It’s Indie Rock and Roll for Me (but only because of identity politics)

I had a long and interesting conversation over lunch with some friends from work today about ways to categorize the various levels of sophistication and excellence (or non-excellence) in pop music. Summarizing the content of that conversation and then reflecting on it would take way more time than I have, so while staying within the world of pop music in general, I will comment on this instead.

Sasha Frere-Jones, a pop music critic at the New Yorker, wrote this piece on “how indie rock lost its soul.” Among the groups to be flushed down the toilet are Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire – likely targets for anybody who would want to criticize “popular” indie rock today. I like these bands, if only because they appeal to my particular brand of mid-level musical sanctimony, so maybe my disgust with Sasha Frere-Jones’s (the author of the piece) conclusions is just a knee-jerk reaction. The basic gist is that indie rock hasn’t been as interesting since it stopped borrowing heavily from the blues and other (African-American) swinging-rhythm influences:

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.

Okay, point taken. And the article is packed with interesting information about the history of rock and roll. But imagine my frisson when I stumbled across this piece by Carl Wilson in Slate a couple days later. His argument is that not race but class has caused the shift Frere-Jones describes:

This is the music of young “knowledge workers” in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy.

Hmmm. That seems to describe me pretty well. No wonder I like Sufjan so much. On second thought, Wilson’s argument seems similarly reductionistic. Whatever the case, Wilson provides some good critiques to Frere-Jones’s argument. Check it out.


1 comment so far

  1. Matt Smith on

    A very appropriate extension of the discussion of tiers, Jeff. It’s always good to measure one’s opinions against accepted and supposed authorities on a subject. I posted a long-winded and opinionated comment on the “problem of indie rock” over at the Nonnus blog. Check it out if you want:

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