Critical Backlash: Sasha Frere-Jones: “Indie rock is so white!”

Smile and say “cred”: Ric Ocasek, Ani diFranco, Steve Albini, Sasha, and the RZA, shot by Bill Davila for

Sasha Frere-Jones – brilliant wordsmith, pretty good music historian, and so-so critic for the New Yorker – has another race-focused manifesto in this week’s issue. (You might also recall his embarrassing public accusations that Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt was a racist for not liking Beyonce.)

The piece, “A Paler Shade of White,” argues that indie rock is too white and has been since the ’90s. To sum up, he blames Pavement for creating Wilco (and leading to, he says, that whitest of white bands, the main symptom of indie’s whiteness problem, Arcade Fire), and charges Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg with making it too difficult for white artists to dabble in black music. The claims are interesting, to be sure.

The main problem with his argument – and it’s a common problem, really – is that he’s wrong. His argument has a silly premise to begin with: Indie rock would be better if it was blacker, because black music is better than white music. (To his credit, he does what he can to avoid ethnomusical essentialism, but in an argument like this, it’s just impossible to write around.) But this is only one of his argument’s problems. Here are a couple more. 

One defining feature of indie rock, says Frere-Jones, is mumbling vocals, the antithesis of black (read: soul) music, in which the vocals are full-throated. He says that this began when Pavement took up the mantle of Most Influential Band in the early ’90s. Whether this historical point is accurate I can’t say, but it’s odd to blame Pavement for Arcade Fire; after all, the two bands work in substantially different styles, and Malkmus’s lazy, meandering vocals are a far cry from Win Butler’s anguished screams.

What’s more, when we look at Arcade Fire’s influences, one name is writ large: Bruce Motherfucking Springsteen. Whether you like the Boss or not – I don’t – his music neither seems black nor white. Rather, its dominant color is blue – as in blue collar. (What’s more, it bears mentioning that the E-Street Band is a mixed race ensemble.)

Frere-Jones also argues that various shifts of the cultural psyche have discouraged white artists from dabbling in black music. But examining Wilco, one of his paradigm cases of overwhiteness, I can’t help thinking that he’s wrong on this point too; take, for example, the easy soul of “Theologians” from A Ghost Is Born.

It’s easy to juxtapose Arcade Fire with, say, Talking Heads and wonder how on earth the two can be fairly closely associated as indie torchbearers. The similarities are clear (for instance, both bands’ signature songs are epics of apocalypse and redemption, and both eschew definite articles), but Arcade Fire are bloated and overwrought while Talking Heads are nimble and, yes, funky. The difference, though, isn’t that Talking Heads are “blacker,” it’s that they make better use of rhythmic and textural nuance.

-Greg Katz


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