Critical Backlash: Indie Rock Is Still Too White Edition

A paler shade of Colin Meloy / photo by David Greenwald (more here)

Status Ain’t Hood and his Village Voice editor just debated Sasha Frere-Jones’ New Yorker piece about indie rock being too white, which Greg dissected here; I think Status loses, if only because SFJ’s argument is built on the presupposition that modern-day indie rock is composed entirely of jittery post-Pavement/Modest Mouse guitar bands (Arcade Fire) or Brian Wilson-influenced folk-pop acts (The Shins, the Decemberists). This is like taking jazz to task for not being melodic enough and only referencing Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra – or worse, like my mother complaining that she doesn’t like hip-hop because it doesn’t have any melody. SFJ’s complaining the Arcade Fire doesn’t have any beats is somehow different? News flash: different styles of music serve different artistic and aesthetic purposes, and this is something that audiences – if not aging New Yorker pop critics- are already aware of. [Continue reading…]

Yes, “indie rock” in its most basic, primordial sense is the R.E.M./Sonic Youth/Pavement template, but the whole usage of the term now is all-inclusive, positioning such wildly disparate acts as Spoon, the Decemberists, Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem all on the same chessboard – not to mention the exploding house music scene or indie-rap, all of which draw the same skinny-jeans set to a Saturday night concert. The Decemberists fill a (white) niche; Spoon, with its Motown and soul influences, fills another. I like them both, and presumably so do you.

This is the major point that the article misses entirely: the needs that SFJ thinks aren’t being met by bread-and-butter indie-rock are not – he’s right! But that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t seeking it out in other styles and genres – read Pitchfork any day of the week or spend a few nights at your local concert venue if you don’t believe me. Miscegenation and genre-hopping is happening in the choices made by listeners and concert-goers now more than ever. People listen to Kanye West and the Shins. So why should the Shins sound more like Kanye? Oh right, because playing folk music in the year 2007 is, maybe, sort of, a tiny bit racist.

The garden-variety indie rockers do need something, that’s for sure. The Status argument admits as much, that dime-a-dozen blog-rock bands like Vampire Weekend (who somehow Breihan likes? Have you seen them play, dude?) or Tapes ‘N Tapes or Cold War Kids are unambitious and boring, but it’s not like this is any secret (unless you write an MP3 blog – snap!). Why else do the critics latch onto acts like Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem if not for their sheer adventurousness? The fact that these bands are uninteresting may well have to do with their relative whiteness, but it also has to do with the fact that they are simply not very good bands. Pop music is colorblind when it comes to bands that suck – and bands that excel. The bands that ARE challenging themselves – Grizzly Bear and LCD, to name two praised by SFJ – are great, and they don’t have to sound like the Surpremes or Al Green to be so.


Critical Backlash is a column where we complain about things. Click below for more.