Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 24, 2008

The New Yorker Gets Pop Cultured

Music critic Sasha Frere-Jones tells Gelf what "indie" really means.

Adam Rosen

While the New Yorker often seems determined to scare away all but the most erudite of its readership, it occasionally mixes in some populist features amongst its 5,500-word tracts on olive oil. No, really, it does. If you can somehow make it past the latest insights into Emily Dickinson's epistolary relationship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, you'll be rewarded with something you can really sink your teeth into: an essay on how much Coldplay sucks.

Photo by Piera Gelardi/Refinery29.
"I rarely snap on baby bands. Like fish, you throw back the small ones."

Photo by Piera Gelardi/Refinery29.

That excellently plucked (if low-hanging) fruit comes courtesy of Sasha Frere-Jones, 41, who has spent the last five years deconstructing the pop music scene for the venerable literary rag. Previously, he served as music critic for the Village Voice.

The strange union of Eustace Tilley and, say, the Ying Yang Twins, isn't easy to shrug off, but as a conceit it sure keeps things interesting. Describing the rap duo's 2005 club anthem, "Wait," he writes: "[Wait] features one of the least coded choruses in pop history. ('Wait till you see my dick!') No metaphorical broomsticks there." Frere-Jones—who currently plays guitar and bass for the instrumental band Ui—lives in lower Manhattan, and caught up with Gelf to discuss the miscegenation of indie rock, why music critics should admit when they're wrong, and how being in a band colors his reviews. [You can hear Frere-Jones talk about his work at Gelf's Non-Motivational Speaker Series this Thursday, August 28 in New York's Lower East Side].

Gelf Magazine: What does the word "indie" even mean these days?

Sasha Frere-Jones: I used to joke that it was "music by people who can't sing," but that's clearly not true anymore (consider Neko Case, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Feist, etc.) The only explanation now, if it is even plausible, is that it denotes a social affiliation. Meaning, people who do "indie" things are listening to "indie" music. It is maybe more plausible to think of indie networks and publications—like Pitchfork—defining indie than any specific, formal sound fitting a definition. (There's no rhythm denoted, like reggae or polka, and no instrumentation, like techno or punk.) Why is M.I.A. indie? She has the No. 5 song in the country. At this point, it's determined by the discussion. Bloggers decided they loved Clipse, so that somehow became an indie topic.

GM: You took a lot of flak for your article, "A Paler Shade of White." What do you think was the most valid criticism leveled at you?

SFJ: It was too compressed, so the shorthand did damage. Black-and-white anything—music, in my case—is difficult to discuss because people instantly move from the part to the whole. An aspect of black music becomes all black music becomes black people. This is why there's that slightly awkward phrase on the first page (parodied by the Voice the following week) about sway and bass frequency. I was bending over backwards to try to restrain that point to purely formal attributes, but I am not sure the essay is consistent enough, or specific when it needed to be. I had the same problem with indie rock and mainstream rock. The lines between the groups being discussed weren't clear enough, and hip-hop ended up sounding like a proxy for all black music.
Also, the timeline is off — the shift I was focusing on was really a '90s process. It's a flawed piece; this is why it's becoming a book, as it needs expansion. The experience of being wrong (or sloppy) in public was really fruitful and got me thinking about the critical voice, in general, and how rarely popular critics go back and say, "Hey, I got this wrong." Why don't we? There is also an autobiographical story I need to sort out.

GM: Well…why don't you?

SFJ: That's what the book is going to be, in part. But I think about doing it in my column, too. I don't have any ideas what the editors would think. I think readers would love a kind of "My Bad" wrap-up every year. Maybe somebody does this already?

GM: I could understand Santogold or Bloc Party being deemed more "indie" than "black," from a genre-defining standpoint, but where would an act like TV on the Radio fall on the black music/indie rock continuum?

SFJ: Well, they contain black musicians, so they make black music in some absolute sense. Do they draw on the forms of what is historically thought of as "black music"? Not so much, though a nitpicker would point out that they do swing pretty hard and [TV on the Radio lead singer] Tunde's vocals flirt with a variety of traditions, some not unrelated to soul and gospel. I am trying to figure out what the continuum is, and when and how race is a symbolic or a musical trope. It's tricky, to put it mildly.

GM: Why is the term "rock critic" considered a pejorative, as Chuck Klosterman so insists in his book Killing Yourself to Live?

SFJ: No idea what Chuck means. Most of them can't write well and don't actually think critically or synthetically, so maybe that's it.

GM: How often do you listen to FM radio? What do you get out of it?

SFJ: I never do, which is terrible. It's a great way to get a sense of the landscape. When I rent a car, I hear the radio, and I always like spinning around and hearing what's happening.

GM: Is it impossible for you to listen to music uncritically?

SFJ: It's not impossible, though it's hard to turn off the "How would this make a piece?" switch.

GM: Being in a band must make it more difficult to be critical of someone else.

SFJ: Apparently it doesn't, but it makes me sympathetic to certain problems, or maybe aware of them. Also, I rarely snap on baby bands. Like fish, you throw back the small ones.

GM: Are fans who go to massive amounts of indie concerts the same people who either followed, or would be following, the jam-band scene? If not, where did all the would-be Phishheads go?

SFJ: Aren't there still jam bands?

GM: There are, but none have nearly the following or the presence that Phish enjoyed.

SFJ: One blind spot for me is jam bands. I just don't know much.

GM: Who's the most overrated artist right now?

SFJ: Kanye. Terrible rapper, lame beats, annoying as fuck persona. Nice graphics, though.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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- Arts
- posted on Sep 01, 08
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All the hippies are still around, and if you don't know that, then you suck as a music critic. There just isn't one big band, but many with a range of regional and national followings. Every summer there are great festivals across the country with 10's of thousands of people listening to the wide assortment of jambands.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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