Presenting the next installment of the Sasha Frere-Jones score, where Idolator rates the indie rock bands we see at the CMJ Music Marathon based on how musically “black” they are, taking the learned teachings of New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones as our guide. This time we lay down the ground rules so you can play along at home, and we offer a little more explanation of the reasoning behind our little experiment.
Judging by the e-mails, some people got a little cranky over this! (The following gets a tad emo/serious, so feel free to skip ahead to the part where I start making fun of things if you wish.) People thinking this is me saying that indie rock should somehow be held exempt from its often dodgy racial politics–this wounds me. Forget indie rock, there’s not a single aspect of white–and especially white male–culture that doesn’t need to be mercilessly picked apart for both the covert and overt, conscious and unconscious racism that it perpetuates every day! This seems self-evident, but you’d be surprised how many white men are content to let their privilege go unchecked. (Wait, no you wouldn’t.) And indie rock is a subset of white maledom that’s notorious about letting its cultural assumptions go unexamined.
So I understand why Frere-Jones wrote the piece. I just happen to think the piece was bullshit, especially his bizonkers internal inconsistencies and wild generalizations over genre. Indie rock’s race issues are more cultural than sonic, and though musical choices are always tied up with a musician’s social outlook, someone choosing to emulate Bruce Springsteen rather than Larry Blackmon hardly constitutes a cultural crime. Indie rock’s cultural, social, racial, and sexual hangups are not going to be resolved via the forced “miscengenation” Frere-Jones is looking for. This process of reexamining white male (musical) privilege needs to have begun, like, yesterday, but nothing is gained by the guy who writes for The New Yorker wagging his finger at Win Butler and shouting J’accuse! in his out loud voice because his band isn’t living up to some ideal he formulated in junior high. Otherwise “serious longform criticism” becomes just as silly as, say, assigning point values to bands based on some critic’s dubiously defined racial characteristics. Just as silly, but a lot less funny.
Now on with the mockery.
- Subtract 10 points each if band lacks “swing,” “some empty space,” and/or “palpable bass frequencies.”
- Subtract 10 points if the band identifies more as “punk” than “funk.”
- Add 20 points if that punk band is the Clash.
- Subtract 10 points if the words “noise,” “art-rock,” “prog,” or “math-rock” can be used to describe the band. Ditto the following metal subgenres: thrash, death, grind, tech. Automatic disqualification: black metal.
- Subtract 15 points if the band primarily draws from folk traditions other than the blues.
- Subtract 15 points for slap bass. (That’s a red herring.)
- Subtract 20 points if artist in engaged in wholesale recreation of a particular era of African-American music.
- Subtract 50 points if swing revival band.
It is at the discretion of the researcher to fudge the numbers a little if they feel that a particular band has just a little more swing and a little less indie in them.
Celtic-style band that “thrashes” on its banjos and whatnot. Not only do the they have the temerity to play white people folk music but then to “punk” it all up.
SFJ SCORE: 45
Singer-songwriter with acoustic guitar and harmonica. Sadly for his score, he draws more on the side of Bob Dylan influenced by Woody Guthrie than the side influenced by the blues.
SFJ SCORE: 55
The Airborne Toxic Event
Off-brand indie rock by a mixed-race, mixed-gender crew that dresses like really stylish undertakers. The “palpable bass frequencies” (though that could have just been shitty acoustics) help them pull out a respectable score, however.
SFJ SCORE: 70
Noise-rock that takes abrasive frequencies and the term “herky-jerky” to irritating extremes (if you’re SFJ) or awesome extremes (if you’re me). The drummer’s caveman syncopations and the low-end do their best to save their bacon.
SFJ SCORE: 60
Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
Four guys who listened to the Violent Femmes a hell of a lot in junior high. Score should be self-explanatory.
SFJ SCORE: 60
Despite being the most rhythmically interesting band we saw all day, these Baltimore art-punks lack any trace of funk. Depressing, but the numbers don’t lie.
SFJ SCORE: 50
Typical shouty and loud post-alt mall emo fronted by male falsetto singer. Beat is for Sonny Bono.
SFJ SCORE: 70
Disqualified: hip-hop group.
SFJ SCORE: N/A
Trust-fund emo with keyboards that cost more than your rent and purple couture sweatshirts that cost more than their keyboards. Fail.
SFJ SCORE: 70
DAY TWO COMBINED SCORE: 60
TOTAL COMBINED SCORE: 61
Proving that this is shady science at best, the emo bands are kicking everyone’s ass. But indie rock is still keeping its head above water. Barely.
FURTHER RESEARCH: A Paler Shade Of White [New Yorker]