Why Good Intentions Cannot Overcome Bad Arguments

When writing an editorial, it is imperative to understand your target audience.  The focus should always be on the impressionable middle–there is no need to waste time preaching to those who have already been converted, and there are few reasons to bother trying to convince those who are firmly opposed, so concern yourself with the minds you can change.  Once you have determined your target audience, then it is simply a matter of finding an appropriate hook to grab their attention and then building a case from there.  However, if one constructs an argument that relies on faulty reasoning or poor evidence, all the effort would be for naught; best-case scenario is that the person simply ignores your theory, but if worst comes to worst, the reaction may be so negative that it can push people into the opposing camp.

Pitchfork recently published an op-ed entitled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” and it suffers from the typical problems that one would expect from the average flaky Salon thinkpiece.  Though the title is pure clickbait, it is easy to imagine that there is some merit to the claim–one only has to hear Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers pop up every three minutes on the radio to think that the author has a point.  Unfortunately, the evidence offered is so poorly chosen and the supporting arguments are so incompetently constructed that it is difficult to go through the whole thing without attempting to cite contradictory points while you read it.  By provoking such a reaction, the whole thing falls apart before reaching the desired conclusion simply because the support for the premise is built atop a shaky foundation.  How can one agree with the author’s goal when there are so many holes to poke through in the argument?

In fact, the introductory example from the piece was so bad that it had to be redone; originally, there was a discussion about the ethnic backgrounds of the people who appear on the cover art of Belle and Sebastian albums, but once somebody pointed out the error in the author’s assessment, the opening two paragraphs shifted instead focus on a film that the band’s Stuart Murdoch wrote and directed.  Somehow, a coming-of-age film by the leader of a Scottish band is supposed to be representative of an entire genre of music, and the connection is pretty much just assumed by the author because of a particular scene that for some reason the reader is assumed to have watched.  This is not a promising start.

As the piece moves along, it becomes clear that the author has no interest in providing any actual documentation of the assertion that indie rock is white, but that the anecdotal treatment of a few acts tangentially associated with the scene should suffice instead.  It is at this point that anybody who has any familiarity with either the construction of an argument or merely an incidental knowledge of anything related to the sciences should be throwing their hands in the air–if you are going to rely on anecdotes to prove your point, you better make a damn good case about how they represent the greater issue.  The author opts instead to make broad assertions about “whiteness” being the goal and then commit such blunders as citing Major Lazer and Diplo as examples of white co-option, when 1) Diplo is the main face of Major Lazer and 2) the other two members of Major Lazer are minorities.  The half-assed interpretation of lazy reviews of Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors that follows is just icing on the cake (the fact that Graceland is used as a shorthand for Vampire Weekend’s debut album need not be indicative of a racial bias, but instead an easy reference point since it is an album owned by millions, and the “idiosyncrasies” of Dirty Projectors can easily be construed as an acknowledgement of the band’s use of unusual time signatures and eccentric sense of melody).  Any hope that this op-ed can recover is gone at this point, as it devolves into a jumbled mess that contrasts the politics of Indian rappers with riot-grrrl punk for some reason (with an additional oversight of not characterizing Das Racist as rappers), and holy shit this thing has gone completely off the rails.  Once the names of Kathleen Hanna and Kim Gordon are slagged through the mud, the only reaction should be “this is why it is important to understand historical context”–this generation tends to assume that progress is self-evident, and should have occurred already, without understanding the sacrifices that specific people made in previous generations to actually induce change.

This whole article is a complete mess, and there is little in its present form that can be done to salvage it.  If one was actually serious about the issue of race among the participants of a certain genre, then it would be best to actually provide some numbers and some definitions, so we can know roughly what percentage is “white” and what exactly constitutes “indie rock.”  For instance, would Alabama Shakes count as indie rock, since they first got airplay on a lot of alternative rock stations?  Decisions like that one would seriously affect any potential analysis.  Once those ground rules are set, then one can go and look at connected issues, such as whether white bands get different treatment than other non-white bands.

There are several counterexamples that one could easily identify: TV on the Radio, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, The Thermals, Yuck, Deerhoof, and The Shins all feature members who are minorities, and if you open up the criteria to include other underrepresented groups, like women and gays, you will find many more examples.  These are some of the biggest groups in the indie scene from this century, and if you look further back to groups like Soundgarden and the Dead Kennedys, you can find even more.  The question then becomes what is exactly the problem.  Are there other indie bands that are not getting the same attention?  Are musicians not doing enough to encourage minorities to go into the genre?  Are other genres affecting the demographic breakdown?  Or how about trickier considerations, such as should a band be denounced for “co-option” for looking beyond its own insular background by incorporating diverse music and themes from other cultures, when it could easily face just as much flak for going in the opposite direction by only working within a narrow subset of a particular genre?

All of those would be more worthy considerations.  Maybe someone should publish a follow-up that actually contemplates these problems.

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