Race Against Rockism 

The Believer's musical tastes have drawn the ire of antirockist types Internetwide. Is liking Joanna Newsom so wrong?

Everything you can possibly say for or against The Believer's new Music Issue is encapsulated in the accompanying free CD compilation's very first track: the Decemberists covering Joanna Newsom. Nasal, hyperliterate Dickens-rock types paying homage to a harp-plucking surrealist warbler who now gets called "elfin" in the press more frequently than Björk. It doesn't get any better than this.

There is, as with all things, a dissenting opinion. Specifically, "Miracle Whip covering Wonder Bread! It's the whitest thing on earth!"

This particular dissenting opinion arises from the infamously combative message board I Love Music (find it at ILX.p3r.net). Its sentiment is echoed more politely elsewhere in the critic/blogger landscape. Everyone from Pitchfork ("Call it independent-coffee-store-
down-the-street-from-Starbucks music") to The New York Times ("What fun is it to explore a musical world that seems so small?") has assailed the SF literary mag's musical tastes -- the compilation herds in indie-rock sacred cows like the Mountain Goats, Spoon, and the Shins -- as narrow, freak-folk-centric, and (cover your ears, children) rockist.

In other words, don't expect any Juelz Santana. Or, for that matter, Celtic Frost.

"I think this has to do with the fact that a great number of our readers are into these bands and this aesthetic," notes The Believer's Matthew Derby, the issue and compilation's primary architect, in an e-mail interview. "Last year, I asked people to send me suggestions for the next compilation CD, and the bands on this year's compilation correspond largely with those submissions. If everyone had sent me black metal, I most certainly would have pursued it. If the bulk of our readers are into black metal, I apologize for overlooking you all. Please let me know who you are so I can better serve you in the future."

Derby is doing his best to laugh this off -- he signs his first e-mail to me "Matthew Derby the myopic freak-folk sycophant," and later complains about the perils of typing with Devendra Banhart in his lap ("All that beard hair!"). But this is nonchalance borne of experience. Since its inception in 2003, The Believer has been consistently battered by critics, largely because of its original stated goal of confronting and eliminating "snark" (aka snappish criticism) from book reviews. A typical issue is a mix of highly stylized artwork, high-minded academic essays, and the sort of whimsical humor we now expect from the Dave Eggers Extended Universe (his wife, Vendela Vida, is a Believer editor).

Mingling the fascinating with the overly precious, this second annual Music Issue continues that proud tradition of irreverent reverence. Big-shot author Rick Moody praises weirdo Christian rockers the Danielson Famile. Douglas Wolk deconstructs the Fall's new six-CD Peel Sessions box set. John McMillian conducts "An Epistemological Inquiry into the Great Banana Hoax of 1967." Interviews include Beck, Karen O (conducted by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein), Aimee Mann, and that teenybopper-punk band Smoosh.

It's a niche. An indie-rock niche. Yes, a predominantly white niche. But does that make it inherently evil? Rockist? Racist? When NYT scribe Kelefa Sanneh ropes The Believer into a trend peddling "prejudices that usually go unexamined in music writing, assumptions about what smart or genuine or good or life-saving music should sound like, and about who should be making it," is everyone taking Rick Moody's reluctance to namedrop Kanye West or MF Doom a bit too seriously?

"The critics are playing with the form pretty recklessly here," Derby says of the more outlandish Wonder Bread jeers. "It's a clever (and basically indefensible) rhetorical strategy to call a work racist by implied exclusion, but it only works if you apply it across the board. You can't just whip out the race card when you're attacking a magazine with which you have some sort of issue."

Sometimes The Believer seems to walk right under this particular bus, relying on writers who famously double as punching bags for the antirockists. Moody drew hoots of derision for declaring "I am resistant to most hip-hop, because I like melody." Nick Hornby -- author of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and a monthly Believer column on his reading habits -- is regularly crucified as much for what he dislikes (Radiohead's Kid A) as what he likes (last year's NY Times love letter to Philly bar-rockers Marah triggered a few aneurysms). Furthermore, a recent, widely forwarded Washington City Paper screed even pinned Hornby and Moody (along with Eggers, who now writes a monthly I'm Just a Guy Who Likes Music column for Spin) as endemic of a conspiracy to replace Real-Life Rock Critics with fawning celebrity writers who lack the historical insight, the multicultural appreciation and, to put it plainly, the Snark.

For Christ's sake, relax. Now that we've exhaustively detailed what The Believer's Music Issue isn't, here's what it is: a lit-folk excursion that deserves praise equal to its scorn. Derby politely points out what makes the Decemberists-led comp special: Every tune is a cover, and all were essentially donated to a project with a budget its mastermind describes as "$0.00."

"I got the sense, in reading the reviews, that people were imagining the editors of The Believer as a team of black-turtleneck-clad vampires sequestered in a steel tower, smoking hand-carved pipes while white rats napped on our shoulders, cynically predicting the next trend and dictating the nation's taste," Derby says. "Instead, it was just me, cowering in a corner cubicle, sending out e-mails to people, asking for them to do a tremendous favor for a complete stranger."

Not bowing at the altar of hip-hop doesn't necessarily mean burning it. "I guess I thought, perhaps naively, that the hardcore haters would, at most, dismiss the free CD in the aisle with a well-practiced sneer and move on to the new issue of The Wire," he says. "Instead, it became this lightning rod for a lot of people's anger. Nowhere in the magazine does anyone state that the songs on the CD are meant to be THE ONLY GOOD MUSIC EVER MADE. I seriously thought people would just be mildly excited to hear some unreleased tracks by artists we know a good deal of our readers listen to."

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