Thursday, October 18, 2007

Everybody's talking 'bout....

...S/FJ's piece in the New Yorker, where he laments the lack of soul in indie-rock. While it took some time before any reaction to the article appeared on the net, these last few days discussions have been fierce in this I love Music-thread, and yesterday Idolator picked it up, albeit half jokingly, by giving a SFJ-score to bands on the on-going (and largely indie) CMJ-fest.

Now, I
admire a lot of SFJ's writing. I think he is a good critic, and some of our tastes are similar - he loves the Minutemen, as do I. He loves the Clash, ditto. We share an affinity for a lot of post-punk (which, btw, I refuse to give up on. I liked Gof4 before the post-punk revival, and I'll continue to do so. Get off your "that's SO yesterday" horse already).

of the reasons I like these bands, and the reason I mention these bands right now, is their prominent use of the bass. The propulsion, juice, pulse, and ooomph of the bass, the way it can make the music swing. This prominent use of the bass may have its roots in largely black American strains of music: jazz, soul, dub, and funk. Their use of the bass is just of of several signs that these bands mixed a whole set of different influences, both "black" and "white", to create their sounds and music. SFJ notes that this mixing (I'll come back to his term later on) is part of what made these bands and other music that he loves so important and he thinks it is sadly lacking in modern indie-rock. Indie-rock, he says, has since the 90's strayed away from the African-American influences and instead turned to "whiter" influences making it "soul-less" or "less interesting". (Norwegian readers, note the similarities to some of Ole Martin Ihle's critique, but also note the significant difference: SFJ loves punk and early indie, which I fear Ihle isn't open enough to appreciate. To SFJ, indie doesn't mean "soul-less", it's just become soul-less).

Some of the discussions on SFJ's
article has been about this point: indie's lack of "black" influences. On the basis of the article, that's an obvious thing to discuss. If you listen to the podcast which accompanied the article you get the feeling that he also thinks it is lacking the other way around. There is no mixing of sounds in neither indie nor hip-hop these days. Also note that he says that the sounds of "black" and "white" music used to be more difficult to pin down before, especially in the 60's and 70's, rather it was an American music where influnces had been fused over the years albeit with a distinctly rhythmic influence from Africa. To this point I agree, but it seems to have escaped the vast majority of those who have engaged themselves in the discussions over the article.

I feel
that on one hand the article is just SFJ saying that he misses a Minutemen or a Clash in modern rock/indie. Fair enough, but there are several problems with the whole thing. I'll go over them one-by-one.

  • His word for mixing of styles or influences is miscegenation, a highly loaded term originally intended to be derogatory.
  • Taking a few current indie bands to mean all current indie is reductionist and false. Suerly there are exceptions to the rule. Also, what is the rule, or, what is indie?
  • SFJ traces the problem as he sees it back to Pavement. Now, I love Pavement for several reasons, but my main point here is this: Can it not be said that Pavement's odd twists and turns, pauses and off notes are not so much a sign of lack of ability (you'll never convince me that Malkmus is a bad guitar player), but may rather be attributed to a delibertate choice of style and moreover be seen as an influence of Thelonious Monk (which has also been pointed out by Christgau, among others), a man who used odd twists and turns himself to create a very personal voice within jazz?
  • It's difficult to understand why SFJ uses a band he likes, Arcade Fire, as proof of the problem. By doing so he freely admits that this mixing of styles that he misses is not the be-all of rock/indie, thereby making me think the "problem" - sonically - is not as big as the article, all four pages of it, would suggest.
  • The article is not well written. SFJ's point comes across better in the podcast, where he explains, as I noted above, that American music didn't use to be "black" or "white", but a potent mix of both and that this is something he misses.
All this makes me think that made SFJ just wanted to cause a stir, to start an argument. It seems to have worked. He has answered a few e-mails on the blog on the online edition of the New Yorker. I've mentioned the I Love Music thread and the Idolator-thingy. Tom Breihan has a conversation with Rob Harvilla on his blog for the Village Voice, and Carl Wilson has announced that he'll have a response in Slate today, where he'll pull class into the argument. And now there's me, of course.

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