like yet more of the mathy bullshit that was so popular in their day, another band to put on a bill with tortoise and five 5tyle that everyone (read: critics) thought were so innovative but to me sounded like minimalistic phish, all the notes with none of the "fun." so yeah, i did not hear the meters. and at both shows, they managed to be both testy and stiff; james brown, they were not.

[photo: if you listen closely, you can really hear traces of "bob dobalina" all over "hungry for stink".]

[one of those shows i saw was when Ui opened for stereolab at nyu-- the opening opening act, it's worth noting, was dj spooky, who is not only the least funky/soulful/let's just say black djs alive (despite being black), but is also proof that anyone can call themselves a dj regardless of what they do with or without turntables, because this guy didn't spin records or even turntablize as much as spend a half-hour recreating the sonic experience of a running dishwasher (how do i remember? i wrote a review). how that's dj'ing, i'm not sure, but whatever, i made dinner tonight on a stove, so now i'm dj dinner. why the fuck not.]

[photo: Ui, although i can understand why you'd mistake them for earth, wind & fire.]

so f-j, feeling ever so deeply that things aren't as good as they used to be, truly believing his old band stole the soul, and hoping to god not to lose two of the sweetest gigs in the history of rock criticism by seeming irrelevant, has decided to take on (and in some ways create) the issue of race in (indie) rock. this despite all of the argumentative flaws mentioned above, praising dinosaur bands that actually straight-up stole from black musicians, and, most of all, the strange, ridiculous notion that indie rock actually means something; that it is a viable, popular form of artistic expression worth analyzing, applying high ethical standards to, and lamenting over in any way. in other words, i'm glad (indie) rock saved his life (and mine too, maybe), but that doesn't mean it's objectively important, especially to people who aren't white, socially retarded, and myopic (and i mean in the literal, glasses-wearing sense, but behold how it works both ways).

the irony is that there are countless writers searching to make music relevant enough to other people so they can make a living of it as critics, but they start taking it so seriously they sterilize away all the "life saving" qualities they once held so dear. in some ways, making indie rock seem important is f-j's job; in other ways, making it important in that way is what makes rock criticism suck so much in the first place, makes it seem even more arbitrary and ridiculous. like thinking your band will be the next great rock/funk hybrid when they really sound like a singing calculator.

i hope f-j's opinion serves him well-- keeps tongues wagging, gets him a raise, maybe a spot as a talking head on a vh1 special or two (and won't kalefa sanneh be pissed!). but he has to know deep down that indie rock isn't any more or less black (or just plain broken) than it was when he found it, played it, or started writing about it. rock has not forsaken you, f-j-- you needn't go to your room, put on that grizzly bear record, and hold your knees wondering why they're the only band that understands. don't kill the messenger, or whitey. rock doesn't need saving anymore than your life does. nor, i guess, if you keep writing provocative pap like this, does your career.

[below: husker du might have saved your life, but if you keep writing stupid shit that makes you sound like the president of your high school's multicultural society/annual sponsor of a zebrahead screening and discussion group, husker du are more than willing to taketh that life away.]


[addendum: please note that i did not write this to a pick fight with anyone. so then you might wonder why i did write this-- and publish it in the most public of forums, no less!-- and the answer is, i did it to amuse myself and the 6 people who know this site exists. were i good at self-promoting, and i am not (see my other co-blog, linked to the right), this would certainly be intended as a tossing of an e-gauntlet, but as it stands, not so much.

[[i used to promote shows, and it wasn't really my thing, if only because promoters have to promote themselves as much as the shows they're putting on (or at least that's what i gleaned from the half semester i spent at Sean Agnew's Institute for Promotional Technologies before i dropped out. i sometimes regret not sticking around since some promoter [not sean, who i've never met and who, during the time i was at SAIPT, was taking a sabbatical in mike mckee's beard] taught a masterclass junior year i really could have used called "not paying interns, venues, or taxes: greed as scene pride!," and for some reason it was always held in a parking lot in williamsburg and was actually a matt & kim show.]]

[[[if you didn't get any of the above references, don't worry, it just means you've never been to abc no rio/eat meat/have a life. sincerely, viva you, teach me your ways. oh, and much respek to matt & kim. and mike. and fine, everyone else i mentioned in the above tangent, whatever it takes to be able to make a joke without starting beef, especially since everybody mentioned above is probably vegan.]]]

"good" freelance writers, and by "good" i mean "not working a day job," can self-promote with ease, usually by writing articles like the one i take umbrage with above and starting fires all over town. this is not my style. getting people to hate you is a short-cut to notoriety, but i'd rather be undercover than pride myself on how much i piss people off, especially if the off-pissing is done for off-pissing's sake.

and don't think, based on the length and number of images i pulled from google, that the above essay reflects that i care a great deal about this issue or the author of issue-y essay, because i think i wrote an equal number of words about some tv show about assholes i only watched 15 minutes of and really didn't like. i once filled six post-it notes with instructions for 2 hours of dog care. mama likes to write.

don't think you have to be a fire-starting business card-giver to succeed in freelance, either-- i've gotten some of the best writing jobs i've ever had this past year, and i live like a monk right down to the robe and pretzels. and strangely, those jobs have been virtually anonymous. i'm a leaf on the wind, watch how i soar, etc.

long story short, increase the peace, but decrease the foolish notion that indie rock was, is, or will ever be a sound of blackness. i'm going to go listen to "pretty suzanne" by the monks now (the chorus is "please please love me!"-- ironic!). manatee out.]

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