Wednesday, October 24, 2007

R.I.P.: Rock 'n' Roll's White/Black Cross-Pollination

What's wrong with today's ever-trendy indie rock, so often colorless, pretentious and downright boring?

Sasha Frere-Jones hits the nail on the head with an essay-length answer to that question in the Oct. 22 issue of The New Yorker.

The short version: Contemporary white rock and pop acts largely have abandoned the cultural and musical cross-pollination that launched rock 'n' roll, which made the music of the '60s and the '70s such a thrilling adventure, and have replaced that synthesis with music that's much more mundane.

(Yeah, I know, get over it, you old fart).

Asks Frere-Jones (the New Yorker's pop music critic), "Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips."

He goes on to cover some familiar terrain, recounting the debt owed to American blues, soul and R&B by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream and Grand Funk among zillions of other successful rock acts.

Several choice quotes, observations and reminders about the roots of contemporary music:

"When Mick Jagger stoppped trying to imitate Bobby Womack he became, musically speaking, an original -- a product of miscegenation. He sang with weird menace and charm, and with an accent that placed him in an unidentifiable neighborhood (with more than one bar) somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean."

"In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin's audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of 'Whole Lotta Love' from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its debut album. (After Dixon sued Led Zeppelin, the band credited him with the song)."

"By the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term 'indie rock' came implicitly to mean white rock."

"Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties -- respectively, psychedelic music and country rock -- and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock's muse."

And, here, the writer toasts Wilco's 1996 double-CD Being There, a mega-blast of rootsy, raucous rock and country, and far and away one of my favorite rock albums of the '90s, and then offers a probably unfair slap to recent Wilco projects -- they're more exciting, I think, than Frere-Jones is willing to admit (and so are the CDs from Son Volt, from Jay Farrar, the other half of the old Uncle Tupelo): "The band's (Wilco's) 1996 album, 'Being There,' is one of the few alt-country records that I play. It is indebted to a couple of readily identifiable sources -- country (as the Rolling Stones played it) and bluegrass -- and the music has a pleasing crackle. But after that Wilco and Tweedy, presumably under the influence of other indie bands, drifted from accessible songs toward atomization and noise."

"How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm's possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience -- to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can't imagine any of these musicians retrating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance."

And, finally, "The Internet, by democratizing access to music -- anybody, anywhere can post or download a song on MySpace -- has also made individual genres less significant. Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it's a profusion of strands, most of which don't intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click 'shuffle' on their iPods."

So, dear readers, consider. Discuss among yourselves. Offer a little feedback, won't you?

(For more from Frere-Jones, check out his podcast on this subject)

No comments: