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A provocative piece by Sasha Frere-Jones in the current issue of the New Yorker takes on indie rock for its explicit whiteness, pining for the days when bands like the Clash or PiL openly borrowed from black music. Watching a concert by Arcade Fire spurred him to the subject, as he noticed the total lack of rhythmic variety and low-end in the group’s music, which he otherwise enjoyed. He identifies a shift in the 90s when indie rock stopped incorporating any trace of black music, pinpointing the popular rise of hip-hop as the cause; honkies knew they’d sound either racist or plain stupid by trying hip-hop when the real masters of the form were everywhere.
Naturally, I'm oversimplifying his argument. Frere-Jones's analysis is for the most part dead-on, but he is guilty of a few mistakes and omissions. He suggests it was the Clash and PiL that paved the way for indie rock, but they did so only in the most general sense. Indie rock as we know it emerged out of America’s post-hardcore scene, when bands like the Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Die Kreuzen, the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen (the only one of that group SFJ mentions) started screwing around with the formula, embracing their punk roots while exploring stylistic freedom. That development may not be crucial to the piece’s ultimate point—the loss of swing, bass, and soul in the music—but it’s an important stop along the continuum, and one Frere-Jones hardly touches.
The more glaring omission, in my opinion—and this is something that I’ve written about before—is how the Internet has allowed little niches to thrive and grow at the expense of outside influences. With technology making it so easy for people to be completely myopic in their worldviews, it’s entirely possible that a kid who thinks music begins and ends with Pavement could easily ignore a lot of what came before and after. Why should we expect young musicians obsessed with indie rock made over the last 15 years to play around with dub or go-go—they probably don’t know what that stuff is in the first place.
Yes, I’m exaggerating. But do you see my point?
Max Romeo, Open the Iron Gate 1973-77 (Blood and Fire)
Rudi Mahall, Solo (Psi)