Breihan vs. Harvilla: Does Indie-Rock Need Rhythm?


Fight fight fight fight

So this week’s New Yorker has a long article from Sasha Frere-Jones, one of my favorite critics, about how indie-rock has largely weeded out any black influence. This sort of article is meant to start conversations, and so here’s a conversation about it, between someone who sort of basically agrees with SFJ (me) and someone who sort of basically doesn’t (Voice music editor Rob Harvilla). There’s certainly plenty more to be said on this subject, but this post is as much a jumping-off point as the original article is.

Breihan: OK, so what are your big problems with the article? And, I mean, can you really deny that indie-rock is farting off into rhythm-free tedium and that that’s a bad thing?

Harvilla: My first big problem here is LCD Soundsystem, rightly praised not too long ago by both Tom Breihan and Sasha Frere-Jones. Folks have already pointed out how Sasha’s complimentary LCD piece started: “About five years ago, indie rockers began to rediscover the pleasures of rhythm.” Two weeks after LCD plays to 350,000 people at Randalls Island, that dream is dead?

As for the co-headliner, Arcade Fire: Sasha praised them too, back in February. Now they’re taken to task for unbearable whiteness? Is he actually holding them up as emblematic of indie rock’s dearth of “ecstatic singing” and “elaborate showmanship”? They’re a football field’s worth of Canadians in military garb screaming into bullhorns, for crying out loud. They’re far closer to James Brown than James Taylor.

I guess fundamentally the problem here is “indie rock,” what that includes and excludes. More recently Sasha heaped (deserved) praise onto Spoon for their jerky sense of rhythm and Motown overtones… overlooking them to heap derision on a five-year-old Wilco record is disingenuous to me.

Breihan: Well, yeah, OK, LCD. And Spoon. Maybe. I guess that’s the problem with making vast generalizations.

There’s plenty to nitpick in the SFJ piece, just as there’s always plenty to nitpick whenever a writer commits an outlandish wordcount to an all-encompassing but maybe not entirely rigorously formed idea. God knows I’m guilty of going overboard in pursuit of some point at least, like, once a week.

But SFJ’s basic point (indie-rock has reconciled itself to whiteness and largely removed rhythmic play from its bag of tricks) is a pretty important one and a pretty hard one to refute. Seems to me that far-and-away the most influential indie-rock vocalist of the past decade is Isaac Brock, which is a damn shame; about half the blog-rock bands out there clogging up my listening time still lean hard on that overbearing scratch-whine that doesn’t exactly lend itself to beat-riding. (A year ago it was two thirds, so at least we’re moving in the right direction.) And who are the big indie stars of right now? The Shins? Decemberists? Joanna Newsome? Could you possibly conjure a more beatless/sexless bunch than these fools? When Animal Collective first started making noise, I got all amped after reading some reviews that called them a psychedelic drum-circle, and then I picked up Here Comes the Indian and barely heard a single drum. And last year Beirut got a whole lot of love, possibly because they managed to do standard blog-rock stuff in 2/3 time. Even the noisy French house groups currently beloved of indie-types largely just thud ahead in rigid 4/4 rather than skittering off down different avenues. People aren’t giving their beats room to breathe.

There are always exceptions, and LCD is a big one, though it’s not entirely clear whether they fall under the indie-rock umbrella or not. Spoon are another. And a lot of my favorite indie-type bands lately are the ones with some sense of play. Vampire Weekend, for instance, managed to vault past virtually every other indie-pop band out there (in my mind, at least) just by dicking around with circular Afropop guitars. SFJ’s point might’ve been better expressed if he’d delved into the hopeful exceptions. But the point still resonates for me.

And it’s a big point; holding up a band as indicative of indie’s pervasive whiteness isn’t the same thing as saying they suck. SFJ likes the Arcade Fire, and so do I sometimes, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use a little more swing.

Quick question: how do you feel about the distinction between black and white musics? Four out of five members of TV on the Radio are black, but they’re closer in sound to Sasha’s whiteness paragons Grizzly Bear than they are to James Brown or Dr. Dre or whoever, even if they do fuck around with low-end. So maybe black/white distinctions are a little too dependent on dubious binaries. Or am I nitpicking now?

Harvilla: Yes, yes, Isaac is a big influence, and though I’m a fan, a big problem. You could take it slightly farther back and blame Jeff Mangum if you want. We white dudes love to yelp, bleat, etc. (If more drugs were readily available to me I would compare Mr. Brock to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but never mind.) But is it their fault they can’t sing like Barry White? No argument neither on the Decemberists or Joanna Newsom, but how do you feel about a New Yorker article suggesting T.I. learn to play harp and sing songs about monkeys frolicking with bears? Sasha praised Joanna, too! He likes different types of music, driven by different personalities, reflecting different influences. Feist, even! Those that lack syncopation are now invalid, or worse?

This just skirts a line I’m uncomfortable with: Why don’t you like what I like? Why don’t you sound like I’d like you to sound? Could it be… racism? Projecting this deficiency onto the whole of “indie rock” is problematic to me. I’m not arguing there’s a sizable strain of popular shit — the National, Peter Bjorn and John, etc. — with nothing particularly soulful about ’em, and if that means you or Sasha or anyone dislikes them, that’s fine. But that their music lacks a hip-hop influence doesn’t make that music invalid or “wrong.” We get those fixes elsewhere. And at times Sasha’s piece seems on the precipice of suggesting something darker, that the absence of a funk/soul/hip-hop strain in these artists is deliberate, is malicious, is prejudicial. He doesn’t say it, but you’re meant to walk away thinking it. And that’s what’s dangerous. Part of me feels almost guilty for liking PB&J, that I should be embracing something more diverse. And that’s a valid impulse but a slippery slope: You shouldn’t like what you like, you shouldn’t play rhythm how you hear rhythm, you shouldn’t sing how you sing.

I feel bad for TV on the Radio, the way they’re evoked in discussions like this, how they’re reduced to symbols. Their racial makeup does matter — our Pazz and Jop cover earlier this year (which I regret, and regret not immediately, if not apologizing, than at least reaching out to them about) is proof that these things do make a difference. But I don’t think anyone sees them as Black Music the way people see the Decemberists as White Music. They’re proof that the miscegenation Sasha longs for still occurs, but so are Battles, so are Hot Chip, so are the Rapture. To tar an entire style of music as a “whiter shade of pale” for a readership that might not be able to immediately site 5-10 exceptions is overly simplistic.

Sasha’s blog late last week, in forecasting this piece (he clearly intended to incite/enrage people) made sly reference to last year’s Stephin Merritt dust-up, which to me was far more problematic, almost loathsome. This time SFJ’s argument is a lot more fair and nuanced; in that instance it just felt like the New Yorker’s music critic beating up on a poor shy awkward showtune-loving indie-pop guy for not paying lip service to Justin Timberlake. How did you feel about that? Is that connected to this?

Breihan: I would definitely buy T.I.’s freak-folk album.

Is SFJ accusing indie America of malicious racism? I’m not sure he is. The article is clearly intended as a thrown gauntlet, and it sort of suffers for it (scope too big). But I think the subject is more based around adventurousness; the piece reminds me of the James Murphy interview I did earlier this year where Murphy called out his peers for sticking to well-trod ground and not acting like something is at stake. Where he talks about rap, I think Sasha is getting at the difficulties inherent in adapting a musical form more explicitly racially coded than previous forms of black popular music. Since rap is about declaring selfhood and since it prizes a particularly slippery form of technical skill, white-rock types who adapt it run the risk of embarrassing themselves, sounding like Beck or whatever. (Not that that’s the worst thing in the world.) And I think part of SFJ’s point is that more indie bands need to risk looking like fools, that interesting things happen when risks are taken.

SFJ’s favorite thing to write about is early-80s NY, a time and place when miscegenation flowed in just about every direction and about ten different subgenre scenes were all trying each other’s clothes on. But then that little hiccup was more an exception than anything. Ever since consciously oppositional white underground rock came into existence (Velvet Underground? Let’s say Velvet Underground), it’s mostly avoided black influence. Most punk from the Ramones on has been rigidly white as all fuck. And the R.E.M.-derived school of American indie-rock, which I’d say includes Pavement and the Decemberists and all sorts of other things I can’t fucking stand, has been just as monochromatic.

So maybe the point of the article was that weird little hiccups like that early-80s NY thing need to happen more often, that they should be recognized and nurtured and encouraged. He also makes a big point to mention mid-period Clash as paragons of miscegenation, and I can’t disagree with that. A group like LCD might not try to absorb and process as many disparate ideas as the Clash did, but they try, as do TVOTR, Hot Chip, etc. Still, you and I are both going into CMJ, and we’re both going to see a whole lot of bands who would never dream of sprawling out the way those bands do. And that, I guess, is the problem: too much comfort, too much settling.

As for the Magnetic Fields thing, I think that was an extreme example of SFJ’s whole cross-pollination mission. Stephin Merritt says that he’s fine being way way white, and he’s kind of a dick about it. SFJ says that Stephin Merritt shouldn’t be so snotty about his whiteness, and he’s kind of a dick about it. Nobody really ends up looking good. From where I’m sitting, though, that little tiff only incidentally overlaps with this conversation.

Harvilla: Well, here’s the problem with holding up that era of NYC music as some sort of multicultural euphoria of shared ideas: Go to SFJ’s personal blog now and he links to 1979’s famed Lester Bangs Voice essay “The White Noise Supremacists” and describes Bangs as “somebody who saw this coming twenty-eight years ago.” This ain’t that. First of all, what Bangs is describing is far uglier and more explicit: Racial slurs permeating the CBGBs scene, Nazi regalia flaunted for cheap shock value, Richard Hell getting shit for having a black guitar player, etc. To even obliquely hold that up as a precedent to or as racially problematic as the Arcade Fire not swinging enough or whatever is incredibly unfair. I guess that’s where I’m getting the “malicious racism” overtones in what SFJ writes now, and maybe I’m overanalyzing, but hey, he brought it up. He sees a parallel there and I don’t.

What’s also funny about “White Noise Supremacists” is that it also laments the passing of a miscegenation golden age, new wave as almost entirely white music, sure the Clash and Public Image Ltd. and the Police are exceptions, but … . This is before the early ‘80s scene you say SFJ now eulogizes, and it’s the same conversation we’re having now, the same conversation rock critics have about anything anymore: Wasn’t It All Better Back Then? And yes, I’d love to encounter more bands as blatantly adventurous as the Clash or (especially) my beloved Talking Heads now, but positing that era as a Golden Age and castigating us for comparatively strict segregation now does the past too many favors and doesn’t do the present enough.

Maybe the furor this kicks up among our brethren is scarier to me than the article itself: (white) rock critics accusing other (white) rock critics of racism. In my Pazz essay earlier this year (somehow this has morphed into a forum for all my regrets) I made an oblique reference to someone’s recently published MS Paint drawing of Gnarls Barkley, of all fucking things, and though it was toothless and inscrutable to the vast majority of America the even slight racial undertone to the crack struck me wrong immediate upon reading it in print, and I apologized to the (gracious) dude soon thereafter. The thing where we take fellow critics to task for not having enough hip-hop records in their top-ten lists, all that shit… that’s not a slippery slope so much as a cliff over an abyss I’d rather not look into.

Point taken about CMJ though: Lo about 12 hours ago I wrote about my fears of encountering 10,000 essentially identical guitar-centric quartets. I can’t argue these bands need more… something. Anything. I can’t tell you I’m standing there thinking “I wish these dudes would try rapping for a change,” but I suppose I’d rather be appalled than bored. Probably.