You may have thought the inter-publication crossfire over Sasha Frere-Jones’ October New Yorker essay attacking indie rock for failing to engage with African-American music had reached its incoherent end game when New York Times chucklehead David Brooks stepped up last week to add his two Johnny-come-lately cents. But the L.A. Times decided to go Brooks one better this weekend in the only language that the modern reader can understand: a list! And in the process of compiling a rundown of “several artists, among the many” who are “renew[ing pop] by a love of dancing, cross-cultural collaborations forged on the Web, and the ever-growing diversity of fans themselves,” the Times‘ good intentions go splat against the same obstacles that most people attempting to engage with Frere-Jones have collided with: 1.) Essentialist theories about race and popular music make it very hard to stay on topic; 2.) It’s dangerous to build rickety counter-arguments on an essay that was already the rhetorical equivalent of a sandpit; and 3.) No one in America might actually give a shit.
These pundits raise many valid and troubling points. It’s tempting to just join in, starting by gently noting the irony of three well-published, white, upper-middle class men leading an argument about race and class. Then there’s gender: Frere-Jones’ description of his musical ideal as “miscegenation” — a word choice he’s said was deliberate and appropriate — raises serious issues about sexual violence and racial objectification that stretch all the way back to slavery and can’t just be put aside in the paragraph or two they’ve been granted in this debate.
Centuries of racial discrimination can’t be mopped up in a handful of paragraphs in a general interest publication, but surely they can by better explored by a multi-paragraph list of musicians designed rubbish Frere-Jones’ assertions, since he’s willfully ignored the “strikingly hybridized” nature of pop today. The Times‘ list is a spectacularly wrongheaded one to use to refute Frere-Jones, almost to the point where you wonder if it was designed as much as the original showboating New Yorker piece to spark its own divisive “answer” essays: M.I.A., Devendra Banhart, Ozomatli, Gogol Bordello, Rodrigo Y Gabriella, Beck, Zoë/Kinky, Bloc Party, Lily Allen, Calexico, Spoon, CSS, Fall Out Boy, Bjork, Burial, Apollo Heights.
If the word “pop,” as distinct from “indie rock,” didn’t set off your alarms, the contents of the list likely did. Frere-Jones wasn’t speaking about pop, the commonplace hybridization of which is self-evident to anyone with MTV and a pair of eyes, he was talking about the distinct, notoriously insular world of Caucasoid boys and their culturally oblivious guitar-rock. Perhaps coming up as short in their editorial meeting as SFJ did when looking for white folks working in a blues-based, guitar-rock idiom, the Times is justifying the breadth of its list from the fifth entry: “Not officially an indie-rock act, but what could be more independent than playing heavy metal infused with Latin rhythms on acoustic guitars.” Well just about anything if you squint hard enough, from rappers dropping buttloads of bootleg mixtapes without the benefit of major-label distribution to bachata bands doing get-in-the-van touring. Even Frere-Jones, in his supplementary materials attempting to flesh out his own essay, quickly went so far afield in trying to prove that things aren’t all bad in indie rock that he was in danger of starting to talk about jazz bands and Mexican-American death metal groups just to fill up space.
Spoon might be the most ridiculous, and paradoxically most effective, inclusion on this list. No one can argue that Britt Daniel draws from R&B and soul, any more than they can argue that, viewed from the right angle, Spoon fits SFJ’s “invasion of the honkies” theory like a glove. They could have been cut and the Times could have copied and pasted any paleface rock act that reaches back to Motown or makes room for a little dub or has an aftertaste of funk, happily (if unintentionally) underlining the original flimsiness of the New Yorker essay’s argument: Go looking for “blackness” (or otherwise) in these modern musical times and you can start finding it in greater or lesser amounts just about anywhere, especially if you start using your imagination.
The New Yorker is a rareified world where the various fiefdoms of popular music might be new and confusing enough for the holes in these essays to be overlooked, and even though he shot himself in the rhetorical foot several times over, by training his sites specifically on indie rock (at least as far as his headline), Frere-Jones did instigate some interesting discussion, particularly Carl Wilson’s class-based followups in Slate and on his blog. The Times article is doubly useless because it presumes to tell readers something no one in the planet ever called into question: Hey, the whole of music is incredibly diverse! Rock critics might be the only people left surprised by this revelation.
And that’s still the most important question a month later, compounded by the response: who is all of this meta-handwringing for? Subtract the SFJ content here and it’s just a buyer’s guide-style list to a cross-cultural array of musicians that the readers of the L.A. Times are, in many cases, long familiar with. Its half-baked agglomeration of bands, united by nothing so much as the writers find them interesting and can shoehorn them with varying amounts of effort into the topic at hand, certainly doesn’t add anything to the “heated discussion among avid music fans” engendered by the New Yorker essay. Unlike even Brooks’ New York Times op-ed, which for all its pointlessness merely used its SFJ-related content as a springboard for the kind of half-assed political commentary Brooks’ readers know and love him for, it presumes that the readers of the Times are fretting over the same racial hangups that have long obsessed music writers/geeks as they watch the rest of the world enjoy its hybridized pop and niche interest entertainments without giving them too much thought.
On the other hand, to be chartiable to the Times for a second, maybe a few decades ago this sort of debate would have been automatically interesting to a general but more engaged readership, and the lack of interest from the outside world just proves the “avid music fan” really is an endangered species. But I doubt it.
Hail Indie Rock, In It All Its Diversity [LA Times]