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TV on the Radio changes complexion of experimental rock


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In late December, Rolling Stone named TV on the Radio's latest disc, Dear Science, the best album of 2008. "The year's finest rock record was also the one that sounded the most like America in 2008, with infernal visions of war and economic desperation," the magazine wrote. That much is true. But while Rolling Stone used the term "rock" in its blurb, the writer was compelled to further describe Dear Science in the parlance of so-called black music: "there are swooning ballads, wind-whipped funk ... and then there's 'Lover's Day,' the greatest hipster booty call ever recorded."

You'd never know from this portrayal that TV on the Radio's albums are actually sprawling collisions of experimental, psychedelic and avant-garde rock with influences stretching from Brian Wilson's Beach Boys to George Clinton's Funkadelic, with melodies and choruses accessible enough for mainstream radio play. If "Lover's Day" had come from U2, it would be considered simply a bold love anthem for the new millennium. There would be no references to booty calls.

But because TV on the Radio is a predominantly black band, some music writers feel a need to bend over backward to qualify and quantify the "blackness" of the music. That's understandable. After all, for decades we've bent over backward to emphasize the "whiteness" of Jimi Hendrix. But it's a silly product of liberal guilt that's become embarrassingly outdated in a time when so many young black musicians are breaking out of the roles the music industry (and society) has long imposed on them.

In the past few years, indie rock has exploded with all-black, black-led or multi-racial bands that don't fit into easy stereotypes. In addition to TV on the Radio, there's Apollo Heights, the Noisettes, the Dirtbombs, Bloc Party, Cody ChesnuTT, Saul Williams and Santigold, just to name a few. It wasn't always like this. In earlier years, when R.E.M., the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and Pavement ruled alternative music scenes, indie and punk rock were bastions of lily-white music nerds. There were exceptions -- Bad Brains and A.R. Kane in the '80s, Fishbone in the '90s -- but they were few and far between. Being black in indie rock was a loner's life.

Jaleel Bunton, TV on the Radio's drummer, welcomes the complexion change. "Growing up in relative alienation, because of my aesthetic and racial makeup, this just seems painfully overdue," says Bunton, who was a skate punk in Louisville, Ky., when he began listening to bands like Sonic Youth and Fugazi, and discovering the older psychedelic-blues sounds of Hendrix, Cream and Funkadelic. "To me, it's just time -- it's past time, actually."

Everybody knows black musicians invented rock 'n' roll. Not even the most avowed racist will argue that point today. So, what happened? Somewhere along the way, rock became the dominion of young white kids. Maybe it was the British Invasion. After the Beatles and Stones reached America, more whites were scoring rock hits than blacks, and the boundary between R&B and rock 'n' roll was widening. But Phil Spector's music factory was still producing plenty of rock hits by black artists like the Ronettes and Ike & Tina Turner.

More likely, it was the arrival of heavy rockers like Led Zeppelin that created the gulf between so-called white and black popular musical styles. By the late '60s and early '70s, rock was "experimental"; R&B was considered "street." Whites could still dabble in so-called black music with relative impunity, but a black hard rocker like Hendrix was seen as an anomaly. African-Americans considered him weird; whites felt he was "different" from other blacks. We embraced Hendrix's bluesy psychedelia, but only because it fit the white paradigm: He was almost like us. Blacks were more suspicious: He was too much like us.

Since then, there have been other "anomalies" -- George Clinton's psychedelic experiments with Parliament and Funkadelic, Phil Lynott's hard rock band Thin Lizzy, hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, and the occasional arena-rock act like Living Colour or Lenny Kravitz. But for the most part, the rock world has practiced a sustained, unstated policy of segregation. And both blacks and whites have been complicit.

"I think it's all due to exposure -- or lack of exposure," says Bunton. "There's a reason that the most eclectic bands come from New York. It's because people can't escape each other there. They're forced into being exposed to different cultures. In the rest of country, there's just a whole lot more space, and it affords people the opportunity to be more xenophobic, which is really silly, but it's true."

Charlotte guitarist Thomas Saunders identifies with this dilemma. He eventually moved to New York to find like-minded musicians. "In Charlotte, I felt alienated from both sides," he says. "The brothers and sisters thought I was a weirdo and a sellout, and my white friends would say things like, 'Oh, you're different from other blacks.' Of course, I knew what that meant."