Is Inequality Killing Rock Music?

That’s the contention of Carl Wilson in his reply to Sasha Frere-Jones. Or rather that’s part of Wilson’s argument.

Ultimately, though, the “trouble with indie rock” may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that’s the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It’s a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off “hipsters” busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

My instinct is to resist Wilson on this point, but he actually makes a pretty sophisticated case.

Among at least a subset of (the younger) musicians and fans, this class separation has made indie more openly snobbish and narrow-minded.

This rings true. So does the following:

The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in “slacker”/grunge music, it’s now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics (including both Frere-Jones and me) find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)

Yet this is a problem having to do with the muddled state of white masculinity today, and it’s not soluble by imitating some image of black male sexuality (which, as hip-hop and R&B amply demonstrate, is dealing with its own crises).

The idea of black masculinity Wilson has in mind, acting at several different levels, has also played a pretty pernicious role in entrenching certain kinds of social exclusion, but that’s a subject for another time.