Sunday, November 25, 2007

David Brooks Shows He Knows Nothing About Music

I generally ignore the idiocy of David Brooks's nonsensical, conservative political ranting. However, apparently not satisfied to show his idiocy in politics and class culture alone, he has branched out. In dealing with the question of "what's wrong with America?", Brooks has a new answer:

Indie music.

Yes, indie is to blame for America's fragmentation. Brooks whines, chafes, and shakes his fists at the numerous musical niches he doesn't understand. Apparently, according to Brooks, all these sub-categories of indie music are not only getting away from the blues-based rock of the Rolling Stones in the 1960s or of Springsteen; this division of musical categories is also both emblematic of and increasing the "fragmentation" of America. That's right, folks - if you like Arcade Fire more than Arctic Monkeys, Dntel more than Sufjan Stevens, well, you're part of the problem politically, too. And the worst part of all this, according to Brooks, is (brace yourself), "It’s considered inappropriate or even immoral for white musicians to appropriate African-American styles. And there’s the rise of the mass educated class. "

Suffice to say, there are numerous holes and sheer, blindingly stupid aspects of Brooks's argument. Rolling Stone (in a rare case of actual cleverness) points out several problems here ("Niche music for upper-middle-class elites is nothing new — anybody remember the Cambridge folk scene in the Fifties? It spurred a boom that produced one of those guys that Brooks might like: Bob Dylan," and "if anything, most indie rockers don’t try to make black music (i.e., hip-hop) these days because they still have bad memories of 311 from the Nineties.")
However, the idiocy goes well beyond this.

First of all, "indie rockers" haven't quit drawing on "black music". Akron's own Black Keys are extremely influenced by Junior Kimbrough, and both Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach are on record as citing the Wu-Tang Clan's influence on their dirty, raw sound. Beck has always enjoyed playing with hip-hop beats and syncopation, and Midnite Vultures was a straight reinterpretation of 70s funk and 70s and 80s soul (and I personally wouldn't call Beck "indie" here, but if Brooks is going to say "nobody uses black music anymore", I'm bringing him in).

Then, of course, there's Brooks' complete ignorance of musical history. He whines about rock becoming too fragmented, ignoring that rock itself is one fragment of an extremely diverse musical tradition in the U.S. and throughout the world, as well as ignoring the fact that other music forms were also fragmented within themselves, sometimes for decades (certainly blues, bluegrass, country, jazz, and classical music have all seen this diversification or, as Brooks prefers, "fragmentation"). Indeed, despite his professed love for "black music", funk, gospel, and hip-hop appear nowhere in Brooks' lament. It comes as no shock to me that Brooks equates "black music" to one type of music (blues) that influenced the music he likes (rock). But, again, these movements are still being mined by "indie rock" - Brooks either just doesn't care or simply is too ignroant to see it.

Then there is his assumption that good music is good because it can rock out in arenas of 25,000 people (like Springsteen and the Stones). This is just ridiculous. Good music doesn't need to be able to play in arenas to be good - it needs to be interesting, have something to offer musically and/or lyrically, and it should last. If Arcade Fire, or Sufjan Stevens, or Belle & Sebastian, or whomever are still listened to (or even around) in 20 years, still playing to crowds of 5000 or less, that won't mean they "failed". If people still listen to them, and they still have something to say, through their own music or through followers, then good.

Finally, there is what Brooks doesn't say. By totally ignoring music forms like hip-hop, classical, he isn't just ignoring the fact that the musical universe has already been fragmented for centuries; he's basically removing enormous sectors of American society from the picture here. The problem with fragmentation and the political direction of the U.S. is those college-educated white kids making music and listening to music. African-Americans who listen to hip-hop or R&B? Sorry - you don't matter. 50-somethings who love Enya? Nope - you're not part of the equation. Nor are those who listen to classical, country, bluegrass, or anything else - it's just these damn white kids with their indie music that are screwing it all up and fragmenting everything! The rest? They simply don't appear to matter to anything.

Overall, the stupidity is stunning, but I guess only David Brooks could see the diversification of musical styles in one small part of the musical universe as part of the death-knell of America's culture and political being.