In October of last year, the New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, wrote a now-infamous (at least in critical circles) essay titled "A Paler Shade of White: How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul." A sharp and eloquent critic, Frere-Jones is not above tackling such daunting topics as race, even at the risk of getting things wrong. Frere-Jones argued, essentially, that indie rock has become too white—meaning too much from the head, not enough in the hips—that it lost its sense of rhythm, its will to entertain an audience. That it's become stiff rather than funky. He cast the Arcade Fire's studied operatics against Mick Jagger's "bewitching flexion of knees and elbows." He mourned a perceived loss of miscegenation in rock, blaming "political correctness" as well as social progress, the internet, the legal hamstringing of digital sampling, and Dr. Dre for ending a fruitful era of "uneasy, sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations" that went both ways, even if it tended to benefit white musicians more.
But Frere-Jones framed "indie rock" in a way convenient to proving his argument. Indie rock, in his limiting estimation, is pale almost by definition. He invoked Wilco as evidence that "indie rock" has become merely an aesthetic tag, and nothing to do with actual business allegiances. By this handy logic, then, indie rock is anything that "sounds like" indie rock, which, you know, is anything that sounds too "white." Where, for instance, is LCD Soundsystem?
And where is Hot Chip? Where is No Kids? (Both are touring through Seattle this week, from London, England, and Vancouver, BC, respectively.) Maybe Hot Chip and No Kids wouldn't have qualified as indie rock in Frere-Jones's eyes. Neither play strictly blues-derived, electric-guitar-centric music, but both are on various shades of independent label—No Kids on wholly independent German label Tomlab and Hot Chip on Astralwerks/EMI-affiliated DFA. Both bands borrow from—among other genres—hiphop, R&B, disco, and soul.
Hot Chip's drum-machine programming and live percussion range from loose, polyrhythmic Afro-pop to hard-pounding, club-minded electro thump, and their Casio keys and muted guitars are malleable enough to integrate the old soul of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" as easily as, say, the taut minimal tech pop of Matthew Dear's "Don and Sherri" or the retro '70s synth funk of Snoop Dogg's "Sensual Seduction" (Hot Chip cover each of these songs with aplomb). Live, the band are notoriously energetic and entertaining.
No Kids apply R&B producer T-Pain's signature Auto-Tuned digital sheen to the chorus of "Listen for It/Courtyard Music"—vocals that, the rest of the song proves, Nick Krgovich and Julia Chirka are perfectly capable of nailing unaided—over what sounds like a faint sample of ESG's "UFO." "For Halloween" has a sublimated boom-bap beat, and its aerobic vocal runs are pure modern R&B, as is the chorus of "The Beaches All Closed" or any number of other songs on their debut, Come into My House (named after a Queen Latifah single). The plucked strings of "Bluster in the Air" recall nothing so much as Dr. Dre circa The Chronic.
And both bands are clever about their borrowing. Hot Chip have made a laughing sport of their whiteness and their omnivorous musical appropriation from the get-go. Early single "Playboy" found the group riding a maudlin electro R&B beat in their pimped-out Peugeot (a quintessentially European, and therefore "white," car), spinning "20 inch rims with the chrome" while "blazin' out Yo La Tengo." "Down with Prince" examines their troubled relationship with the titular musical miscegenator.
Frere-Jones notes MTV's initial reluctance to air Michael Jackson while playing videos "by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates" to illustrate how often the most successful American purveyors of "black music" were white. On their latest album, Made in the Dark, Hot Chip provide a corollary: In "One Pure Thought," covocalist Joe Goddard raps (raps!), "So far as we've seen, we've been the mightiest team/To bear arms since Nile Rodgers was denied entry," an oblique reference to the mastermind of disco heavyweights Chic. Rodgers, who initially wanted to make rock music, was corralled by his record label into producing R&B and then disco.
Both bands lyrically check Stevie Wonder, if not musically, with Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor declaring, "I'm like Stevie Wonder, but I can see things," and No Kids setting a scene by noting, "Stevie's on the radio."
On the other hand, No Kids draw just as much inspiration from golden-era Hollywood musicals, Arthur Russell, and the notoriously funky F. Scott Fitzgerald; Hot Chip reference not only Prince and Stevie, but also Ween and Todd Rundgren.
Frere-Jones bemoans indie rock sacrificing "full-throated vocals" for "mumble and moan," noise and obscurantism, and Brian Wil- sonian "glee club" harmonies. But, while neither Hot Chip nor No Kids engage in any (black?) throatiness, they each deploy their glee-club chorals or laconic mumbles with a knowing wink, as if to draw attention to their stereotypically dorky, uptight whiteness and dismiss the idea that such traits make their funk fake. Hot Chip's Snoop Dogg cover ends in studio- captured laughter, but it's an affectionate laugh.
Both bands are simultaneously stiff and funky, exhibiting a robotic soul, an icy-cool, detached R&B sound (think Timbaland, who himself borrows from, among other sources, European techno à la Afrika Bambaataa and Kraftwerk). Not only do both bands gleefully miscegenate with other musical idioms, they play up the inherent awkwardness of such exchanges.
All of which is to say: Not only are there plenty of pale independent rock bands making wonderfully rhythmic, entertaining, soulful—if you must, "black"—music, but the best of them, like Hot Chip and No Kids, are clever enough to make their supposed stiffness and cultural theft the point of their fun.