Underground pop finally dealing with prejudices

Column by John Crowell

When someone thinks about underground or “indie” music, what images usually pop into mind?

For most, the answer would probably consist of a group of skinny white guys playing quirky or compositionally-challenging music, and one would be hard-pressed to dispute this stereotype.

We all need to admit it: the general demographic of underground artists is generally, overwhelmingly, snowy-white and male. The question that has been arising lately for me is whether this stereotype is the result of chance, trend or discrimination.

In every vein and movement of underground music, minorities and women have been fairly marginalized. Most of the press on Bad Brains during the punk movement was voiced with genuine surprise at an all-African American band playing punk music. They were even banned in their hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1979. While their songs, with titles such as “Pay to Cum,” definitely contained objectionable subject matter, such offensiveness was a staple of punk music in general. Their ban from D.C. clubs probably had more to do with the color of their skin than of the content of their songs.

Women have had a similarly hard time in the so-called “revolutionary” culture of underground music. Women in rock n’ roll have historically been confined to the position of eye candy or rhythm section. Even all-girl punk groups such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney were torn apart by mainstream critics, claiming they were abrasive and overly feminist, and liberal critics, claiming they didn’t represent feminist ideas strongly enough. Either way, they were typically reduced to a one-dimensional discussion of their gender politics rather than the fair assessment of songwriting skill.

Underground and indie music in the last few years has been more internationally minded than a decade ago. With acts such as the New Pornographers, the Arcade Fire, Feist and Broken Social Scene from Canada; Justice and Daft Punk from France; the Boredoms and OOIOO from Japan; and Architecture in Helsinki from Australia, it’s safe to say the most important and original things happening in music today are not necessarily coming from the United States or England.

One interesting development in indie music is the influence of artists from third-world countries. Manu Chao from a French and Spanish background and Ali Farka Toure from Mali, Africa, have been making important and emotionally powerful music for years. However, they have labored without the recognition or acclaim of the American underground commentator elite.

M.I.A., a female rap and dance artist originally hailing from Sri Lanka, is challenging this status quo by releasing some of the catchiest and most visceral albums in the last few years. Her new sophomore album, Kala, released Aug. 21, has caught hold in indie hearts throughout the country, demanding a critical audience and official recognition.

However, even M.I.A. is not getting her due as an artist. Music critics have been claiming for over a year that a white American male, DJ Diplo, has essentially created her albums for her. In a recent interview on the popular music Web site pitchforkmedia.com, she took on her detractors and identified what she saw as the reason for her artistic minimalization.

“If you read the credits,” M.I.A. told Pitchfork writer Paul Thompson, “he sent me a loop for ‘Bucky Done Gun’ and I made a song in London. … But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular (her first album).”

M.I.A. went on to comment on the reasons behind the constant attribution of the creation of her music to Diplo.

“What I am or what I do has got a life of its own,” she said, “and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female, or the people from underdeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it’s cool, the second time it’s cool, but after, like, the fourth, fifth time, maybe it’s an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that’s something important.”

With underground music espousing the benefits of representing the “little guy” and exploring the downtrodden sections of society, it would seem that artists from the characteristically marginalized populations of the third world would be immediately accepted, rather than minimalized.

Before underground music can truly fulfill its purpose in the pop music landscape, it must first deal with its own lingering prejudices of who is expected to make serious and important art and who isn’t. Hopefully, the growing success of M.I.A.’s Kala is evidence that progress is being made.

John Crowell is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]