Thursday, October 18, 2007

Give Up the Funk

It seems like all the music blogs I read (that's like five or six) are buzzing about Sasha Frere Jones' article in the new New Yorker called "A Paler Shade of White." Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla, both Village Voice writers, argue about it here. And this morning, Brandon over at No Trivia, had this to say about the article. I expect more reaction in the next few days.

To put it simplistically, Frere Jones (or SFJ as he's called) thinks indie rock (indie rock here defined as non-mainstream rock music, regardless of whether the bands are actual independent labels) has become too white. Eschewing the importance put on rhythm by African and African-American music, bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists and the Shins stick to styles of music that mostly skirt black influence . He attributes part of this to the fear white musicians might have of trying to borrow from genres like gangster rap without looking like a joke or being labeled a thief of authentic black culture.

SFJ further complicates his argument by explaining that, unlike in the days when rock bands like Cream or the Stones covered blues songs to give the artists they loved exposure (as well to give themselves authenticity), black and white artists are on the same playing field when it comes to exposure. No rock act has to cover Snoop Dogg for someone to hear about him.

Towards the end of the article, it becomes clear SFJ's true issue with indie rock is that it's not energetic or danceable enough. That may be a fair criticism, although obviously subjective, but he begins the article by attacking, of all bands, The Arcade Fire, for lacking "ecstatic singing" and "elaborate showmanship." The rap equivalent would be to attack Busta Rhymes for not rapping with enough passion and abandon. If anything, The Arcade Fire could be accused of being too dramatic and over the top. Many of their stage shows have featured men in motorcycle helmets bashing into each other and spontaneous (well, sometimes) exits out into the crowd and onto the street outside, banging away the whole time.

For me, the idea that indie rock is too white is ridiculous. Musicians have the right to play whatever kind of music they want. If the Decemberists love The Soft Boys and Neutral Milk Hotel (and lately Jethro Tull), that's great. If the Shins like 80s new wave guitar bands and the Beach Boys, more power to them. Only people who don't really like those bands would want them to stick funk bass lines or hyphy synth sounds in their music.That's really all this boils down too: people who don't like certain popular bands wishing they'd change their music so it sounded better to them.

As a fan of rap and soul and numerous other African and African-American art forms, I'm reminded of conversations with people who wish "rap wasn't so materialistic" or that "r&b had more soul like it used to," as if they just want to like the music but can't. But what's so wrong about not liking it? If you dislike rap, that's fine. If you dislike whiny, precious indie rock, that's fine too. But if you want to like rap if only it was more like jazz or you want like rock if only it sounded like funk, you're waging a losing battle. So leave those bands alone, Sasha Frere Jones, and go listen to whatever it is you actually like.