Why is indie rock so fucking white?

In the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones wonders, “Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century?” And:

How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can’t imagine any of these musicians retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.

Is that what it is? Is that why I’m getting so bored with indie rock? Because it has no soul? And here I’ve been blaming it all on the (far too) widespread love of Talking Heads…

MP3: Frere-Jones talks about the loss of miscegenation in American music, with clips of relevant songs.

30 thoughts on “Why is indie rock so fucking white?”

  1. My dad once found a quote somewhere…saying something about how the invention of the airplane ruined music. Back in the day, people took trains everywhere and you can hear it in the music: there is a steady, solid beat. But then everyone started taking airplanes and the music took on those characteristics: fast, loud and rushed.

    or something like that.

  2. That’s not a bad theory at all. Airplanes are more staid as well. People don’t seem to communicate much on planes. It’s like being in an elevator for three hours. You stare forward and don’t speak.

  3. But Ringo perfected the backbeat, which got those honey’s shaking they asses. I like that plenty.

    Dancing is all but banned in indie rock. Why is that? Is it because indie kids can’t handle their liquor? I am a shit dancer but get me a few pints and I am busting out a bruising Rain Man dance. You want to get retarded in here? I am your man.

  4. “And here I’ve been blaming it all on the (far too) widespread love of Talking Heads”

    Don’t know too many of the imitators you’re referring to, but although David Byrne is certainly no soul singer, the Talking Heads could get pretty damn funky. Especially when inspired by the collaboration of Bernie Worrell.

  5. “The band, six men and three women, shared the stage with half a dozen curved screens and slender red fluorescent lights, which encircled the musicians like a ring of candles.”–Frere-Jones

    Let’s face it: the only dancing appropriate for that venue is of the type stylized by Derek Zoolannder.

  6. Surprising that so many are missing the obvious answer.

    We white folks are waiting for the next big thing in black music so we can steal it and for a while it will still sound black, but ultimately, not.

    Pretty much the history of popular American music from where I sit.

  7. So Cameron, do you think there a bunch of teenage Londoners covering R. Kelly songs at the Marquee Club right now? That would be cool…

  8. Ha. Who knows? We’ll have to see where Winehouse takes it on her next albums… I mean, if the Stones had continued exclusively imitating Muddy and Wolf, would we still care about them?

    I say it’s high time for a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion reunion!

    Or is Justin Timberlake as close as we’re going to get to the idea of a white artist taking a “black” form and taking it in his own direction while still retaining the original soul?

  9. I swear, one of the greatest things about my subscription to the New Yorker is seeing Sasha Frere-Jones constantly out-douchebag himself with his ridiculous shit.

    Why is “indie rock” so white? Because the “in” thing as far as influences for the last couple years has been punk and Joy Division style post-punk, which was, like punk, consciously and emphatically not based on the blues. Even though you could dance to some of it. To not realize what an influence traditionally black music has had on indie music in general, you’d basically just have to be ignoring the whole indie rock scene, much like Sasha typically does. Until, of course, you wanted to write some douchebag article. This is a dude who just learned to accept Radiohead last year, and generally writes about much more commercial, dance-oriented, and urban music anyway. *Of course* the indie scene will seem lily white to him.

    As far as the paucity of acutal black indie musicians, I have no idea why things turned out that way.

  10. It’s because most black folks aren’t much into rock. Duyee.

    I’ve been making my black friends (who pretty much roll with hip hop) listen to my music lately with some interesting results; Thievery Corporation was a hit, as well as BRMC’s latest.

    Supersuckers and The Fratellis got some acknowledgment, as well as Johnny Cash and The White Stripes.

    The Hives seemed to puzzle them more than anything. I deem them the whitest of rockers.

  11. And black folks not being into rock is fine; but we apparently need an article (basically) complaining about how whites are no longer stealing all their ideas from black music? Who really cares anyway? Wouldn’t it be better if the racial background of your music just didn’t matter?

  12. all i know is that these days i’m buying way more stones throw releases than matador.

    and frere-jones needs to get crackin’ on another UI rekkid…

  13. HELL YES!

    I been saying this for quite some time.

    It’s not all about the rhythm though–don’t forget the ecstatic singing.

    “Emotional distance” is one of the more annoyingly common themes of indie rock. Pavement made an art of it, but not many more could.

    My wife and I were listening to the rare genius that is Weezer’s Pinkerton last night (thanks Jake & GloNo for championing this record). My wife brought up how intense his singing is on the record, and I thought, “I wonder if this might be why it tanked when it came out.” His singing is so emotional, but also very “untrained white guy.” It’s that guy like Derek was talking about who can’t dance but will go whole hog anyway. Now that is completely rock and roll–but I’m sure that, and the harder, more ‘metal’ musical tropes threw the Blue album listeners for a loop, expecting more “arch”ness.

    Any rock worth its salt retains a hint of the blues–or it does not rock: it’s that simple.

  14. That doesn’t mean that a Radiohead or whoever doesn’t make brilliant beautiful music. Shit, the Decemberists have to be some of the honkiest mofos around but they’re pretty decent. There’s an emotional compnent there. It does help explain why “indie rock” can be tedious, why no one really cares that the New Pornographers have a new record, or any of these bands trying to out-Slint each other.

  15. Blame the Velvet Underground. Didn’t Lou jokingly impose a fine whenever someone played a blues riff? Bullshit? Yes, but it does tell you that they were looking in other directions for influences.

  16. At the risk of outdouche-ing myself, I will add that the strains in musical geneaolgy is always fascinating–e.g. hearing the common sound in music from North Africa, Greece, Israel, Pakistan. What we call “rock” is the unlikely marriage/clash of African music and Anglo-folk, and has since come to encompass the blend of those music’s offshoots and progenitors, like jazz and classical. So if it pulls away from any one, it’s likely not going to be to the taste of somebody.

    There’s always a big academic debate about “highbrow” vs. “lowbrow” and whether a folk form like the blues is as legit as Beethoven. I say it is, but it’s not as easy as you would think. In some ways I don’t want the music I love “institutionalized.” But, this is also the way it is preserved, and understood historically. So far in history, anyway.

    But for music lovers, anything goes.

    I’ll shut up now.

  17. Word up, B. Agree 100%. It’s all fascinating, and my own musical journey has been fueled by hearing something I like and wanting to figure out what influenced it and where it came from. For me, all roads seem to lead back to the Carter Family.

    Re: VU. Except they totally rocked.

  18. “Dancing is all but banned in indie rock. Why is that? Is it because indie kids can’t handle their liquor?”

    My guess is that because dancing is an act that requires you to lower your guard and give in to the music, it interferes with maintaining a facade of ironic detachment or coolness. I’ve always gotten the impression that indie rock fans don’t think too highly of earnestness or unbridled emotion. Too hippie or uncool. Or something.

  19. I don’t mean to be high maintenance, but can someone take a run at listing The Big 10 in terms of quintessential Indie Rock bands? I’m not sure the genre’s all that well defined. I think of myself as primarily an Indie Rock Guy, and I’m shaking my ass plenty. Is it music I’d go out on a dancefloor to? No, but it’s not dance music. It’s Rock; Indie Rock specifically…and there’s plenty of unbridled emotion and earnestness involved.

  20. “Dancing is all but banned”

    This reminds me of one of the most boring things in the world. Going to a bar show or concert with someone who’s in a band. They are worse than hipsters for sitting back condescendingly detached. (Of course, this is a generalization, but like accurate generalizations, generally true.)

  21. You know what’s kind of funny? This whole topic is reminding me that there’s a huge movement of dancey craziness making its move into the indie rock world. I’m thinking of CSS, Dan Deacon, LCD Soundsystem, etc. And from what I’m told, the kids go apeshit at those shows.

  22. Village Voice points out that just back in March, SFJ said (in a piece about LCD Soundsystem): “About five years ago, indie rockers began to rediscover the pleasures of rhythm.” Apparently, he thinks they’ve lost it again now, ha ha.

    And how could none of us have thought of Spoon! Black like me, indeed.

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