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?Sasha Frere-Jones, “A Paler Shade of White”
It all started, according to Slate music critic John Cook, when New Yorker columnist Sasha Frere-Jones and Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper accused Magnetic Fields’ front man Stephin Merritt of being a racist.1 Merritt’s otherwise critically acclaimed career has been built on a songwriting and vocal style that is deadpan and wan in the tradition of ’80s British new romantic and new wave bands like Soft Cell and Jesus and Mary Chain, a kind of gothic gay sound that imagines it goes well with a cigarette, a break-up, and an addiction.2 According to Cook, Hopper has complained of the “whiteness” of this aesthetic, describing it as “‘purposeful,’ ‘icky,’ and ‘dangerous.’”3 The name-calling eventually spawned Frere-Jones’s controversial New Yorker article “A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul,” related blog entries, and a podcast.4 “A Paler Shade of White” catalyzed a spirited debate that went well beyond traditional New Yorker readers, generating response letters from members of bands cited in the piece along with indie rock fans who stepped forward to weigh in on the issue of miscegenation, the historical and contemporary presence of blackness in rock music, and the rock and roll genre’s demise. The public debate that erupted between journalists catalyzed an even more widespread dialogue in letters to the editor, as well as podcasts and blog entries published outside of the confines of the journalists’ professional venues. [End Page 1037]
Of all the rebuttals to Frere-Jones’s piece, only Ann Powers critiqued Frere-Jones’s dependence on the word miscegenation or made any effort to deconstruct the gendered and sexualized semiotics behind his thesis, writing,
Frere-Jones’ description of his musical ideal as “miscegenation”—a word choice he’s said was deliberate and appropriate—raises serious issues about sexual violence and racial objectification that stretch all the way back to slavery and can’t just be put aside in the paragraph or two they’ve been granted in this debate.5
Powers flags this deeply problematic component to Frere-Jones’s logic but goes no further than that, setting aside the very thing she declares we cannot afford to ignore.
This review adds to the eventfulness of this debate through an ethnographic reflection on its unfolding and its position relative to the so-called demise of the music industry. In what follows, I interrogate Frere-Jones’s use of miscegenation by connecting it to prior deployments of the term in the work of Norman Mailer and David Goodman Croly in order to trace its homoerotic genealogy. Frere-Jones’s miscegenation is hinged on the paradoxical logic of homosocial desire and aesthetic procreation; I examine the gendered and racialized erotics at the heart of his thesis in an effort to unearth a logic that fuels the rock and roll enterprise.
Sasha Frere-Jones and the Quest for Musical Miscegenation
Sasha Frere-Jones—former post-rocker turned music critic—raised a few neck hairs and eyebrows, not to mention the ire of a few feminists, with his October 22 piece “A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul.”6 Frere-Jones tries to develop in this piece a teleological tale of lack that begins in 1990. In sum, he laments what he interprets as the deracination of rock music, and in particular, indie rock.7 He compares and contrasts rock music from the 1950s through the 1980s—which he sees as highly “miscegenated”—with that from the 1990s through today. According to Frere-Jones, the more recent phase is characterized by the lack of...