The Sasha Frere-Jones Score: Suddenly It’s Not Funny Anymore

Oct 19th, 2007 // 18 Comments

malibus.jpgWell, after three days at CMJ it’s official: Judged on the guidelines laid down by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, our worst fears are confirmed and indie rock has actually failed at being convincingly “black.” It is now the Jamie Kennedy of musical genres.

A quick recap of the rules:

- Subtract 10 points each if band lacks “swing,” “some empty space,” and/or “palpable bass frequencies.”
- Subtract 10 points if the band identifies more as “punk” than “funk.”
- Add 20 points if that punk band is the Clash.
- Subtract 10 points if the words “noise,” “art-rock,” “prog,” or “math-rock” can be used to describe the band. Ditto the following metal subgenres: thrash, death, grind, tech. Automatic disqualification: black metal.
- Subtract 15 points if the band primarily draws from folk traditions other than the blues.
- Subtract 15 points for slap bass. (That’s a red herring.)
- Subtract 20 points if artist in engaged in wholesale recreation of a particular era of African-American music.
- Subtract 50 points if swing revival band.

It is at the discretion of the researcher to fudge the numbers a little if they feel that a particular band has just a little more swing and a little less indie in them.

We Are Wolves
Possibly European/definitely European-sounding dance-rock band, with more of a Moroder throb than a Stubblefield groove. Their commitment to moving bodies is half-hearted and doesn’t keep from them losing 30 points off the top, and another 10 for being punks at heart.

Cut Off Your Hands
More British punk than American funk–and not remotely punk-funk–these tense New Zealanders don’t sound like they could relax long enough to swing for more than a second, plus they’ve got the treble cranked hard.

Imperial Teen
Motorik indie-pop with twee harmonies and as much grit as two-ply Charmin, even less sex.

Yo Majesty
Disqualified: hip-hop group. They were so effective at proving the SFJ score, in fact, that I’m deducting 20 points from the next band just because.

Trail Of Dead
Melodramatic bombast whose idea of groove is revving quickly to an ejaculatory climax. And that ain’t very groovy.

Jay Reatard
Thrashing garage punk that’s far too punk and far too removed from garage rock’s 60s roots to have much trace of African-American influence left in its wound-up bashing.

Disqualified: The mere existence of Mick Collins is kind of an atom bomb dropped on SFJ’s equation. Or at least a radar scrambler.


A failing grade. This is actually kind of depressing. Is Frere-Jones actually right? I don’t even know if I should bother to continue calculating for the last two days of CMJ. On the one hand, I haven’t even seen Black Kids yet. On the other, it’s only going to get worse. Maybe we should just accept the fact that indie needs to go back to school to bone up on its essentialism, and say better luck next year? Probably a good idea for everyone involved in this debate.

FURTHER RESEARCH: A Paler Shade Of White [New Yorker]

  1. King of Pants

    Quick, read this. It has the benefit of being an actual piece of writing, and not Sade-like scrawlings on the sanitarium walls with bodily fluids.

  2. Cos

    Dammit. I was going to ask how the Dirtbombs scored. Disqualified? Drag.

  3. noamjamski

    If you are going to accept the conceit that different races enjoy and listen to different elements of music, why would it be surprising that primarily white bands are lacking “black” musical traits?

    Also when did “empty space” become a racial musical trait? I think modern hip hop is as guilty of maximalist music as anyone else. Does that mean the sparseness of June of 44 is intrinsically “black?”

    This is an awkward slippery slope. If the kids wanted to hear funk, wouldn’t they listen to funk?

    Also- the inverse is equally true. There aren’t enough vocal harmonies in hip hop! Rap isn’t white enough! What? Exactly.

    Putting a racial mandate on music not only does more to further segregate people and styles, but is something only a music critic could ever worry about.

  4. King of Pants

    TO CLARIFY: the assorted shit-smearing writer is one Sasha Frere-Jones, not Jess.

  5. Diglett

    @noamjamski: I think the kernel of whatever
    here is that rock music has its origins in the blues, and the whites
    are fucking that up. But anyway, as I said to someone yesterday, the
    SFJ article is kind of a poster child for dancing about architecture,
    hence all the malarky.

  6. pantsonfireliarliar

    @noamjamski: Well said, my brotha.

  7. King of Pants

    Mmm, malarkey.

  8. janine

    I said this elsewhere, but I think maybe there is a difference the SFJ is noticing but not identifying. His description of Black music rings somewhat off to me, but I do think that the is a real cultural difference in the value (particularly in indie) place in lo-fi. I can’t think of a hip-hop, gospel, or R&B artist that would insist on/brag about using 40 year old microphones or preamps outfitted with handblown glass tubes recovered from Sun studios, or something made entirely on ProTools retofitted to run on a Turing Machine in a pre-Civil War barn…

    Not that I can’t appreciate anything lo-fi and rootsily authentic, but having grown up on Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, sometimes it just feels like something’s missing. I think this is why I don’t get Neil Young…at all. Otherwise, yeah, it’s malarky.

  9. noamjamski

    @janine: I don’t know if I agree. Nerds will be nerds. That breaks down all racial barriers.

    Perhaps T.I. woudln’t want to talk ribbon mics with you, but I’m sure Quincy Jones or Timbaland would.

  10. The Dewd

    Dear Indie Rock,

    Please. No more glockenspiel.


    The Dewd

  11. janine

    Of course producers of all stripes care about timbre, and I’m not arguing that every sound that goes into a hip hop or R&B album was made in a $$$$$ studio, but do you see Timbaland or Quincy Jones giving certain productions methods a moral value the way lo-fi has in indie rock?

  12. natepatrin

    @janine: Well, there’s Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — and pretty much the entire Dap-Tone label, for that matter.

  13. natepatrin

    @natepatrin: While I’m at it, there’s definitely no lack of moralizing about certain production methods in hip hop. The arguments I read spurred by Pete Rock-alikes sneering at “synth-rap” could fill a pretty thick issue of Wax Poetics.

  14. noamjamski

    I think there is less of a moral value placed on an actual sound, than one of process. DIY was absolutely integral to the early life of indie rock. All of that seems charming and moot today now that you can make “Dr. Feelgood” in your bedroom.

    But yeah, I think a lot of struggling rappers (best example of struggling black musicians today) have done a lot to build home studios and learn production and craft as well. Isn’t that what the film “Hustle and Flow” is about? How is that any different than Ian Mackaye building a studio in his home on a shoestring?

    The lo-fi bravado is more about overcoming limitation and I think that sense of accomplishment coupled with lowered esteem and expectations can come across as arrogance. Even Lou Barlow said in a recent Onion interview that he was making lo-fi cassettes because there was no alternative, and would have been writing prog-rock if he had Pro-tools when he was 14.

    The problem is that “lo-fi” music often re-contextualized the original recordings, and in the case of a band like Einsturzende Neubauten made them sound extra creepy, or you have the case of Guided By Voices. Their best music was made on a 4-track because the songs never got fully realized. In his head Bob Pollard was Roger Daltrey and it worked because the listener had to fill in a lot of blanks. When they got the opportunity to use real studios they jumped at it, and when he really COULD be Roger Daltrey the music suffered. But that is another topic, and I am now moving far from whether or not “indie rock” is too white.

  15. janine

    Are y’all finding very specific contradictory examples or do you really think that lo-fi, diy aesthetics have an equal place in indie rock and hip-hop/R&B? I’m just saying it’s a cleaner cleave than, “who uses louder bass?” And I’m saying that I hate Neil Young.

  16. RickSlick

    Just want to second the link SJC posted at the head of the comments. Carl Wilson is the fucking man. I can’t wait for his Celine Dion book to come out.

  17. Anonymous

    @noamjamski: for better or worse (mostly worse, i think), the hustle and flow thing is different from ian mackaye’s home studio in that there’s a racial charge, and, further, an implied class difference. but t

    but that’s why SFJ’s article is full of shit: he’s calling out bands for not trying to rip off black music, but who have no desire to rip off black music because they’re too busy ripping off other artists like bruce springsteen, who are themselves musical generations removed from the dudes who ripped off classic rock n roll in the first fucking place. arcade fire is not music to fuck to, it’s music for some high school kid to make a mix tape (or i guess an mp3 playlist) of and never give to the girl he’s trying to impress with his musical taste. it’s not dangerous to make independent released sexy music, it’s just that that’s not the vogue right now, and… shit. rereading his article, i’m not exactly sure WHAT he’s trying to say. i have no idea why SFJ thinks it’s bad or cowardly that devendra banhart does what he wants to do, playing stupid folk music that my dumb friends get stoned and listen to, instead of trying to be r kelly… which is also music that my dumb friends get stoned and listen to.

    i do have to say, however, that while i disagree with everything the guy says in his article i do agree that contemporary indie rock needs a kick in the ass.
    any article that calls bullshit on a genre as tightly wound up as indie is ok in my book.

  18. 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).

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