There’s a piece by writer Luke Turner running over at The Quietus today, about the effects of “American indie imperialism” on the musical landscape of England. It’s an enjoyable read, on a site that has really hit its stride of late, because of how deeply Turner—and many other writers on the staff, notably Ben Graham—obviously care about the role popular music plays in defining what it means to be British.
They occasionally get something of a bug up their asses about America stealing everyone’s thunder, which I’m actually mostly ok with, because we definitely do that. But they sometimes have a hard time pinpointing exactly what’s going on over here at a given time, and it tends to take something away from their larger point. In discussing a perceived shift in the American underground in the early part of the 00s, and how it affected British music fans, Turner says this:
At the beginning of the decade, the American underground had been a politicised, gripping place, a refreshing alternative to much of the stale, false patriotism of the UK. These darker, politicised sounds came from the likes of Erase Errata, Black Dice, Liars, and Numbers. But just as many in Britain – rightly – turned their backs on Doherty’s skiffling hordes, the attraction of American music seemed to undergo a fundamental shift. Suddenly, those abrasive, often European-influenced bands were ignored in favour of an obsession with rough-shirted American traditionalism.
This makes for a tidy narrative, sure, until you remember that, wait a minute, Liars have been exactly as popular as they are today for their entire career, which is to say, in the grand scheme of things, not very. And that Erase Errata and Black Dice were, while really great, always too weird to have achieved notoriety among anyone but the most devoted followers of the underground, which doesn’t seem to be the group he’s talking abut. And that, wait a minute, Numbers? Really? No one liked Numbers.
His point is that there was a shift toward traditional American rock and roll at some point, I gather, around 2003 or 2004. But for there to be a shift toward something, the focus had to have been somewhere else previously, which, for better or worse, it wasn’t. Black Dice didn’t capture the imagination of nearly as many Americans in 2002 as Wilco, of course, or probably even Neko Case or Spoon. It’s this kind of misreading of the world of American indie rock that pokes a hole in the theory-as-question he continues with here:
Even the more radical groups, your Healths, No Ages, Vampire Weekends and Animal Collectives that have subsequently emerged, are an easily digested bunch, creating pleasant enough, but ultimately unchallenging, mellifluous soundscapes – as explored by Ben Graham in his surprisingly controversial review of the new Animal Collective EP. Are we to say that these American groups are, perhaps due to the earnestness of craft, beyond criticism?
We can give him Vampire Weekend, begrudgingly, but to base one’s argument against the musical output of an entire country on the premise that No Age and Animal collective are “easily digested” is more than a bit silly. And no, these bands are far from beyond criticism. They should be, and have been as heavily scrutinized as anyone else, if not more heavily because of the extent to which they’ve been praised by everyone with an internet connection—but not because of anything having to do with “earnestness of craft,” which is ultimately a stupid thing to hold against a band, and one born more of critical speculation than actual artistic approach. If a band didn’t believe deeply in what they were doing, as I’m sure Liars and Erase Errata do, I wouldn’t have much interest in listening to them, regardless of their country of origin.