Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who burned my disco?

Simon Reynolds reviews a US compilation of UK indie from the 80s and 90s for Salon. He makes some good points, and neatly characterises what Brit fans wanted from their guitar-toting heroes at the time, in terms of lyrics at least: "a slightly heroicized version of the fan base's dreams and fears".

But Reynolds then goes on to argue that what a) unifies most of the music in the box and b) prevented its acceptance in the US, is its rejection of dance culture, rhythm, blackness. Inevitably, Morrissey's recent contretemps with the NME gets a mention.

I've never really understood this analysis of classic indie-pop. Sure, it prioritises texture and introspection over beats and feet. And Reynolds is bang on the money when he argues that the British tradition of world-class, black-influenced drummers seems to have come to an end, although he could have given a nod to Reni.

But why does a desire for melodic introspection automatically become a rejection of or even a reaction against dance music? Why does the fact that Morrissey doesn't want to sound like 50 Cent imply a separatist rejection of black culture, which in turn implies, however faintly, racist tendencies, while nobody questions the fact that 50 Cent doesn't want to sound like Morrissey? And isn't a mixture of jangly guitars and lyrics about loneliness permitted to exist as a positive statement in and of itself, to be lauded or denigrated on its own terms, on the basis of what it is, rather than what it isn't?

PS: And now Billy Bragg's weighing in. It's like a student disco from about 1986.

9 comments:

Nick said...

Despite your main points being basically sound, Tim, you're being slightly disingenuous when it comes to Moz; his history of proclamations such as "reggae is vile" do seem to display a deep-seated antipathy to black music. Although the guy used to be a bit of a hero to me the best comment I read about him was something along the lines of that he displays the typical intellectual limitations of the autodidact

Shane Richmond said...

I would agree with Nick that Morrissey, despite his way with words, is not especially bright. He's much more comfortable with slogans than nuance.

But your point is a good one; 50 Cent is not expected to embrace 'white' music and there's no reason why a guitar band should embrace 'black' music.

Reynolds is letting his own biases cloud his argument rather too much. Like many critics, he saw the rise of Britpop in the mid-90s as a crass, nationalist, reactionary trend to be opposed. In that light Indie music becomes the establishment and, as such, is inherently ignorant of and contemptuous towards minorities (and their music).

It wasn't always like that, however. Indie music pre-1992(ish) was outsider music. It was unimaginable that it would become mainstream. The shift in context then between 1984 and 1999 is an interesting one that Reynolds, in his disdain for what the genre became, chooses to ignore.

This bit is particularly misinformed:

"One of the dirty secrets of the U.K. music press was the fact that sales figures and market research both showed that issues featuring black artists on the cover sold poorly."

That's sadly true of magazines generally. Fashion magazines, for instance, typically put black people on the cover only in February - the lowest selling month. That way they get to be 'inclusive' without jeopardising sales.

In fact, a quick skim through Vogue's archive suggests that there hasn't been a black person on the cover since August 2002 [http://www.vogue.co.uk/CoverArchive/].

Even ignoring that fact, I wonder what happens to sales of, say, Hip Hop Monthly or Vibe when they stick a white indie band on the front?

In his haste to make his argument Reynolds is straying outside the area of his expertise.

dh said...

And where would rock-writing be without a bit of abrasion?

Billy said...

I would have thought the reason for whole recent Moz kerfuffle as well as his dislike of dance music is because he's a nostalgic, constantly looking back person not a racist.

Tim Footman said...

Possibly a dumb move on my part, to single out Moz, Nick. It's too easy to focus on his quotes rather than his music. OK, should the Cocteau Twins be damned for not sounding like Jay-Z?

Very good point about outsider status, Shane. 'Twas Nevermind that did that. On the black/white thing, hip hop always holds up Eminem as an example of its colourblind standards, ignoring the hostility he provoked when he started. Of course, indie can offer him off of Bloc Party, and the drummer from the Libertines...

Well, exactly, DH. Sometimes I think Morrissey's greatest crime, in the eyes of the record business, is not his dodgy politics, but wandering off the script.

Exactly true, Billy. He prefers Terence Stamp to Jude Law, Sandie Shaw to Lily Allen. And I really can't see a problem with that.

Betty said...

Morrissey's "all reggae is vile" line was apparently a tongue in cheek remark, and he is a fan of Motown, after all. Still, he's not alone among certain white middle aged music fans who would probably dismiss current black music. Stax, Motown, Parliament and Sly And The Family Stone? Brilliant! On the other hand, they'd no doubt describe all black music of the past twenty years as "formulaic, production line R & B" that's not fit to hold a candle to such giants of innovation as Echobelly or The Futureheads.

dh said...

Has anyone like Smokey Robinson or Aaron Neville ever offered their opinion of rap music? Just wondering.

Tim Footman said...

Betty: Never quite understood Echobelly getting castigated as examples of homogenous whiteboy indie pop. What with their Asian singer and black lesbian guitarist. But you make a sound point: is the downward trajectory from Sly Stone to Beyonce more or less precipitous than the slope from the Beatles to, I dunno, Maximo Park?

DH: Not that I know of, Dick. But I do recall Shirley Bassey saying she hated rap. And if she's not an icon of black music, I don't know who is.

dh said...

Good for Ms. Bassey. Though I suspect some rappers would not find her black enough.