Have you been following the brouhaha over New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones’ essay “A Paler Shade of White”? The music blogosphere has been atwitter in response to the article, which uses Arcade Fire (pictured) as an example of how indie rock has become awfully white — not just in the racial makeup of many bands, but in the music’s supposed abandonment of black musical influences (jazz, blues, R&B, hip-hop, worldbeat, etc.).
Now, the band itself has responded to Frere-Jones, insisting, We are, too, funky! The response takes the form of an MP3 juxtaposing snippets of Arcade Fire’s music with the black music tracks that supposedly inspired them. It’s not the best argument in AF’s favor; it’s often hard to hear a resemblance between the Canadian combo’s tracks and their supposed inspirations; plus, if you’re trying to prove your debt to black musicians, you probably aren’t helping yourself by citing the Beatles and the Beastie Boys. Still, this miscegenation mashup may be my favorite AF track of the year, and that includes the entirety of Neon Bible.
A better argument comes in the form of AF member Will Butler’s letter to Frere-Jones, in which he suggests that most of what falls under the umbrella of popular music — no matter how unsyncopated its rhythms or how white its composers — draws upon a hopelessly complex jumble of influences, black, white, and other. No music today has a racially pure pedigree. To argue otherwise is to oversimplify and to stereotype.
Critics (and I include myself here) like to analyze influences; it’s part of what we do, taking things apart to see how they work. But the search for authenticity is a trap; it leads to purist standards that almost no band can live up to. And it ignores the larger, simpler, ultimately more important question: is the band any good? (Even Frere-Jones admits he likes Arcade Fire.) Ultimately, what do these angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments matter, as long as folks are dancing?