October 25, 2007

Noses Up: Play That Funky Music … What Boy?

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For the .01 percent of music listeners who care about these issues, this past few weeks has seen a pretty exciting clash between two well-established music critics.
The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones (a high brow magazine’s expert on low brow music) published an article recently trying to unpack his personal boredom with current “indie-rock.” His final analysis was that it lacked the borrowings from “black music” that have, by many accounts, defined rock ’n roll’s popularity since its birth from the blues. Musical miscegenation, or the borrowing of distinctly African-American musical traits like syncopated rhythms and “a bit of swing,” in his words, were integral in independently minded rock up until the 1990s, when this music underwent a “racial resorting.” It lost its “blackness,” and moved towards the distinctly unfunky styles typified by bands like Arcade Fire, Wilco and the Decemberists. “A little more syncopation would have helped,” suggests Jones, referring to Wilco’s 2002 record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Jones ascribes this shift to the increasing popularity and success of black artists such as Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly who received the same major-label success as any white musician who could borrow from them. This wasn’t the case when rock ’n roll started, as Big Mama Thornton’s single “Hound Dog” was made ten times as popular by Elvis. The idea is that racial equality has brought a musical crisis for white musicians, albeit perhaps not a conscious one, because they have no one take from.
“Not so!” retorted Slate Magazine’s Carl Wilson, who ascribes this trend in indie-rock to the recent “blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based” aura that many of these bands have pursued. Colin Meloy references obscure literature and foreign locales. Modest Mouse waxes on poet Charles Bukowski. These artists have come to provide music for the same sort of people who, ironically, read magazines like Slate and The New Yorker. The shift in indie-rock has been along class lines, rather than racial ones, Wilson explains.
The problem in these sorts of debates, of course, is how to be sensitive when referring to assumptive genres like “white-boy-funk” and “street-punk.” No one wants the baggage of claiming a one-to-one relationship between race and an ability to “get down” on the dance floor, or ascribing some sort of cultural superiority to the more “literate” lyrical styles, and yet it is a commonplace in our talk about music.
One possible (and perhaps reasonably simple for the length of this column) generalization to add is that music makers have a fundamental choice in deciding the politics of their creative endeavors. Both options have created incredibly popular and interesting music, and the reasons for the success of one over the other in a specific time and place are usually driven by factors other than the music itself. One option, which has birthed such titans as the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy, is to look inward towards the hopes of a completely authentic racial, cultural or ethnic, identity. Engagement with the outside world is political for these artists, who couldn’t care less about the possibilities of “borrowing” from someone else’s music.
The other option, and certainly the one that defines the dominant narrative of popular American music, has been to look outward, and be fascinated by what musical directions are technically barred. This engulfs white fascination with black music (Elvis, The Beatles), American fascination with faraway cultures (Sting, Shakira), and our collective fascination with music of the past (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?). More recently, and especially with the “indie” genre that Jones is talking about, I think the overriding fascination is existential, and this is why it has become related to class. Indie rock is still a kind of rock ’n roll, which is generally considered to be “low-brow” music, and so fans of this genre are fascinated with our culture’s “high-brow” genres. This is why Sufjan Stevens tours with a mini-orchestra, why Joanna Newsom’s poetic latest record has all the epic grandeur of an opera, and why the Decemberists’ music has aspired to non-musical forms like the short-story and long poem.
It seems to me that if the musician has a specific political goal in creating music, the music itself will reflect that aim by shunning what they “can’t be,” while trying to delve into what they are, so as to seem as authentic as possible. This music ends up being incredibly self-conscious and lyric oriented, and perhaps this is why we see rap as a form of resistance music among oppressed peoples worldwide.
On the other hand, the outward looking music is not free from political analysis. It is simply that this music doesn’t do the analysis for us. Its messages have to be culled out, and the source of much debate. Thanks to writers like Jones and Wilson, that debate is happening.