It's only rock'n'roll but I like it...

>> Friday, October 19, 2007

Yesterday's Slate featured an article responding to a recent piece in The New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones in which Frere-Jones complains that contemporary rock--specifically indie rock--isn't black enough.

It must be very hard to be a Professional Music Critic™. There you are, facing deadlines and wanting to purchase things like, oh, I don't know, food, maybe, and you have to write something that will be read and talked about and will justify an editor's asking you to come back and write another piece the next time you need more food. What are you going to say? How much mileage are you going to get out of "Well, they wrote this 20-minute song because they liked that note"?

No, no, no. That will never do. You've got to make a cultural statement. What does this song say about race, gender, class, politics, the amount of wood processed by rodents (if they processed wood)?

Every song, every album must be part of some zeitgeist, even if the creator of the piece in question was mostly trying to get laid at the time, or was told by the label that they really needed another 10 minutes or that they didn't hear a hit.

Frere-Jones wants to know where the soul in rock'n'roll went. Why don't these records sound black enough anymore? Carl Wilson, in Slate, replies that Jones is missing the point when he focuses on race, that the reason indie acts don't sound black is that (black or white), they're all upper-middle-class college types in their 20s.

Where both critics fall apart, I think, is that they beg the question of why a Wilco record ought to sound differently (other, perhaps, than the obvious reason that Frere-Jones hates Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). It may be that the reason Wilco doesn't sound especially "black" (Frere-Jones' code for R&B influenced, I suppose) is that Jeff Tweedy has always been more beholden to Woody Guthrie than Robert Johnson. If this is less obvious on Wilco's more recent albums (oh, come on, it's just as obvious as ever), it's only because Tweedy is now filtering his Americana through electronic music and not just the post-punk of yore.

The reason The Clash sounded the way they did was because they always wanted to integrate the diversity of music the members had grown up with (Joe Strummer was born in Turkey and spent much of his childhood in various countries; Mick Jones spent much of his youth following rock bands around, etc.). The reason the Rolling Stones incorporated so much R&B was that, at heart, they were an R&B band, much as Zeppelin was a blues band with really big amps. None of these acts were necessarily out to make a huge statement about integrating music, covertly or otherwise. (Not even The Clash. They played what they loved, and that is the key to their authenticity, not that they went back to some supposed original well to draw their water.)

Why, exactly, is it incumbent on The Flaming Lips to play booty-stomping music? What, exactly, is there to lament in "Brian Wilson..., a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, [becoming] indie rock’s muse"? One can just imagine the conversations in the studio: "Jesus, Wayne, this new record doesn't have enough of that Negro sound--our rock'n'roll license will be revoked if we don't include more syncopation!"

Which, incidentally, brings me to the very, very worst part of Frere-Jones' trolling: the casual, closeted racism. Oh, it's not that virulent, cross-burning racism; rather, it's the white, guilty, vaguely condescending kind of racism we white, middle-class liberals sometimes get ourselves into. A fine example of the road to Hell being paved with all sorts of good intentions, I suppose. It's still demeaning, insulting, small-minded and vapid, even if it's done with a relatively good heart, however.

Take Frere-Jones (and Wilson's) prize catchphrase: "musical miscegenation." What a wonderfully horrid (and trolling) phrase. Technically, it's not a bad word at all--"miscegenation," dictionaries will tell us, simply derives from the roots "miscé(re)" (to mix) and "gen(us)" (stock, race or species). Fairly innocuous, one supposes.

Except, of course, it doesn't begin there. It's not a nice word at all, not really. The first appearance of the word "miscegenation" appears to be an 1864 pamphlet published in an attempt by Democrats to discredit Republicans during the Civil War. An old example of political dirty tricks, the pamphlet promoted racial intermarriage at a time when the practice was inconceivable even to progressives of the era, in an attempt to discredit the Republicans--the idea being that whites would become very angry at the very hint of blacks hooking up with "their" white women, and stop supporting President Lincoln. (More on the pamphlet can be found here, at the Museum Of Hoaxes.)

The horror that certain whites felt at the concept of miscegenation was such that horror writer H.P. Lovecraft--best known for epic monstrosities like the shambling, octopus-headed god Cthulhu and the sanity-shattering book of occult lore called the Necronomicon--felt miscegenation was just as horrible as any noisome, slimy, extradimensional fiend and made it the centerpiece of a ghost-written (with Zealia Bishop) horror story, "Medusa's Coil." (This might be compared to a version of Dracula in which the real final straw wasn't that Dracula was trying to make Mina Harker an "Un-Dead," but the fact that he observed Hanukkah and was going to buy a house in Van Helsing's neighborhood.)

Why use the word "miscegenation," when "admixture" or "borrowing" or even simply "marriage" might be as descriptive or more accurate? One might say that Frere-Jones is trying to take the word back, but from whom? It's a word coined by racists to shock other racists into acting like racists; you're not going to "reclaim" it any more than anyone's going to reclaim the phrase "Final Solution." ("New, Tide Final Solution laundry detergent from Proctor And Gamble--it gets whites whiter!") Or, more likely, because you're trying to be an edgy and smart music critic who gets talked about, even if it means you have to use an expression that pokes the soft skin beneath your readers' fingernails.

There's a further mistake in trying to ascribe race to music in the first place. Frere-Jones may be the only musician I've ever seen saying he was worried about whether he sounded black enough or too black or insufficiently black--whatever the hell any of that even means. Most musicians just try to play what feels right--what comes from their soul, not what comes from the genre of Soul Music. And look, Frere-Jones even writes:

When we played our version of funk or dub reggae, or tried to make a synthesizer sound like a dolphin fixing a tractor... it felt natural. Most of our music didn’t require singing, but a few pieces needed the sound of a human voice to round them out. Yet singing stumped me. Except for a single, miraculous week when I was sixteen, I’ve never rapped successfully, and melodic singing was inappropriate for the jumpy, polyrhythmic music we played. So I fudged, splitting the difference between singing, chanting, and rapping, each time with diminishing returns.... And the problem was clearly related to race. It seemed silly to try to sound “black,” but that is what happened, no matter how hard I tried not to. In some ways, this was the result of a categorical confusion, the assumption that if I could use my hands to play a derivation of black music with any authority I could use my voice to do the same thing. Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting.
One wonders: was the problem some mysterious cultural thing, or was it that Frere-Jones felt embarrassed singing in front of other people? Why ascribe it to race? Indeed, the problem doesn't seem "clearly related to race" at all--it seems clearly related to Frere-Jones feeling awkward singing in front of a crowd. I mean, I've heard David Byrne split the difference between singing, chanting and rapping, and I don't think he has any kind of feeling of diminishing returns. Rather, I get the sense that he opens his mouth and things come out of it. Should it be about something more? How could it be--what else is there?

And maybe that's what it's all about when an indie band sits down to play, too. Yeah, you're not going to squeeze four pages out of it. But at least you won't be an intellectually dishonest asstard trolling for controversy by abusing the historical contexts of music and language.


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