Sasha Frere-Jones’ New Yorker treatise against indie rock is a curious beast. Its main complaint is summarized in this account of an Arcade Fire concert Frere-Jones attended (lucky bastard):
By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.
I think Frere-Jones’ desire to racialize this is more than a little distasteful. Associating a focus on rhythm and bass with black music is, musicologically speaking, correct, but it’s also a sweeping generalization and needlessly (probably purposefully) provocative. Let’s be clear on what Frere-Jones’ argument really is: what makes popular music good is its rhythmic virtues, of which indie rock possesses few.
On the one hand, I don’t disagree. The average indie drum part could be done just as well by a drum machine; the average bassline consists of playing ad nauseum the root of whatever chord the guitar is chugging away at. There are exceptions, of course. Matt Tong, Bloc Party’s drummer, syncopates like it’s nobody’s business; listen to “Like Eating Glass” or “The Prayer” for demonstration. Battles’ drummer might as well be its frontman; listen to “Atlas” for more on that. And, of course, songs like “Idioteque” and “15 Step” show Radiohead to be more than capable of breaking from conventional rhythms. But generally speaking, the rhythm section of an indie rock band isn’t much to get excited about.
And that’s not a problem. The font from which all alternative, indie, and underground rock flows is the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed’s main innovation was, to put it bluntly, murdering the funk. Reed’s trademark was a eighth-note-only rhythm guitar line which strictly followed the 4/4 time signature; syncopation was not allowed. Rolling Stone calls this the “drone strum”, and it’s what makes “I’m Waiting for My Man”, “White Light/White Heat”, and “What Goes On” some of the best rock songs ever produced. Since then, it’s been copied by anyone and everyone. The Sex Pistols used a slower version, the Stooges a dumber one; Black Flag and Bad Brains sped it up and created a whole genre in the process. Television, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. used it as a basis for complex lead guitar lines, and pop groups like Television Personalities and The Go-Betweens built gorgeous melodies over it. By keeping the rhythm portion static, the drone strum let artists experiment with melody, harmony, and other tonal properties in ways they couldn’t before, and the world is better off for it.
But all this innovation comes, much to Frere-Jones’ chagrin, at the cost of rhythm. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate rhythm; I have an unhealthy obsession with Sly & the Family Stone, would buy the entire back catalog of Motown if I had the cash, and tracks from Richard D. James are a regular presence on my iTunes playlists. What I am saying is that rhythm is not all there is to music. The Velvet Underground, at its core, was an experiment that proved that, and which inspired multitudes of other artists to do the same again, and again, and again. So when Frere-Jones accuses indie rock of lacking hips, the correct response is that that’s kind of the point.