My first thought on seeing Sasha Frere-Jones’s piece Why is indie rock so white? in the New Yorker’s TOC Tuesday night was: the Internet will be reacting to this. His argument is that indie rock started jettisoning rhythm and syncopation in earnest in the mid-90s with bands like Pavement, soon after Dr. Dre’s the Chronic was released. (Here rhythm = black; while that equation may seem casually made, S/FJ’s argument isn’t so much that the blacks are gone from rock—they were never there, really—as it is the rhythm’s gone, and he’s got the music history to show it.)
His diagnosis of the split is spot on, but the race aspect of it might just be symptomatic. Indie rock is about fifteen years into a process of avant-gardeing that has taken it away from catchy rhythms (which have endured in hip-hop) in favor of quirky sounds and other experimentation. Jazz did the same thing back in the day. It also moved away from dancing and rhythm into the various liberating potentials of noise after swing gave way to be-bop.
This change in both jazz and rock occurred just as each was eclipsed as the country’s dominant innovative musical form. That is, when they stopped mattering. Jazz went experimental roughly around the time when rock was being cooked up; by the time Miles Davis plugged in, rock dominated the musical scene. Likewise, the success of the Chronic that S/FJ places so much importance in (and he is exactly right) signaled the beginning of rock’s slow descent; with rap as the new popular music, rock was free to play around with other things.
Don’t assume that by experimental I mean unlistenable; it might be easier to just say they both went highbrow. Youth culture moves on and makes way for elite culture. (Most New York-based publications prefer the term “hipster”.) They start to get serious reviews in the New Yorker.
And around this time too, academic music grows curious and starts to pay attention. The famous anecdotes about Leonard Bernstein with his ear up to Ornette Coleman’s band’s bass when he first invented free jazz finds a loose parallel in Merce Cunningham’s collaboration with indie stalwarts Radiohead and Sigur Ros at BAM in 2003. (You might also note, on the subject of highbrow institutional respect, the two major museum shows this year of art inspired by Rock and Roll: Summer of Love at the Whitney and Sympathy for the Devil at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.)
As they changed, jazz and rock audiences shrank (or if you prefer, they self-selected). Jazz went from dance halls to smoky clubs (is that a romanticized generalization for you?), where it could be appreciated with full concentration. This has happened in indie rock shows today, where no matter how danceable the music, all the audience can do is drink beer and nod, like they’re at a tasting. (I have been shushed for talking in rock clubs many, many times.)
This is not an assertion that elite culture is white culture. Yes, rock’s fanbase is mainly, but not 100%, white. But when jazz went elite its audience stayed black for a long time. Hip-hop has managed to stay black even as it’s taken over the musical landscape; as that form wanes and goes all arcane sometime in the next 20 years, its highbrow audience will still be black too.
Since, as my financial advisor maintains, past performance is the best indicator of future results, I say we can expect rock to follow jazz’s long slow descent over the coming years, until eventually it creates its own equivalent of smooth jazz. (Smoothjazzy, it goes without saying, believes this has already happened, but that’s another post.) Meanwhile the hard stuff, lacking support in the market, will get propped up by patronage, public assistance, and tourism.
See you at Lincoln Center.