Posts Tagged ‘wendy fonarow’

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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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Read: Empire of Dirt

May 29, 2008

Wendy Fonarow is an anthropologist and lecturer at UCLA, and in Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, she turns her professional eye to the indie music subculture. It’s a scholarly work, and the nature and tone of the writing reflects that, but it’s nevertheless surprisingly readable. If ‘culture’ can be loosely defined as ‘all the things that you do that you don’t think about doing,’ part of the fun in reading this book is developing a self-awareness of indie culture by viewing it through the eyes of an ethnographer. For example, she talks about the central role of live music, and describes the existence of distinct ‘zones’, with zone 1 closest to the stage, zone 2 the intermediate region, and zone 3 near the back of the venue:

For the majority of zone one (the exception being the very front rows) participatory spectatorship is embodied in demonstrative physicality coordinated with the music and in following the proper etiquette associated with being near the stage. For zone two, participatory spectatorship is embodied in mental concentration on the music and a prolonged visual focus on performers onstage.

She goes on to describe the ‘proper etiquette’ for both regions (as well as for zone 3, the music industry zone), the demographics of the different zones, and how participants choose zones and transition between them.

Fonarow also makes an excellent case for using Puritanism as an analogy to understand indie culture: she contrasts indie music against the major labels (ie Catholicism), describes its ethos of simplicity, and compares their common emphasis on an unmediated experience of the ‘divine’:

I see a lot of the religious narrative of Puritanism in the indie music scene; the idea that, to have the pure divine experience, it has to be direct and unmediated. So the smaller and more intimate a show is, the ‘truer’ fans believe their experience was, compared to someone who saw them later on in a bigger venue. That’s why so many people claim to have seen the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club.

While Fonarow’s fieldwork was mostly in the British scene in 1993 and 1994, many of her observations still apply today, and to indie rock culture on both sides of the Atlantic. One exception is that she describes indie rock as defining itself in opposition to dance music (‘technophilia/technophobia; electronic drums/electric guitar; synthetic/organic; faceless/charismatic artists’). But this was before artists like Dan Deacon and Girl Talk, and the many other crossovers between indie and dance/electronica.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably immersed in indie rock culture to a greater or lesser extent. Empire of Dirt is a fascinating guide to thinking more deeply about what this culture is and what it means.

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