Is Indie Rock Black Enough? Presenting The Sasha Frere-Jones Score

So while I was out mixing with the creative underclass at CMJ, some of you were very concerned with this New Yorker article where the world’s wealthiest rock critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, claims that indie rock ain’t “miscegenated” enough for his liking, i.e. it ain’t got enough African-American in it. You were so worried, in fact, that you actually took the time to write and ask what Idolator’s “response” would be. And the response is that though I am sympathetic to the argument on a surface level, the piece is typical jury-rigged SFJ rhetoric that ignores pertinent facts–i.e. there’s still (indie) rock that draws from African-American sources, among others too numerous to mention–to keep a shaky argument afloat until he’s used up his word count. But in the interest of mad science, I’ve also decided to put Frere-Jones’ theory to the test. I’ve come up with a handy metric that will allow me to determine, over the course of CMJ, just how “black” any band happens to be.

Spurred by friend-of-Idolator Christopher Weingarten‘s assertion that this year’s CMJ line-up seemed to only bolster Frere-Jones’ theory, what I’ve dubbed the “Sasha Frere-Jones Score” is determined by listening to see if a rock band–or a band comprised of white people…same thing, right?–features any or all of the defining characteristics Frere-Jones applies willy-nilly to all African-American music: “a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies.” At the end of the week, we should know for sure whether or not rock music is now terminally white. And whether or not Black Kids live up to their name.

Saturday Looks Good To Me
Squeaky-clean indiepop with keyboards and nary a syncopation in sight, though a bit of soul in the vocals.

Another Animal
They had one song they referred to as a “blues,” and they were even helpful enough to put “blues” in the title. Just in case you forgot what the blues sounded like, and were scratching your head wondering where you might have heard those 12-bar chord changes before.

Alter Bridge
Vestigial traces of African-American music buried under 15 years of post-Pearl Jam alt-rock. Still, you’d have to be pretty hard up for fat beats to mistake them for funky.

The only band/artist of the day who a.) rapped and b.) had “palpable bass frequencies.” Still, his annoying yelps over uptempo club tracks had little space and absolutely no swing.

Team Robespierre
Shrieky, rhythmically fidgety art-punk that’s probably the textbook definition of what Frere-Jones defines as “the problem.”

Dan Deacon
Well, he does incorporate the lyrics to “What’s Your Fantasy?” on one song. And the bass can hurt your teeth when it hits you right. But yeah, despite the oversized glasses, no one’s going to be mistaking Deacon for Bootsy Collins.


That’s barely enough blackness to qualify for a passing grade! Things aren’t looking good for the crackers of indie rock. And it’s only been a day!

A Paler Shade Of White [New Yorker]

  • King of Pants

    This just made my day.

  • CharlesRockyPamplin

    the fools! don’t hey remember the great Jesus Jones/”let’s make white people funkier!” debacle of 1990?

  • Fraid

    SFJ scale = 1-100, 100 being the blackest, I assume?

  • paulrevere

    Soon Sasha will be going up and down subway cars erasing MP3s on everyone’s ipod that don’t adhere to his ethic standards of Rainbow Coalitioning. The next L Train is now arriving on the Rockaway Parkway Bound track.

  • Diglett

    I kind of love this. I also kind of love how the whole situation is completely lose-lose for everyone.

  • Jess Harvell

    @Fraid: yes. once i work out the kinks in the equation, i’ll post the formula.

  • queensissy

    According to this scale, Stew from the Negro Problem is whiter than Stephin Merritt.

  • MTS

    Yeah, this post made me throw up in my mouth.

  • RickSlick

    Um, oh my fuck yes? I didn’t write in asking for comment, but there’s so much wrong with that article I found myself kinda putting down the magazine every few minutes to let the anger die down. This is awesome.

  • Nicolars

    But will it pay for my hard drive?

  • millwhistle

    I kind of love this too. Although, geez, will the race-and-music debate ever move past black and white? Ever? I got so cranky during that whole “is Stephin Merritt a racist” flap because no one seemed to notice (or care) that two of Merritt’s bandmates are um ASIAN.

    Then again, I guess there hasn’t been a vast Asian contribution to American pop music… hmm. Cornershop?

  • Fraid

    Just to establish some ground rules here, whose a “1″ and whose a “100″? The Decemberists/Jamie Lidell? The Mountain Goats/Amy Winehouse?

  • Jess Harvell

    all will be revealed tomorrow, but now i’m off to listen to more indie rock.

  • the rich girls are weeping

    Too bad that Celebration gig got shut down; they at least rate in the like, high 80′s, right? Maybe?

  • Fraid

    I didn’t have big beef with the article because I think Sasha is smart enough to know that there are significant exceptions to the rule and that he’s writing more about a general trend. Yes, LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A. exist, but they’re not what I think of when I think of “indie rock.”

    One thing I wish he had touched on more was that, while white indie bands may be stealing less and less from black artists, prominent black artists are borrowing more and more from “white” genres. Look at all the New-Wave sounding Timbaland songs, the rockiness of “Shut Up and Drive,” or even all the “Rock Star” songs. Outkast, etc. There’s musical miscagenation going on, it’s just going the other way.

  • jobbotch

    @jessdolator: And the Kinks, of course, are about 45!

  • ambitious

    You can’t be a racist if your band has two whole Asianz now? That’s pretty newsy.

    Whoever said this whole situation is lose-lose is totally right. I think the most important thing to remember is that the crowds at the shows will still be snow white. And America, that’s all that matters.

  • ass-hat

    this whole thing reminds me of that scene in the simpsons where the chris-rock-a-like describes how white folk and black folk drive a car in different ways. to which homer (frere-jones) replies “yeah, we do suck”.

  • Ned Raggett

    @Nicolars: If only.

  • relaxing

    If you read to the end of his article, the point seems to be “who needs white people trying to sound black when black people is all you can find on MTV anyway these days.”

    Is that so wrong?

  • relaxing

    I mean, where’s the outcry since Radiohead never followed up on the Afro-American spiritual handclaps and talking blues of Hail to the Thief?

  • Cam/ron

    The SFJ piece wasn’t a sequel to last year’s legendary “Merrittgate” blowup, but he still dug another hole for himself to fall into. He was mainly decrying the bland, formulaic, and conservative nature of many indie rock bands and I agree with him on that part. I also respect his attempt at being provocative (i.e. “Has Indie Rock Lost Its Soul?” OMG, Indie is SOULESS! Now, that sells magazines).
    Overall, he brought up an interesting topic that ultimately went nowhere. He kept focusing on the alleged lack of rhythm in indie rock, while failing to address how indie bands instead emphansize harmony, timbre and melody – all of which are not exclusively “white” traits (just listen to jazz, gospel and soul). Also, contrary to his argument, I believe that identity politics, not “political correctness” were what hindered rock’s miscegenation. I agree that SFJ has given a lose-lose situation for indie. It reminds me of the game that critics play when they accuse Caucasian artists of adopting black influences of committing “appropriation” or theft, and then when Caucascian artists keep their hands to themselves and develop their own sound, they are accused of committing “whiteness” or worse, “white supremacy.”

  • Anonymous

    …and really, isn’t The New Yorker just the PERFECT forum for a discourse on the disappointing lack of African American influence in today’s indie music?

    I mean, its demographic is like so totally diverse.



  • the rich girls are weeping

    Apropos of something, SFJ’s continued use of the word miscegenation makes me truly ill. Come on, is it really necessary to use a term so loaded with negative historical and cultural baggage? Believe me, it’s not on par with “reclaiming” fag or something — it’s intentionally button-pushy and sophomoric.

    @relaxing: If that’s the case, he didn’t need to spend 1/3 of the article bashing the Arcade Fire, one of whose members is of Hatiain descent. Tacky.

    My biggest problem with the piece in question is that it reads like bad blogging, something that was rotting on SFJ’s hard drive for months, possibly abandoned — and OH NOES! he needed to meet a deadline and had no other content ready. Sometimes I think I’m really more dismayed that this passed muster with the editors at the New Yorker. Then again, the same people let Merritt-gate through too.

    Then again, people, this is the man who’s trying to convince us that Vampire Weekend’s “Upper West Side soweto” (one of the most offensive New York City band since oh … O’Death) is something to be lauded. WHATEVS.

  • Cam/ron


    Yeah I was going to say that.”Miscegenation” has been used as a derogatory word (namely by Southern white nationalists) for decades. SFJ might as well dropped “mongrelization” in his article.

  • Airsank

    Last time I saw Dan Deacon I counted exactly one other black person in the audience besides myself. I give it to him that it was one diverse than the last time I saw Do Make Say Think.

  • qyntellspitbull

    A couple years back I went to a real (i.e. not backpacker) hiphop show with Sasha Frere-Jones (along with some other friends who actually knew him), and I can say that I have never seen one man look more like an undercover drug narc trying to act hip than him. White, black, whatever, all I know was that I was embarrassed to be seen standing next to him. It was totally like “white step-dad’s first rap concert.”

  • MrStarhead

    Who’s whiter: REM circa Monster, or Belle and Sebastian?

  • plasticaisle

    Totally agree nearly 100% with what you write. I would also say that rock critics should also have broader taste than SFJ. If you are going to be a pop music critic, at least leave your issues and broad biases at the door. He so clearly doesn’t like music based in folk and/or European styles and seems annoyed that artists would actually have the gall to be influenced or inspired by them (the whole ridiculous Merritt debacle being the best example of this). As if listening to Anne Briggs or the Clientele was somehow the same as listening to Prussian Blue.

    Not sure why is it a bad thing that SOME indie rock is moving away from tradition blues structures. So he doesn’t like it. Big deal. He seems to imply that there’s an undercurrent of racial tension and/or awareness informing what tastes people have. I just don’t buy it. If anything, most people I know have broader taste than they did 10-20 years ago. His is a simplistic argument that I don’t think holds much weight. It does, however, make for good dialogue. In that regard, SFJ’s done his job.

  • Alfred Soto

    God, I’m dying to know how I’d rate on the SFJ scale.

  • King of Pants

    I refuse to believe that someone who licked Spoon’s boots could actually criticize anyone for liking “white music.”

    Echoing everyone who wrote that it reads like a bad blog entry. I suppose part of being in the creative underclass means you don’t get a New Yorker salary when you write a terrible entry.

    (And I’m still trying to figure out what Wilco has to do with his thesis. If he’s trying to say that Wilco is white music, well, sure, but the digression is just bizarrely written.)

  • bg5000

    I think SFJ has a good point: Why can’t music i don’t like sound like music i like? Lord knows i’d be more likely to listen to Grizzly Bear if they sounded more like Curtis Mayfield.

  • thearcanemodel

    @musicquizking: SAY WORD SON. yet another irony/contradiction – aside from the token reference to the fiery furnaces, this whole article is an (uncomfortable) sausage party. not that there aren’t way, way more male-dominated bands out there, but it doesn’t help sf/j’s cause. . .whatever it is. and conveniently ignores some of the artists that i suspect might meet sf/j’s critera. . .whatever they are.

  • Lucas Jensen

    @plasticaisle: When he said, during Merrittgate, that he didn’t even know the Magnetic Fields music that well, I kinda lost a little respect for him because he sounded like one of those conservatives who derides a “controversial” movie without ever seeing it. Plus, not liking 69 Love Songs? That’s just stupid. There are other musical idioms out there. I say let bands make the music they’re going to make. I’m sure he can find stuff influenced by more African-American music out there. And, hell, all my indie rock buddies ever talk about is how they want to make their music “blacker” but they don’t know how. People learn to make music in different idioms. There’s a guy I know here in the ATH who writes pretty much twee-pop only but listens to nothing but raw garage-y rock stuff. He once told me it’s the only thing he knows how to do. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t like that kind of thing.

    I love Sly and the Family Stone more than anything but I’ll be goddamned if I know how to write a song like them. I wouldn’t even know where to start!

  • Lucas Jensen
  • thearcanemodel

    funny. but i think the best response i’ve seen to this is the dialogue on status ain’t hood, one of my favorite blogs, but in this case, not because of tom breihan. [] rob harvilla, get out of my head! he does a very good job of respectfully pointing out the many, many flaws/dangerous comparisions in the article, and the many contradictions with sf/j’s own previously stated opinions about some of these bands. (i think we can all agree, though, that isaac brock = totes the eddie vedder of now in terms of spawning painfully bad vocal imitators.)

    it’s a shame, because lord knows there is a lot of milquetoast crap out there right now, and lord knows that ‘indie rock,’ to the extent there is a consensus definition of that term, still has some problematic tendencies wrt race and gender. and i generally think that sf/j is a thoughtful writer. this is just not the correct argument to be made.

    as another blogger once pertinently stated, “NO HAVE TO LOVE COKE-RAP! CAN! NO HAVE TO!” [] (for the record, i own/like the clipse record. but i think the point is well taken.)

  • musicquizking

    Where the white women at?

  • Anonymous

    As entertaining an examination that article was, I’m totally fucking indifferent about how white indie shit is. I only care about whether it’s good or not.

  • Trackback

    AHHHHH MAHHHH GAWWWW BOOOOOYS! by Molly Lambert Indie Rock and Comedy go together like Pinkabet and Bagoog Monamon. First Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster teamed up with Monk creator Tom Scharpling to create longform call-in improv brilliance on The Best Show on WFMU (more on them later this week).

  • roquestrew

    wow I was gonna give Al an 85, but 88 is right, yes