Last week the New Yorker‘s pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a mischievous article in which he argued that in the mid-1990s, white indie rock music “lost its soul” by turning its back on the black music influences that had been used to such powerful effect by acts like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Clash. The result, he suggested, was a parade of bloodless bands producing formless, introspective music of increasingly limited appeal. Here he is describing a performance by Arcade Fire, indie band du jour:
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’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. 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.
Predictably, the piece caused a mini-storm in the music blogosphere. But more interesting than the merits or otherwise of the “musical miscegenation” case is something clearly illustrated by the above passage—the superiority of at least some American music journalism to its equivalent on this side of the Atlantic.
“Syncopated patterns,” “low registers,” “heavy African downbeat”—by focusing on the aural attributes of the music he discusses—the way it sounds—Frere-Jones is doing something that British music journalists all too often shy away from. As exhibit A, take this Tim Footman column from the Guardian‘s Comment is Free site. Defending an incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness “review” of Radiohead’s new album by Paul Morley elsewhere on the Guardian site, Footman argues that it was Morley and his colleagues at the NME (Parsons, Burchill et al) that revolutionised British music journalism by focusing on the “truth” that…