Posts Tagged ‘indie music’

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So, why is indie music so white?

January 20, 2011

This is a response to Wendy Fonarow’s column for the Guardian Music Blog, “Ask The Indie Professor: Why Are There So Many White Indie Bands?” Briefly, in the article, Dr. Fonarow posits that indie bands reflect the makeup of their audience, which is predominantly white (which, while it’s true for the UK as a whole, is probably not true for many urban areas). She then goes on to argue that non-white people are not drawn to the aesthetics of indie music. You can read the full article here.

I’ve been a devoted indie music fan my entire life. I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants. And while I might not be an anthropologist, I am a professor of engineering and a researcher of the engineering student experience, particularly around gender and ethnicity. And much of what I’ve studied about engineering students, particularly woman and minorities, is also applicable to the issue of non-whites and indie music.

At its core, Fonarow’s argument is that there are few non-white people in indie music because they don’t want to be there. But any argument for underrepresentation of this form is suspect, because it fails to consider the effect of the environment on the individual. At a Belle and Sebastian show in Boston a few months ago, there were so few non-white faces in the large theatre that my companion and I played ‘spot the person of colour!’ At smaller venues, I’m quite often the only non-white person at the gig—and bear in mind that Boston is a fairly multicultural city, with a large student population. So while it’s possible that Belle and Sebastian and other indie bands have nothing to say to people who are not of Northern European descent, which is essentially what Fonarow is arguing, it’s far more likely that non-white music fans receive subtle but unmistakable messages of non-belonging. In my own field, women engineering students face a very different academic experience than their male counterparts in a host of ways, many of them subtle, but with a profound cumulative impact. There’s a large body of literature in psychology and educational research that addresses the effect of the cultural environment, and it’s just as applicable to clubs as classrooms.

Second, Fonarow argues that as “being part of a music community is sharing similar sentiments, it should be no surprise that people raised in the same culture would have a similar ethos…”. She also states that “this may not be appealing to immigrant or marginalised groups who have already experienced poverty and experience genuine outsiderness as a social class.” Whoa, seriously? It’s astonishing that Fonarow lumps together all non-whites, whether in the US, the UK, or elsewhere, in this way. To pick just a few examples, this suggests that a Somali refugee, the middle-class, university-bound children of educated immigrants (which is what I was—hardly an experience of poverty or ‘genuine outsiderness’), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and the child of Latino migrant workers are all one category. Never mind the fact that the children of non-white immigrants, especially in wildly diverse cities like London or New York City, are being ‘raised in the same culture’ (note to Fonarow: it’s actually quite offensive to be told that your skin colour trumps your upbringing). And this cultural-essentialist approach does just as much of a disservice to white people; it fails to explain, as a friend of mine points out, why one of her children is into indie pop and another loves death metal, despite their identical cultural backgrounds.

As an indie music fan, I read and appreciated Fonarow’s book, Empire of Dirt, largely because of how deeply rooted it is in careful observational research. So why is indie music so white? I don’t know the whole answer, but rather than just cavalierly saying, “So indie bands are generally white in the US or UK, but so what?”, I would really have preferred Fonarow to use her ethnographic skills to talk with the people who care about these questions, not just blithely talking about them.

Image: Atari Teenage Riot @ the Sonar…, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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Music, tech and culture roundup, bis

September 2, 2009

The National

It’s the start of school! Here are your reading assignments for the week.

Music History 101: The transition from live music performance to recordings. In the 1950s, music used to be about songs – what we now think of as standards. Whether in Paris or Poughkeepsie, people wanted to hear someone sing Cole Porter’s  “Miss Otis Regrets,” and it didn’t really matter who. With the rise of radio in the 1960s, music began to be about recordings – “Hey Jude” is not only by the Beatles, but there is a single, canonical version of it in our collective memory. In this article by Elijah Wald, he discusses the history and context of this transition, including how it reinforced racial segregation.

Intro to Sociology: Indie rock from the perspective of our parents. While “The Grown-Ups Guide to Indie Rock,” is a less than appealing title, fifty-something music critic D.J. Palladino writes an appreciation of indie music that gets closer to its heart than a score of Pitchfork 9.4 reviews ever could.

[extra credit] Advanced Topics in Neurobiology: Why we respond emotionally to music. Scientific American had a great article last month on the neurological basis of the emotional response to music. You can read a summary here, but unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall (if you happen to actually be at a college, you should have online access).

MP3: Kirsty McColl and the Pogues – Miss Otis Regrets [buy]

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The future of vinyl?

February 2, 2009

Diesel Sweeties on Vinyl

[click image for full-size version at Diesel Sweeties]

So, in the comments to a previous post, there was a brief discussion on the future of vinyl records. Aaron char Manders quoted the CEO of Newbury Comics as describing vinyl as a ‘novelty,’ a description which suggests a certain transience.

Here’s a couple of starting points for discussion:

  1. In the world of electronic music, long a stronghold for vinyl, there is a steady movement towards digital music – so much so that next Friday, there’s an underground party in San Francisco billed as ‘Nothing But Vinyl’ and featuring Sammy Dee and Marc Schneider.
  2. If you look at the top ten vinyl sellers last year, there is a solid mix of old (Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon), new (In Rainbows, Fleet Foxes, and Portishead’s Third), and, notably,  indie classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel.

Given that vinyl is currently, as Aaron memorably put it, ‘an unassuming pimple on the large, albeit slimming, butt of CDs,’ will vinyl remain a viable, if niche, medium indefinitely? Or is this the faddish last gasp of popularity before vinyl fades forever? I’d be interested in arguments on both sides – what do we think?

MP3: Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland, 1945 [buy]

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