Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

Canons and Listening Lists

In the A lists way in back you will find representatives of all the aforementioned strains and others besides, listed by year in an order of preference as exact as fond memory and available replay time could make it. If you've read this far, I hope you've managed to infer the sensibility if not exactly the criteria that went into those lists. But it's only polite to try to lay it out. I am a rock-and-roller--my attraction to 90 per cent of the pop and semipop I like was set in motion by Chuck Berry thirty-five years ago. So I go for a lyric that says something, with some wit would be nice. And I like a good beat. (Next time you play Chuck Berry, who isn't ordinarily regarded as the rhythmic equal of Jerry Lee Lewis or Panama Francis, concentrate on his beat for a while. He smokes.) Overproduction having rendered these cultural commodities too easy to come by, my standards have been sharpened. Unlike the change addicts of indieland, I've been in the game long enough to know the difference between novel and new, and I'm not such a knee-jerk progressive that I believe new is always better. But I'm obviously not a golden-ager, either. There was popular music in the '50s and '60s and now the '70s (as well as the '20s and '30s and '40s) that retains an irreducible and unduplicatable magic. But anybody who thinks that kind of magic disappeared in the '80s understands neither history nor Parliament-Funkadelic. (The Sex Pistols, maybe. Not the Ramones.)

In case it needs saying, I am who I am: a white male born into the Queens lower-middle class in 1942, my left politics and B.A. in English chosen rather than thrust upon me. Except to note that my daughter's tastes in entertainment cut into my listening time, I admit to no hardening of the tympanum. Sure I enjoy special rapport with my contemporaries, but I also know when they're full of shit, which is usually. In fact, I'd argue that twenty-year-olds have a harder time recognizing a mediocre Lou Reed record than I have recognizing a mediocre Replacements record. Youth comes with the musical territory, and by now my eternal attraction to the theme is so disinterested that all youth music partakes of sociology and the field report. To me, Thelonious Monster, Michelle Shocked, L.L. Cool J, and the Pet Shop Boys are all kids working out their identities, and in each case I get off tuning in.

Not that I think disinterest renders my judgments somehow objective. They have authority, sure--I'm knowledgeable and hard to con, and over the years many readers have found my tastes as well as my analyses useful. But if knowledge doesn't keep pace with production its usefulness diminishes, and in the '80s that wasn't just a tall order, it was physically impossible. I have little doubt that hidden away on that New Wave list (down some from the top, where I've listened hard enough to be certain of what isn't there as well as what is) are artists who could give me a thrill, tell me something I don't know. But I'm almost as sure that I can live my life happily without learning their secrets. Within the bounds of my tastes--which tend to exclude metal and "hard rock," romantic and Romantic slow stuff, folk music both authentic and secondhand, demijazz because it's half-assed and the real thing because it doesn't fit conceptually, and all manner of salable schlock--I haven't missed much domestically released English-language rock, a term I define very broadly. I've kept track of country and blues and taken my pick of more far-flung styles, with serious hiatuses indicated in the Subjects for Further Research section. But where in the '70s it was possible for me to imagine that a Consumer Guide compendium could be the basis of a canon, that's no longer how things are structured.

Because if on the one hand megaplatinum is what signifies, on the other the '80s were a time in which every quiddity of taste was worked for profit. For better and worse, it put the whole notion of a legible aesthetic behind it. I've made what I call postpunk (New Wave when I'm feeling sarcastic) the artistic center of the decade--well over a third of my A's are in the category. Yet the average college radio honcho would consider me hopelessly narrow and ill-informed. From hardcore to metal to garage grunge to neopsychedelic to art-damaged English dance music to sensitive singer-songwriters (again!), intelligent young people live for whole subgenres I could care less about. Similarly with the dance chart, chock full every week of records I'll never hear in my living room and would barely notice in a disco. The crux of world beat, meanwhile, is misprision--the ignorant reinterpretation to which outsiders like myself subject all transplanted culture.

I do persist. I believe my albums have something to give me and something to tell me--that they're a way of pleasure and a way of knowing. With not just critical authority but any presumption of shared musical experience as dead as Janis and Jimi, my grades are still designed to quantify aesthetic substance, whatever exactly that is. Against the Amerindie expressionists, so ignorant they believe any "alternative" is superior by definition, and the pop postmodernists, so cool they recognize no meaning but flux, I posit a relative permanence. But a canon? What do you take me for?

Don't answer that. Just believe me when I tell you I want this book to be regarded as one man's--all right, one critic's--listening list. An entertaining one for sure. Full of ideas too. Maye even providing a fragmented overview for an unwhole time, no more partial than the newfangled rhythms us old guys have such trouble grabbing onto. And very useful, I swear--since more than half these records have given me major pleasure and/or minor insight at least once in the past ten years, anyone who likes rock and roll should be able to find fifty if not five hundred personally worthwhile titles herein. But in the end, it's just music processing, a job I get off on.

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990


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