Sasha Frere-Jones:The New Yorker Article Rant

I know something is not right when my husband reads an article about music and says it is brilliant. We agree on many things, but he does not share my passion, knowledge, or my taste in music.

Then I read a post by the Idolator published via the Internet. It was an amusing mockery of the article’s premise that gave me the impetuous to write the following assessment.

The article in question is in the New Yorker entitled, “A Paler Shade of White: Why indie rock lost its soul” written by Sasha Frere-Jones.
It is a well-written article about the sharing of music origins between
black and white musicians with some historic and correctly stated conclusions and observations. I take issue with several points.

1. Indie music is independent music. The term is still viable, and many different genres of music fall under its umbrella.

2. The general statement is that indie music has no rhythm or roots in soul.

3. The premise that independent music should be judged by the same standards applied to mainstream music; voice, musicianship, lyrics, and memorable, catchy hooks.

The term “indie rock” (Independent Music)
came about as a result of bands and musicians being shut out of the mainstream media (Television, Radio) and major record label contracts. The bands and musicians that represent this genre are mostly white and male, and they are a minority within the broader context of the big corporate music enterprise.

This shutout continues today, with only a few of its originators signing on with major labels or their smaller counterparts, like; Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Rilo Kiley. Each group has spent at least ten years on the road with no Radio airtime, and their popularity grew from word of mouth. The level of their success is still small in comparison to pop performers like Ashanti or aging legendary rockers like Springsteen and U2, or the rapper heavyweights in Mr. Frere-Jones' article.

Conor Oberst of the group Bright Eyes, I believe, is one of the forbearers of this genre title. His group has gained exposure despite being on the Independent Label Saddle Creek Records, which he founded with others ten years ago in Omaha, Nebraska. He is still with that label in the US but has recently signed with Polydor for worldwide distribution. Over the years he tuned down major label interest and courting because he did not believe in their practices and, ultimately, felt it was bad for music in general. He wanted to maintain control of his original material and not have it commercialized and watered down for public consumption. That is the premise of most indie music standards. This is so the artist can maintain freedom of expression and artistic control and not appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The groups that Mr. Jones described, such as Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre, have had major mainstream radio play and backing from corporate interests. Their success doesn’t necessarily qualify them for judgment or comparison to the independents. The radio play they receive is not because the music is great it is because someone with about 250,000 dollars is willing to pay the radio stations to air it. This is an unfair advantage for judging success or quality.

With the onset of the Internet, blogging, Internet radio, podcasts, sharing Internet music communities, and myspace, that division is slowly changing. This democratizing of the music industry will ultimately be good for everybody. In the meantime, it is still a minefield for the independents to gain financial success despite their talent.

Judging music because it lacks a certain type of rhythm is not a fair assessment. There are different rhythms in indie rock. Indie rock has a different kind of soul. It relies on time changes and orchestral composition. Many of the groups described are not making music so people can dance but move them lyrically and musically. I love the song "Jesus Etc" by Wilco from the CD Yankee Foxtrot Hotel that Sasha described as being lyrically devoid of content. Showing a few brief lines from a song without hearing the phrasing and inference is not a good way to judge lyrics. Songs are created to be heard, not read. I love the song's simplicity and especially Jeff Tweedy’s delivery.

There are great independent bands today that are under the radar that combines folk /punk/hillbilly/roots, punk/blues, digital orchestration, and dance beats. People are moving but not in a prescribed method or in a formatted groove. Groups like Matt and Kim, Langhorne Slim, and The Dirty Projectors, o’death to name a few, are moving people differently. The musicianship is also having a resurgence as well with bands like Arcade Fire and The National. Yes, they know how to play music but in collaboration without the posturing of fancy guitar lead and drum solos of years past. That's a relief!

I take offense to his description of indie singers. Many do not have commercial voices but have individual voices, and that is just the point. The beauty of the voices I listen to has authenticity and originality. Just to name a few like; Joanna Newsom, Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Their voices are refreshingly different and appealing because of their individual approach to singing and phrasing. They all would be judged poorly by commercial standards and criteria.

The concept of indie rock producing a memorable hook so that the music can be catchy defeats the purpose of independent music. It is what sets independent music apart from the mainstream.

When the airwaves were free in the sixties, all music genres were played simultaneously so that people of all backgrounds were exposed to varying genres of music. The Supremes, The Jackson Five, the Beatles, Dylan, Aretha, Joni Mitchell, and bubble gum pop were all heard in no particular order of an authority. The radio was for everyone. We were not a boutique culture at the time.

Music and art are not made in a vacuum, and no one is original. So judging someone’s success based on what their influences might be is misguided. It is how they are inspired and what they do with that information, to hopefully forge new territory. Adding zest and vitality to a stale formula or genre, whether it is rock, metal, soul, rap, or country, is welcome regardless of the race of people that are doing it or where or how it originated.
Changing music that begins to sound predictable or homogenized is a way for new forms of music to be realized.

Combining the genres, as Mr. Jones stated, led to a fresh approach like the combination of Aerosmith and Run DMC. It also broadened the exposure for both groups. Another great white/black crossover was Sinead O’Conner doing a cover of the Prince song "Nothing Compares 2 you". It got attention, not because of the beat or its roots in the soul. She changed the very nature of the song through her interpretation. It was so refreshingly beautiful. It is a good example of the sound and quality of indie, where words and music work and subtlety and nuance meet.

I appreciate rap as a genre of music. I see it as an art form, both musically and lyrically, in its earlier form. When it became more mainstream, it became less relevant to me as a listener or an appreciator. I have difficulty with words that value violence, are homophobic and Misogynous, etc

I have been looking and waiting for the racial divide to change in indie rock and feel uncomfortable with the lack of diversity. Groups like TV On the Radio are changing that formula and adding to the dialogue. Many diverse groups receive backlash, including TV On The Radio, who go to great lengths to justify what they do.

I am a white female who listened to music in the sixties. I loved Ottis Redding, The Temptations, The Meters, and The Jackson Five. I listened to and bought their albums. I also listened to The Beatles, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, The Doors, the Band, and Joni Mitchell. Those were very different times.

We all have our perspectives and taste and bring different references to understand and categorize music history. Like in all classifications, we can never leave out the cultural, historic, and societal changes that contribute to what people listen to at any given time. The Clear Channel is just one example.
Or do we need affirmative action for the great and talented bands and musicians being shut out?

Our global world gets much smaller via the Internet, creating access and exposure to all musical genres. The connections between race, culture, and art will be more difficult to classify. Indaba Music Site is a good example, and concept for the future direction and vision music will take. I welcome that concept and more that are on the horizon.

Audio version MP3
Many points I have mentioned are discussed in an audio version of the article. Only some concepts were clarified. Within the context of an article, not everything can be explained in full. I still take issue with many points revealed.

1 comment:

brian said...

hey i really enjoyed your thoughful review of that article. and i think sasha frere-jones really just needs to come to a beat radio show.