Beyond the pale

Sasha Frere-Jones was an interestng and useful choice to be the New Yorker's music critic. It would have been easy to imagine the magazine running a column that served as an extension of the Nonesuch/Starbucks/KCRW "music for grownups" movement, reviewing new releases by Norah Jones and Elvis Costello and Wilco as though that were all there was to know about popular music in the 21st century. Instead, SFJ explicates country and crunk and mashups and Mariah Carey for the curious general reader. It is not inevitable that the New Yorker would include writing about these kinds of music; SFJ only makes it seem that way.

But he has this one hobbyhorse, and it is called indie rock.

The idea that indie rock abjures those aspects of rock 'n' roll that derive most directly from black musical forms is neither new nor exceptionable, and the story of indie rock's move away from blackness could be told in a non-pejorative way. In its classic form, indie rock is played on straight downbeats rather than with syncopation (compare Kim Deal's basslines to Keith Richards's guitar parts). Indie singers and guitarists typically don't flatten the third, fifth, and seventh notes of the scale in imitation of the blues. ("In the Velvets we had a rule," Lou Reed once said. "Anyone who played a blue note would be fined.") And archetypal indie bands don't groove -- they don't generate rhythmic tension from the interplay of disparate elements, in the manner pioneered by James Brown (although there are important exceptions here, which we'll get to).

This tendency doesn't begin with what we think of as modern indie, and it certainly didn't start in the '90s. Musically it's the heritage of punk. Perhaps SFJ doesn't want to blame punk; he dodges the question by focussing on the Clash, who blended "pure" punk elements with rootsier sounds like reggae and soul. But the Clash were the exception. Most punk bands, from the Sex Pistols and the Ramones on down, never made records like Sandinista; they never opened their aggressive straight-ahead rhythms to anything swingier. Punk's relationship to black-derived rock 'n' roll is best captured in the Pistols' recording of "Johnny B. Goode": the band tears through the twelve-bar changes while Johnny Rotten complains, "I hate songs like this!"

"Songs like this" -- blues structures, shuffling beats -- had been the template for rock 'n' roll since its inception, and they no longer signified in the way they once had. "Johnny B. Goode" sounded fresh and exciting in 1958 (in part because of they ways it crossed racial boundaries: a countryish narrative set to blues changes, sung by a black man with such precise diction that many listeners believed he was white, accompanying himself on guitar in a style derived from Delta bluesmen), but in 1977 it sounded like your dad's music, a story you've heard a million times from a war that took place before you were born. Punk made rock sound exciting again, and it did so by stripping away the derivative mannerisms, the reflexive note-bending and self-satisfied riffage that had accumulated over thirty years of white men playing black-derived music. Indie rock grew from that fresh start.

Some of the music that grew out of punk restored certain black elements. Talking Heads laid anxious, nerdy vocals over jerky James Brown grooves to make music that was both danceable and ironic; then they found their way through the irony to a kind of transcendence by routing around African American musical forms to straight-up African ones. Gang of Four did something similar with expressly political ends. (This strategy largely disappeared in the 1990s and then returned a few years ago.) Other bands departed from the punk sound without reverting to blues scales or dance beats. They made music that was verdant and mysterious like R.E.M., or dreamy and textured like My Bloody Valentine, or melodically rich like the Shins, or goofy and elusive like Pavement, or idiosyncratically expressive like Neutral Milk Hotel or Yo La Tengo or Radiohead, rather than physical and rhythmic. SFJ names two good reasons why they chose to do this: white musicians became self-conscious about their borrowings, and black musicians gained access to mass media. There's one reason he leaves out: for indie bands, making music that way felt more authentic and expressive, less like regurgitating the received wisdom. If Sasha Frere-Jones finds their music polite and precious and lacking in vigor, that's his right. But I wish he didn't let a narrow and rather arbitrary personal aesthetic (James Brown-style syncopation = good; Beach Boys-style harmonies = bad) get in the way of a useful historical argument.

Update: SFJ touches on some of this stuff in two blog posts. From the second:

Indie bands had good reason to look for uncolonized territory—that’s how art moves, how it lives. A less rosy interpretation is that if indie rock is rooted, at some level, in punk, then this re-sorting was preordained. Johnny Ramone effectively subtracted the blues from rock and roll, and that ideology may have attached itself to the entire project. Maybe the Clash and the Minutemen are exceptions in a long process of establishing a popular music that is structurally determined to escape the blues and its offspring.
Update 2: I have company, according to Slate's Carl Wilson, in a piece densely packed with good points:
Many commentators have pointed out his article's basic problems of consistency and accuracy: ... the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from "underground" rock goes back to the '70s and '80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.