by carl wilson

Indie, Race, Class, Rock
and Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: 2

A few more scattered points before I let this drop:

e) One of the most articulate commenters in Slate's "the Fray" objected that Sasha and I were each "fetishizing authenticity." This is a good question. My first demurral would be that you can't talk about these "big picture" things without making reductive generalizations, which unfortunately makes it easy for readers to take away points that you weren't actually making. (This happened to Sasha too.) To sufficiently qualify and evidence all the points would require a book-length treatment, maybe a really boring one. These were broad-brush pieces. However, I'm not saying that working-class music is better than middle-class/upper-class music, but that cultural insularity can be a problem. As she says, it can also be a fertile sort of concentrated force, but it does risk running into ruts, and if there is a problem with indie rock at all right now, it is the sense that there are ruts being dug.

However, if, as that same commenter goes on to say, you think either Sasha or I think that rhythm-centred music is made with less mental calculation and aforethought than any other kind of music, you are misreading. What each of us said, to different degrees, is that "indie" right now has a tendency to lack in body-consciousness and emphasize "smart" in a good-student kind of way (sometimes actually being smart and sometimes just loading up on signifiers of smartness). This does not entail, however, that more-body-conscious music is less smart. One does not require the other. (Also it doesn't mean that I don't like lots of music that's all head and no butt, because obviously I do. The proportions are just seeming out of whack.)

f) Scott from Pretty Goes With Pretty objects to my class thesis on the basis that "indie/alt-rock" and "college" have gone together since the '80s. But that overlooks the broader context I pointed to in the Slate piece, of growing material gaps between classes in the U.S. in the past 25 years. So yes, it's always been a mainly middle-class thing but as the true middle class shrinks, that starts to mean more of an upper-middle-class thing. For one thing I think its increased distance from the (arguably) more class-mixing hardcore-punk scene (what's left of it) has changed the cultural style of "indie." (This of course began with the mainstreaming of the harder-rocking sector of the underground in the early-to-mid 1990s.) As well, the devaluation of the literal meaning of "indie" has happened for a lot of reasons (downloading being one) but along with it comes the diminishment of the obsessive means-of-production discussions that used to be part and parcel of the "indie" aesthetic - once it was heavily politicized and concerned about material procedures and consequences; the dematerialization of music and the depoliticization of "youth culture" end up resulting in a default to a more unself-consciously insular class p.o.v. on the "college" scene, including confusing voluntary low-income status with class, etc. (Not that the politics of 80s and 90s alt-rock scenes were always - or maybe ever - convincing and coherent; but at least those questions were built in.) However, Scott's right to point out that a key class issue in this climate is access to high-speed Internet service.

g) One thing I didn't get to in the article, which I think is vital, is that what a good part of "indie" draws on are avant-garde gestures, but very few of these bands think of themselves or practice as an avant-garde. (This may apply to art across the board, but I won't get into that broader issue here.) So there's a confusion - at one time eschewing dance beats, conventional harmonies, etc, were deliberate decisions in an art practice, now they're simply features of a niche genre. (One that's increasingly mainstream.) You could come up with a class analysis but for our purposes let's just say that what "art-rock" means, what it's for, has become much more vague. It's tempting to say indie has become more pseudo-intellectual than intellectual, more of a "middlebrow" thing rather than a deliberate smashing together of high and low. Personally I have a really fraught time with that, feeling some lingering attachment to an avant-garde framework but also wary of the multiple snobberies embedded in using a term like "middlebrow." (See my book for a whole lot more about this.) This is why I left it out of the Slate piece, but I do think finding terms to talk about it is very salient to this conversation.

h) Bringing up the fact that dude from Modest Mouse grew up poor is, like the TV on the Radio thing, not a refutation of the more general point. The exceptions would be interesting to analyze, but that would be another set of articles. I'm sure there are tons of non-middle/upper-class people in indie rock now. If someone wants to do a statistical survey, bring it on. However, I feel my generalizations are valid enough, based on years of observation. (That said, remember that Isaac Brock and friends started Modest Mouse in 1993. The fact that they are the example that springs to mind for everyone almost seems to demonstrate that something did shift from the '90s to the 2Ks.)

i) One thing that got muddled in all the rhythm-talk - it seems to me a lot of the dance-punk stuff comes from a milieu that's if anything more upper-class (rich clubbing kids) than the folkie-indie stuff. Again, not all of it, but quite a bit. You might even guess this, since the choice to use hip-hop and techno materials shows a greater sense of entitlement, as opposed to the more hesitant skirting-around that the indie-folk stuff arguably does. I'm not sure how to fit this into the whole scheme of the debate, but it's worth noting.

j) Aside from all the social issues, what we might be talking about is just the decline of rock, as a very old, played-out form. Certainly when Sasha, perhaps inadvertantly, sounded like he was calling for a blues-rock revival, it raised the spectre of a Wynton Marsalis-type neo-classicism. Is rock (leaving aside metal) following the footsteps of jazz, where you have the neo-classicists (Kid Rock, for example, and even the emo bands in a way) keeping the styles of past decades in circulation and then the pro-innovation camp (indie/noise/etc) seeming to recycle gestures of "newness" for a small, specialized audience, with little sense of consequence on either side?

k) Finally, what is the problem with the upper-class-ization of indie rock, if that's true? It might mirror some social trends I find troubling but what is the musical issue? It's not an objection to any one or several groups' practice, but to an accumulated tendency, and some of the answers are similar to what Sasha named as the consequences of a lack of African-American influence. The main one I think is the profile of ambition that comes across in the music: Because the privileged musicians don't have the same survival issues at stake that pop musicians historically often have had (which are comparable to what motivates a lot of people who become star athletes), the aspirations are more modest and the stakes often seem much lower. Less seems to be on the line. The art of performance often suffers (that "show-biz" put-it-all-out-there fire). With the most gifted musicians, this doesn't matter so much, because they find something else to be ambitious about, something to stretch their capacities. But with others it can indeed produce a dullish, good-enough music, which was the core of Sasha's complaint.

Once again, that's a broad generalization but I suspect many people understand exactly what I'm talking about.

l) The one thing most people seem to agree on here is that the word "indie" is increasingly a red herring, an umbrella term for a lot of music without much in common, a fairly useless genre label, one that conceals more than it reveals. Could we do without it, or is there some unitary thing there we need a label for?

Which seems like enough footnotes. However, I'm happy to keep on debating these questions in the comments boxes, and if any super-compelling sub-debates arise - or after Sasha posts his planned rejoinders in the New Yorker blog - I'll return to them here again.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 22 at 3:17 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)

 

COMMENTS

Hey Carl,

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your piece in Slate (just read it today). It made me think about how Beck was raked over the coals a few years back for Midnight Vultures, an album I enjoyed immensely in a kind of Bakhtinian carnivalesque way. It seemed to me that he was taking the piss out of hipster/indie culture and mocking "white man's envy" of "black music" (including his own!) But that record was among his lowest selling and he was told that it was too white to play on black radio and too black to play on white radio. Go figure.

His career does seem germane to this discussion, but no one has really taken it on, especially in relation to this notion of miscegenation. Would love to hear your thoughts on that, if you're ever so inclined.

Posted by Lisa on November 14, 2007 4:31 PM

 

 

Someone may have mentioned this already, but all of this brings to mind one of my favourite Cat and Girl comics:

http://catandgirl.com/view.php?loc=425

Posted by ST on October 30, 2007 10:07 AM

 

 

> It just seems to me that a huge portion of the art I like gets slagged as "pretentious" by someone or other at every turn, and it doesn't seem like a very productive starting point for discussion.

Well, sure, different people have different definitions of "unwarranted" or "unearned," and as we seem to agree on, for some kneejerkers, ANY intellectualism is unearned.

> It also implies that there's something wrong with *pretending,*

I think you're reading too much into it there. What it simply means is "not as good as it wants you to think." (And yes, take that loaded word "good" any way you want.)

Anyway, I don't think you can just dodge all the things that -- perhaps rightly -- make you uncomfortable just by agreeing not to use "pretentious."

I mean, what does "intellectualized but not rigorously" even mean? It also imples a scale where rigorously intellectualized is best, unrigorously intellectualized is second, and completely unintellectualized comes in last. Where does, say, Missy Elliott's "Work It" fit in on that scale?

> I'm more comfortable with "pseudo-" or "faux-" as well...

How in the world do those words NOT have connotations of "pretending" vs "real"?

Posted by DW. on October 25, 2007 2:34 PM

 

 

"there's undoubtedly a contingent of reactionaries who use 'pretentious' to deride any intellectual content at all, equating it with 'putting on airs' or something."

In my experience this is the way the word is used 3/4 of the time. It just seems to me that a huge portion of the art I like gets slagged as "pretentious" by someone or other at every turn, and it doesn't seem like a very productive starting point for discussion. As well the term contains a basic intentionalist fallacy, in which the presumed insincerity or fronting of the artist is the focus rather than the content of the art. It also implies that there's something wrong with *pretending,* which seems like a shitty attitude to go into an artistic-reception experience with.

I think I'd prefer to use vague or strained or overdone or all of those sorts of terms instead of pretentious. I'm more comfortable with "pseudo-" or "faux-" as well...

Sleuthee, that would indeed be interesting. And again, yes, the whole thing is oversimplified and I haven't done field research to confirm anything and it's not a systematic theory. It's an impression. Curm's impression, for example, differs, and since I have a full-time job and a bunch of other things to worry about, I'm just going to have to let that difference lie.

Posted by zoilus on October 25, 2007 1:36 PM

 

 

Just wanted to make an argument for reclaiming the word "pretentious," since I'm not sure I understand or agree with the antipathy. I thought the word meant presenting unwarranted or unearned claims of aesthetic/intellectual quality.

When you say all art is pretentious, you seem to be using the word to mean either "ambitious" or "calculated," which I don't think it actually does.

(Yes, "unwarranted" or "unearned" is a subjective value judgment, but hey, that's part of the game, right?)

Elsewhere you refer to indie bands "sometimes actually being smart and sometimes just loading up on signifiers of smartness." The latter half of that sentence defines pretentious in a nutshell for me. And I would argue that's how most people use the word as well.

(Sure, there's undoubtedly a contingent of reactionaries who use "pretentious" to deride any intellectual content at all, equating it with "putting on airs" or something. But I don't think that's how the word is used generally.)

Posted by DW on October 25, 2007 10:32 AM

 

 

i think it'd be interesting to see a comparative analysis between the u.s. and more socialized countries in terms of how differing economic/class situations affected the indie aesthetic country to country. obviously the neoliberalism of the last 20-30 years has happened worldwide, but i find this 'pop-economics' analytic kind of interesting (if not maybe a little oversimplified).

Posted by sleuthee on October 24, 2007 10:47 PM

 

 

Do Arcade Fire really not get played on commercial rock radio in the US? I guess canadian content regulations must be working well here (Toronto), 'cause I hear them in dentist offices!

Posted by andrew on October 24, 2007 10:37 PM

 

 

" but as the true middle class shrinks, that starts to mean more of an upper-middle-class thing. For one thing I think its increased distance from the (arguably) more class-mixing hardcore-punk scene (what's left of it) has changed the cultural style of "indie." "

I would like to see you offer more support for your theory that the hardcore-punk scene was/is "more class-mixing," and that indie rock is coming more from the upper-middle-class than from the "true middle class." This onetime fanzine editor circa the early '80s in DC remembers a middle class scene and is not yet convinced that today's indie scene is that different class-wise(and yes there were upper middle classers then too). Also, have you discussed present day allegedly working class bands like Nickelback and the role that corporate commercial rock mainstream American radio has played. I believe that despite the Arcade Fire's success, as an independent label band (and maybe because of their sound) they and others still do not get played on commercial rock radio--which despite the internet and i-pods and satelite radio, is still a major source for some people in hearing music(arguably under your class theory and cultural divide notions, it is a greater source for the working class). If American commercial rock radio was more varied, wouldn't that slightly affect the demographics for both bands and fans of indie rock bands?

Posted by curm on October 24, 2007 10:33 PM

 

 

re: a new phrase for "intellectualized but not rigorously"

My Dad used to use the phrase "half-assed" to refer to efforts or jobs that were done with no grace, care or dedication, and that weren't really fully completed at all.
All this talk of brains versus booty brings this to mind, and despite my best efforts to feel it out I still feel a lot of contemporary "indie" pop music is pretty half-assed. But then again, I 'm still hanging on to that full-assed-essentialist-booty whenever I can.

I always like checking in to see what yer up to Carl, and look forward to buying (& not downloading) your new book!

Posted by colonel tom on October 24, 2007 9:17 AM

 

 

"One-two-three-faux!"

Haha. You just made my day, john.

Posted by Chris on October 24, 2007 3:18 AM

 

 

OK, "pretentious" won't do either.

How 'bout "pseudo"? As in "pseudo-intellectual"?

Or "faux"! "Faux" is in! Faux is po-mo! Everyone can get behind faux! Even the Ramones did, with their . . .

One-two-three-faux!

Nah. "College" is it. College rock. It captures the whole enchilada. With "collegiate" and "collegiately" for adjective & adverb.


Hi Carl Z! The immiseration of the 'burbs plays out in my town big time. I don't know if it's still true, but 10 years ago Seattle was the only major American city other than San Fran whose central city had a higher per-capita tax base than the metropolitan area as a whole; and, as with Frisco, poverty was concentrated in the south suburbs (including Tacoma in the metro area, I think, which is probably cheating).

Posted by john on October 23, 2007 10:49 PM

 

 

John's comment about band economics is worth pondering. Canada's produced several large ensembles such as the Arcade Fire, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Hidden Cameras, and when I see a large ensemble, my first assumption is the band came from Canada. I wonder if the economic differences between being a young musician with national health insurance in Canada versus being a young musician who a) depends on benefits from a day job for health care b) depends on parents for health care, c) is sufficiently wealthy to buy an individual health insurance policy, or d) goes without health insurance altogether prevents similar ensembles from thriving in the United States. Which is not to say that national health care guarantees Canadians will form octets rather than trios, but it makes the economic juggling of the various band members' lives slightly less complicated.

That doesn't speak to the question of what happened to the groove in indie rock, though it might predict the demise of larger bands at the expense of either more minimal duo/trio acts, or other cost-saving moves like replacing drummers with drum machines. Such a move could put the groove back front and center...or could signal the Big Black revival. (Since Joy Division and Gang of Four have been popular influences over the past five years, perhaps that is due.)

Getting back to the central thrust of both Carl and Sasha's pieces, one of the underlying economic forces that have shaped both class and race in the United States over the past thirty years is an expanded residential segregation of the suburbs. In many ways, it is a continuation of market and policy practices throughout the twentieth century, but the number of affluent (and predominately white) gated communities across the nation expanded in the 90s. At the same time, African-American populations in many metro areas moved from the cities to older suburbs (including, dramatically, San Franciscans moving in larger numbers to the East Bay and Chicagoans moving to the southern suburbs), resulting in greater spatial divisions between African-American and white communities.

Those trends aren't absolute. I am lucky to live in a town where the blocks aren't segregated and class boundaries are not striking. But it's a small town, and not representative of the forces Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton aptly called American Apartheid in their book of the same name. Massey's remarked that the segregation they describe has gotten more extreme over the past fifteen years. Whether those dynamics determine that today's indie rock lacks the swing of yesterday's The Sea and Cake or Arto Lindsay or merely inform it is an open question, but one worth asking.

Posted by Carl Z. on October 23, 2007 9:46 PM

 

 

I know the etymology of middlebrow - I do a whole denunciation of the "brow" system in my book, and mostly say it doesn't even hold with anyone anymore. But I hate the word pretentious even more. All good art is pretentious. KISS is pretentious (what can be more pretentious than being the Cat guy?!) and the Fall is pretentious and the Rolling Stones are pretentious and, contentious as it might be to say, being John Lee Hooker was pretentious too. It all depends how well the pretense works. It's the existentialist in me - authenticity is a pretense built on a firm foundation, but everybody fakes it till they make it, and "it" is life and art.

But it still seems like we need a word for "intellectualized but not rigorously" as an artistic category. I fell back on middlebrow because its class connotations fit the case but I'm not comofortable about that. I'm not even sure rigour is the word. The other tough thing to me is that I'm kind of pro-middlebrow, in the sense that it means "bringing artistic stuff to an audience that has other things on its mind, and not asking that they make some intense ideological commitment to it in order to experience what is valuable about it." I'm not against indie-rock bands playing with symphonies. I just think it means that indie-rock bands now are something other than what they used to posture to be. It might even be a positive development.

Posted by zoilus on October 23, 2007 9:16 PM

 

 

I meant to mention this during the discussion of the piece in Oxford American on the band called Annuals, but it suddenly seems pertinent again:

Is anybody doing any analysis of band economics? The young men in Annuals mostly lived with their parents. They didn't make any much money to speak of.

Last July in Vancouver, I saw a "favorite Canadian musican" (you love her too, Carl) and talked to her before her set. She loses money when she tours the States and since she refuses to lose money from touring she doesn't play in the States any more. Too bad for us United Statesians!

And rock stars often pay their opening acts literally NOTHING. Sure, the publicity is "worth something," but it doesn't pay for the gas to get to the gig, much less the rent when you get back home.

The etymology of "middle-brow" goes back to the racist pseudo-science of phrenology, but I know what you mean. Won't the word "pretentious" do?

Posted by john on October 23, 2007 8:16 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson