by carl wilson

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 1

Image from the Dirtbombs blog.

Thanks to everybody who's given feedback on the Slate piece, whether in the Fray at Slate, at ILX, on your own blogs, in the comments section from Friday, or by email. And now, some clarifications, extensions, responses. I will break them into a few posts.

a) The point of my quibbling with Sasha's New Yorker piece was not that he was wrong. It's certainly true that indie rock, whatever-that-is, is a very white - or at least non-black - world, your TV on the Radios and Earl Greyhounds and other exceptions notwithstanding. (That the exceptions are so conspicuous underlines the point.) Rather I just objected to the way I felt he distorted the timeline - I was arguing that rock in general has been getting whiter and whiter for a very long time, and alternative-underground-indie-whatchamacallit rock in particular. People like SFJ and a lot of the British critics, who lived in New York or London in the early 1980s, were lucky to be around for one of the very rare places-and-times where there was a lot of exciting cross-fertilization, theft, mimickry and synthesis going on across cultural lines, and it quite naturally created a permanent hunger in them for that kind of thrill.

But even in that same period in other places, there was a move towards a foursquare, unswinging punk/new-wave metre as a reaction against bar-blues bands and classic rock. Nine times out of ten, a white musician or band's attempt to be anti-mainstream in North America is going to produce a less-"black" sound because, as Sasha rightly says, American mainstream pop music is built very centrally on a black-music-white-music-which-is-which mixture. So a white "alternative" band is probably going to be less R&B; than a mainstream band, because rock's main underpinning is that it's white R&B.; Again, there are exceptions (my favourite one today is The Dirtbombs) but we all know they are exceptions. So if we agree (i) that the whiteness of indie rock is not news; but (ii) that something has seemed a little different, a little troubling, in the state of indie the past few years; then (iii) looking at the changing class positioning of indie seemed like a useful exercise, alongside (but not instead) of race.

b) While my piece was subtitled, "it's not just race, it's class," the point was not just to throw another analytic into the mix. What I was trying to say was more like, "It's not indie rock, it's America." The fact that all these forms are tending towards more self-segregation is a reflection of the social fracture that's been implemented socio-economically over the past 30 years, the neo-conservative era, and while it'd be nice if the artists fought it harder, the fact that art is seeming narrowly segmented right now is a symptom not the source. My main objection to Sasha's piece was that while I know he's well-aware of all that, he leaves it mostly unmentioned. I think it's crucial.

c) In the piece I mention that reducing black music to rhythmic space is problematic - I didn't give this example, but I think Arcade Fire does include black influences via gospel and parade music and Caribbean music, for example, and the freak-folk people are definitely listening to old African-American folk-blues along with Brazilian music and much else. Sasha's perhaps muddied the issue by trying to take in all rock history, which leaves us arguing about how black-influenced Brian Wilson was, when the pivotal question in his piece has to do with hip-hop - the reactions or non-reactions of rock kids to this burgeoning force. It is simply not the same to draw upon generations-old or oceans-away African or African-American-based music as it is to engage with the "other" music and musicians of your own time - the latter is a lot riskier and more fraught, but also for that reason more exciting. I tried to underline some of the social reasons it hasn't happened that I thought Sasha slid by too easily, but his question stands.

d) Some people have objected to the word "miscegenation" because of its "ugly history" etc., but I think this is the strength of Sasha's case: There's ugliness everywhere in these matters, but what if we dared to trample the niceties and go for the utopian gold anyway? Shut our eyes and bear ahead and stop being polite? He's not just reclaiming the word, he's embracing it with its horrible baggage, realizing that to be American and to talk about race is always to end up smeared with centuries of shit and blood. In some ways he's asking: Which matters more in the long run, making great art or never offending anybody? (And again, to me, class helps explain why "indie" music has tended to get more and more inoffensive, since it's being made by people brought up to have good manners to a fault - sometimes to the point of passive-aggression.)

(Much more to come).

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 2:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)



I'm inclined to agree with the idea that pop-rock and classic rock led to the rejection of blues style playing, because as a guitar player myself, I just can't stand the feel. Even vague referencing sometimes puts me off, but that could be because I'm already biased against the sound. It doesn't evoke race to me, and it doesn't conjure up specific images of Muddy Waters and only getting muddier from there. It's just an aesthetic that does not jibe with me.

Now if I hear a funky guitar line, I'm less likely to instantly discredit it, but at the same time, I'm going to think about it's social/racial connotation. As a kid, I didn't hear this music, and living in Ripley, WV, I certainly didn't know any African Americans. So with the form I'm alienated from, aesthetically and culturally, I am more swayed by both.

Now if I'm playing guitar with a drummer, and there's a hip hop, or funk beat, I don't mind, so long as it's cohesive. I'm aware, and I don't discredit it and look for something more 'fitting,' probably because I've not developed that massive racial schema with the beat. That runs counter to a lot of these discussions, but I was also not beat oriented at first.

I think the flags for race become more difficult to sort out when you have to account for youth, when you go through that critical period in language where I think music is parsed with more fluidity as well. I could probably listen to historically black music, tap my toes, or try playing it to see if it gives me a shiver of 'other' down my spine, but I'd rather just do what feels natural, to varying degrees. Sorry to wander aimlessly, I just can't think in the broad/cultural terms as a sheltered 21 year old.

Posted by Bernard on October 26, 2007 8:38 AM



Ah, but what to make of Jon Spencer: Brown-educated indie-rocker *and* poster boy for miscegenation.

(Hands up for those who had never typed the word "miscegenation" before last week)

Posted by stuberman on October 24, 2007 12:24 PM



I didn't realize we were arguing, but I guess we are!

I'm not sure that the "inoffensiveness" of indie rock has to do with class. I think it has more to do with rock being the "mainstream jazz" for our generation. The style is pretty much played out. As you say in your next post.

As for the purported inoffensiveness of middle-class culture -- have you seen the way those people *dress*??? I would *never* be caught dead in sweat pants at the supermarket. I'm too much of a snob.

Also, lots and lots of poor people try to blend in. Survival strategy.

Posted by john on October 23, 2007 8:31 PM



I suppose I was thinking less of manners-qua-manners, John, and more of an ease with social codes - what things you are supposed to say and what things you are not supposed to say in order to be considered sophisticated and correct. Not about rudeness and politeness - obviously more "entitled" people are very often rude, partly on the basis of social hierarchy. However I still think that being "inoffensive" is a notable middle-class value that is not shared the same way by poorer and rich folks.

You're right that even that much of a generalization is loaded. But we're in Loaded Generalization Zone here, and sometimes it's a place worth visiting. And arguing over.

Posted by zoilus on October 23, 2007 7:59 PM



Marco's point sticks at the underlying assumption of the discussion, which really struck me when I read Simon Reynolds's response to Sasha's piece: All y'all critics are fixated on the New. That's your job. DJs mix the old with the new, as do listeners, and most listeners nowadays miscegenate like crazy.

Musical culture is always a mix of the old and the new, but reviewer culture is hooked in with the capitalist neo-new-new machine. Which is fine, except for the misleading heading of the discussion. We say we're talking about "the state of music," but we're really talking about the state of New music, or current music.

Carl, your point -- which Simon shares, I would guess -- that it's riskier and exhibits more vitality to miscegenate with current music than with the music of the past is good -- I agree too. With this caveat: A lot of the currently popular music -- I'm thinking of hip hop -- is as recycled as anything, musically. To employ a distinction I came across in the writings of Charles Keil, hip hop today has many stylists, but few innovators. I've been an extremely casual listener since 1982 or so -- that's 25 years! (Longer than the period between the debuts of Elvis and the Sex Pistols!) And while hip hop has changed over time, have there been major changes since the early '90s?

The U.S. has been culturally senile since Reagan got elected on the self-contradicting 3-plank platform, "We'll balance the budget by cutting taxes and expanding war spending!" When David Byrne said, "Stop making sense," I thought, yeah, just like Reagan! When Tracy Chapman talked about a Revolution, I thought, yeah, just like the Republican Revolution! It's very odd to me that hip hop rhythms date back to the funk of the early '70s, and my favorite poetry bloggers think of Frank O'Hara (dead now 40 years) as a contemporary, and even the Slam movement is 20 years old now.

Posted by john on October 23, 2007 5:33 PM



Has there been much discussion of DJ culture as it relates to this issue/debate? That seems to me the genre where music is doing the most miscegenating these days.

Posted by Marco on October 23, 2007 3:36 PM



In the sense that you are discussing it, I don't believe that class is at influencing indie rock "lately," and particularly not in a negative way. As I said at my blog today (which you linked above - thanks), in response to your Slate article: before it was "indie" rock it was "college" rock--perhaps people are too hung over from CMJ to remember what those letters stand for. So at least one strand of indie rock--and I think it's the very strand you and SFJ are finding "problems" in (Decemberists, Beirut, Arcade Fire, etc.) can be traced back directly to groups that were dubbed "college music" in the 80s (REM, et al.) The genre has been aligned with college-educated (and by extension, mostly middle/upper-class) for decades. I think nailing indie rock's apparent blandness--and by the way, I disagree with that too--to issues of class or race, especially as some kind of recent problem, is off the mark.

That said, one new factor that does affect contemporary indie rock, not to come around to the most tired subject going these days, is the internet. Radiohead's ingenious move which is slated to "change the industry as we know it" quietly exludes anybody who does not own a computer. That is, among other things, a class issue.

Idolator had a nice post up today lamenting hype blogs, particularly in relation to bands like Black Kids or Vampire Weekend. That conversation in and of itself, is a class issue. The entire concept of "blog hype," myspace, iTunes--everything that the whole of the music industry is trending toward--is a class issue. That strikes me as a much more worthy conversation to have rather than the "problem" with indie rock.

Posted by scott pgwp on October 22, 2007 7:15 PM



I agree with you, Carl, music can't be so easily divisible into good miscengenation / bad segregation. My favorite label right now is Paper Route Recordz out of Huntsville, Alabama, influenced by Dirty South, electro, house, and Hollywood.

Posted by Lee on October 22, 2007 6:26 PM



I question the equation of class and manners.

I know plenty of rude middle-class people and lots of perfectly polite blue-collar people who have never been to college and whose parents haven't either.

Dude, I am seriously offended. (No I'm not. It's all loaded and complex, that's all.)

Posted by john on October 22, 2007 6:00 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson