happened to be reading through hipper-than-thou rag The New Yorker this morning and saw this bit of hysteria from white apologist Sasha Frere-Jones. I don't really want to add any commentary without allowing you folks to first read the piece, but suffice to say that Mr. Jones just wants to swing, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2007/10/22/071022crmu_music_frerejones
A Paler Shade of White
How indie rock lost its soul.
by Sasha Frere-Jones
In May, I went with a friend to see the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire perform at the United Palace, a gilded rococo church in Washington Heights that seats more than three thousand and doubles as a theatre. The band was playing to a noisily receptive crowd during what has been a very successful year. Arcade Fire’s latest album, “Neon Bible,” which was released here in March, has sold more than three hundred thousand copies—an impressive number for an indie band during an industry-wide sales slump—and the group was on its second visit to New York in three months.
The band, six men and three women, shared the stage with half a dozen curved screens and slender red fluorescent lights, which encircled the musicians like a ring of candles. In January, at a less elaborate show in a small London church, the band’s members had called to mind Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas—their execution was ragged but full of brio—and I had spent the evening happily pressed against the stage. At the United Palace, even though the music was surging in all the right places, I was weary after six songs. My friend asked me, “Do they play everything in the same end-of-the-world style?”
Arcade Fire’s singer and songwriter, Win Butler, writes lyrics that allude to big, potentially buzz-killing themes: guilt, rapture, death, redemption. And because, for the most part, he deals convincingly with these ideas, the band has been likened to older bands known for passion and gravitas, including the Clash. (On tour, Arcade Fire sometimes plays a cover of the Clash’s anti-police-brutality anthem “Guns of Brixton.”)
By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.
There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands’ as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. 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.
It’s difficult to talk about the racial pedigree of American pop music without being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse, and such suspicion is often warranted. In the case of many popular genres, the respective contributions of white and black musical traditions are nearly impossible to measure. In the nineteen-twenties, folk music was being recorded for the first time, and it was not always clear where the songs—passed from generation to generation and place to place—had come from. The cadence of African slave hollers shaped the rising and falling patterns of blues singing, but there is still debate about the origins of the genre’s basic chord structure—I-IV-V—and how that progression became associated with a singing style on plantations and in Southern prisons. In 1952, the record collector Harry Smith released “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a highly regarded compilation (and, later, a source for Bob Dylan), which showed that white “country” performers and black “blues” artists had recorded similar material in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, singing about common legends, such as “Stackalee,” over similar chord progressions. Even the call-and-response singing that is integral to many African-American church services may have been brought to America by illiterate Scottish immigrants who learned Scripture by singing it back to the pastor as he read it to them.
Yet there are also moments in the history of pop music when it’s not difficult to figure out whose chocolate got in whose peanut butter. In 1960, on a train between Dartford and London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then teen-agers, bonded over a shared affinity for obscure blues records. (Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters.) “Twist and Shout,” a song that will forever be associated with the Beatles, is in fact a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers. In sum, as has been widely noted, the music that inspired some of the most commercially successful rock bands of the sixties and seventies—among them Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad—was American blues and soul.
The Beatles, especially in Paul McCartney’s compositions, married blues and soul with the verse-chorus-bridge structure common to songs from the English music hall and Tin Pan Alley, and hooked teen-agers on a combination of Irving Berlin and Muddy Waters that previously would have been unthinkable. Similarly, when Mick Jagger stopped trying to imitate Bobby Womack he became, musically speaking, an original—a product of miscegenation. He sang with weird menace and charm, and with an accent that placed him in an unidentifiable neighborhood (with more than one bar) somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Jagger’s knock-kneed dancing may have begun as an homage to Little Richard’s exuberant hamming, but he eventually devised his own style—a bewitching flexion of knees and elbows.
The borrowing went both ways. Keith Richards wanted a horn section to play the main guitar riff in the Stones’ 1965 single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” on the theory that this would make the song sound like an American soul track. But the song was recorded without a horn section, and immediately became popular, inspiring several covers. One of the better ones was by Otis Redding. (“Otis Redding got it right,” Richards said.)
Until Michael Jackson, another soul singer, achieved international prominence, in the late seventies, however, some of the most successful venders of American black music were not black. MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it got up the courage to play the video for Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in 1983. (Jackson was the first black artist to appear on the channel, though it had played videos by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates.) Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is the second-biggest-selling record of all time (after “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”), but he alone could not alter pop music’s racial power balance. Black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim. This pattern held until 1992, when the Los Angeles rapper and producer Dr. Dre released “The Chronic,” an album whose star performer was a new rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg.
You could argue that Dr. Dre and Snoop were the most important pop musicians since Bob Dylan and the Beatles. There had already been several important hip-hop hits: the 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang, which marked the genre’s commercial début; the 1986 remake of “Walk This Way,” a raplike song by the white seventies rock band Aerosmith that the group rerecorded with the black hip-hop trio Run-DMC (as pure an example of musical miscegenation as there can be); and the 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton,” by Dr. Dre’s group N.W.A., which helped make sampling and sexually violent lyrics central to hip-hop’s aesthetic.
“The Chronic,” which has sold more than five million copies, upended established paradigms. It presented rappers chanting over smooth funk played on live instruments, as well as over grainy digital samples of old records, and in doing so it changed hip-hop’s sound. It started a conceptual migration, establishing the template for hip-hop from outside New York—especially in the South, a region that has recently come to dominate the genre. Hip-hop became music for driving; it was designed to soothe. (The heavy bass frequencies cause car seats to vibrate, literally massaging the passengers.) The menace was now limited to the lyrics, which featured increasingly explicit tales of gunplay and sex, creating a dissonance between sound and sense that typifies gangsta rap even today.
Videos of songs from “The Chronic” were broadcast on MTV, and Snoop, then a twenty-year-old former gang member from Long Beach, California, who delivered his grim narratives with laid-back aplomb, became the face of hip-hop for many people who had little experience with the genre. If young white musicians had been imitating black ones, it was partly because they had been able to do so in the dark, so to speak. In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin’s audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its début album. (After Dixon sued Led Zeppelin, the band credited him with the song.)
By the mid-nineties, the biggest rock stars in the world were rappers, and the potential for embarrassment had become a sufficient deterrent for white musicians tempted to emulate their black heroes. Who would take on Snoop, one of the most naturally gifted vocalists of the day? Of course, a few did—there have been white rappers and several commercial, if generally unappealing, blends of rock and rap. But, in the thirty years since hip-hop became widely available, there have been only three genuinely popular white rap acts: the Beastie Boys, whose biggestselling album sold to kids who were more taken with the Led Zeppelin samples and the lewd jokes than with the rap music; Vanilla Ice, an anomaly who owes much of his success to his vertical hair and the decision to rap (in “Ice Ice Baby”) over “Under Pressure,” a song by David Bowie and Queen that has proved immune to destruction; and Eminem, the exception who proves the rule. 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.
In the mid- and late eighties, as MTV began granting equal airtime to videos by black musicians, academia was developing a doctrine of racial sensitivity that also had a sobering effect on white musicians: political correctness. Dabbling in black song forms, new or old, could now be seen as an act of appropriation, minstrelsy, or co-optation. A political reading of art took root, ending an age of innocent—or, at least, guilt-free—pilfering. This wasn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost. Rather, it was as though your parents had come home and turned on the lights.
I’ve spent much of my life playing music, and on and off since 1990 I’ve been a member of a funk band called Ui. We’ve had six members, all white, though most of the musicians who inspire our sound are black (the New Orleans band the Meters; several artists who played with Miles Davis in the seventies; various Jamaican rhythm sections) or are white bands heavily indebted to black music (Led Zeppelin, the German band Can). We released our first record in 1993—a vinyl EP available only in England, the first in a series of dubious marketing decisions—and the handful of reviews that it received were factually accurate, citing the bands I’ve mentioned as influences and recognizing that we were primarily interested in making instrumental funk, not in singing. The singing, what little there was, was my job, and it caused me to start thinking about musical miscegenation.
When we played our version of funk or dub reggae, or tried to make a synthesizer sound like a dolphin fixing a tractor (tough but doable), it felt natural. Most of our music didn’t require singing, but a few pieces needed the sound of a human voice to round them out. Yet singing stumped me. Except for a single, miraculous week when I was sixteen, I’ve never rapped successfully, and melodic singing was inappropriate for the jumpy, polyrhythmic music we played. So I fudged, splitting the difference between singing, chanting, and rapping, each time with diminishing returns. (I can hardly stand to listen to these tracks now.) And the problem was clearly related to race. It seemed silly to try to sound “black,” but that is what happened, no matter how hard I tried not to. In some ways, this was the result of a categorical confusion, the assumption that if I could use my hands to play a derivation of black music with any authority I could use my voice to do the same thing. Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting. By the time we recorded our last album, in 2003, I had given up singing altogether. It had become clear to me that, to understate the case wildly, I lacked the ability of Mick Jagger and Prince and any number of other great rockers to fuse disparate traditions into a sound that was obviously related but unique—a true offspring.
Many indie bands seemed to be having complex reactions of their own to musical miscegenation. The indie genre emerged in the early eighties, in the wake of British bands such as the Clash and Public Image Ltd., and originally incorporated black sources, using them to produce a new music, characterized by brevity and force, and released on independent labels. The Minutemen, a group of working-class white musicians from San Pedro, California, who were influential in the late eighties, wrote frantic political rants that were simultaneously jazz, punk, and funk, without sounding like any of these genres. But by the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock. Pavement, a group that the Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, in 1997, called “the finest rock band of the nineties—by critical acclamation,” embodied this trajectory. The band’s first drummer, Gary Young, had a strong sense of swing and a solid backbeat (at least, when he managed to stay on his drum stool), but after his departure, in 1993, Pavement began producing a flat-footed mixture of shaggy, improvisational rock and sylvan curlicues taken from obscure folk groups.
During the same period, indie-band singers abandoned full-throated vocals and began to mumble and moan, and to hide their voices under noise. Lyrics became increasingly allusive and oblique. (From Pavement’s 1995 song “Grave Architecture”: “Am I just a bathtub waiting to be gripped or found on shady ground? And the lampshade’s poised on the overwhelm. Drugs, and need the talent to breathe.”) Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse. (Two currently popular indie acts, Panda Bear and Sufjan Stevens, are well schooled in Wilson’s beatific, multi-tracked harmonies, which evoke the sound of glee clubs and church choirs.)
Wilco’s 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which won that year’s Pazz and Jop national critics’ poll in the Village Voice, is one of the most celebrated indie-rock records of the past five years. (It was released on Nonesuch, which was a subsidiary of the major label Atlantic—further evidence that “indie rock” has become an aesthetic description, and no longer has anything to do with labels.) Wilco, which formed in 1994, was initially an alt-country band, whose songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, demonstrated a knack for writing clipped, vernacular descriptions of relationships and emotional states. The band’s 1996 album, “Being There,” is one of the few alt-country records that I play. It is indebted to a couple of readily identifiable sources—country (as the Rolling Stones played it) and bluegrass—and the music has a pleasing crackle. But after that 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. (“Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs, tuned to chords strung down your cheeks.”) The album features synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback-, which fail to give shape to the formless music. A little more syncopation would have helped.
Other flagship indie bands—the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins—occasionally produce memorable hooks and moments of inspired juxtaposition. (The Fiery Furnaces have a constantly mutating lineup of instruments, which makes the band sound, at its best, like a jukebox on the fritz.) Grizzly Bear, the indie band that excites me most right now, is making songs with no apparent links to black American music—or any readily identifiable genre. (The band’s sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon.) But, in the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness.
How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can’t imagine any of these musicians retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.
The segregation occurred in both directions. Beginning in the late eighties, there were several high-profile lawsuits involving sampling. In 1991, a U.S. federal court ruled that the rapper Biz Markie’s use on his album “I Need a Haircut” of a sample from a song by Gilbert O’Sullivan constituted willful infringement. (The album was withdrawn from stores and rereleased without the offending track.) A similar suit led to a decision by a federal appeals court, in 2004, that the use of even three notes from someone else’s work could be a violation of copyright, making it difficult for all but the wealthiest rappers to use samples. For twenty years, beginning in the mid-eighties, with the advent of drum machines that could store brief digital excerpts of records, sampling had encouraged integration. (Think of De La Soul rhyming over an excerpt from the seventies educational cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock!” or of Jay-Z rapping over a snippet from the Broadway musical “Annie.”) In practice, the ruling obliged hip-hop producers to write their own music, which left them with a larger share of royalties. And, as producers became as powerful and as well known as rappers, having a distinctive sound that wasn’t associated with another genre or artist became an asset. Rap musicians, lacking incentives to appropriate other sounds, began to stress regional differences instead: in Atlanta, the rugged, spare sound of crunk; in the Bay Area, the whizzing, burping, synthesizer-dominated sound of the hyphy movement.
The most important reason for the decline of musical miscegenation, however, is social progress. Black musicians are now as visible and as influential as white ones. They are granted the same media coverage, recording contracts, and concert bookings, a development that the Internet, along with dozens of new magazines and cable shows devoted to celebrities, has abetted by keeping pop stars constantly in the public eye. Even unheralded musicians don’t need Led Zeppelin to bring their songs to the masses anymore: an obscure artist can find an audience simply by posting an MP3 on MySpace. The Internet, by democratizing access to music—anybody, anywhere can post or download a song on MySpace—has also made individual genres less significant. Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click “shuffle” on their iPods. Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album “Double Up.” Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan. The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a reason the lights were off.