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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Music: Sasha Frere-Jones Asks: "Why Can't We All Just Get Along in 4/4 Time?"

Pavement: "Let's try playing more 'black', fellas..."

The article that's been heating up the musical parts of Blogachusetts this week is Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece entitled "A Paler Shade of White". On the surface the argument appears to be a bold attack on a very early nineties music-crit trope: white people stole rock from black people (see Public Enemy's "Who Stole the Soul", Living Colour's "Elvis is Dead" etc., ) While carefully acknowledging the material and profile disparities between white and black artists Frere-Jones posits that this sort of musical mixing is a Good Thing (though terming it miscegenation is the sort of attention grabbing move that hints at the real purpose of the piece).

Whether or not you think cultural mixing is a Good Thing (I do), the argument that he puts forth goes further by suggesting that "indie rock" has undergone a racial purification that has systematically cleansed "black" music from the musical melting pot. Leave aside the lack of black musicians in indie rock, is this true? And how does one prove it? Brian Wilson, an acknowledged latter-day indie touchstone, is invoked as a touchstone of all things white, but how white can a guy be when his band steals their first hit from Chuck Berry? Arcade Fire is exhibit A in the articles first paragraph but can't the argument be made that "My Body is a Cage" is a descendant of blues dirges from the 20's and 30's.

No, says Frere-Jones, the beat isn't right. And here we come to the real nub of this piece: He doesn't like the way indie rockers drum. They don't swing, the bass players don't groove, etc. Which may be true (though not in the case of Spoon say, or Afghan Whigs) but so what? Is this a racial thing or just a mode of expression? Even one of Frere-Jones chosen whipping boys (to trade in another charged term) Pavement, fail to hold up under close examination. While pointlessly mocking the lyrics to "Grave Architecture" he fails to note the very swinging section of the song that occurs right before the final rave-up -- a section that could be described as jazzy.

Really what the article strives for is to make a splash and that it has done. Frere-Jones does a bit of extra-credit overreaching on his own blog, where he links the article to Lester Bangs incendiary piece on white supremacy and punk , which is a bit like appending an article on Grizzly Man to a piece on Winnie The Pooh.

There are a load of great/funny/stupid comments on this here at I Love Music's thread.

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