Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

The Meaning of Rock

That's one of the many questions this book will glance off without answering. It has everything to do with rock and roll but much less to do with the record reviewing that for more than twenty years has been the cornerstone of my criticism. To the extent that most artists' careers can be understood in terms of their musical output, and that as far as history is concerned this output will consist of record albums, the method still makes sense. But with Madonna a legitimate contender for rock hero of the decade, its limitations are definitely showing. I've always been relentless about consistency. Sure the lead cuts are great, I'd scoff, but can you name anything else on the record? To many discerning consumers, however, consistency is now at best a bonus--they want three good songs. The '80s were terrible for singles sales, but only in metal, rap, and new age (and rarely there) did albums go platinum without a promotional boost from a "hit" single. MTV is a singles medium, as is "adult contemporary" radio; even AOR devotes the contemporary portion of its programming to putative singles. Not counting dance DJs--who kept the single alive with twelve-inches but would groove to anything, the odd LP track included--the album's only significant new outlet was college radio.

Nor would I swear any longer to the ultimate importance of individual artists' recording careers--of oeuvres and one-shots that as often as not emanate from safely outside the belly of the pop beast. Without doubt there's a sense in which rock criticism's subject has always been a cultural organism that doesn't generate fixed meanings--whose meanings are defined not just by artists (even collectively), but by "noncreative" workers in the distribution network and, crucially, by fans who convert product to their own uses. And while it's philistine to pretend that the music has no formal attractions of its own, that it doesn't produce works that impinge unaided upon those who know the language, it's evasive if not effete to make too much of the microcosm those works create.

Basically, this dilemma was the ground of the "rockism" debate that raged through the U.K. music press in the early '80s. Rockism wasn't just liking Yes and the Allman Brothers--it was liking London Calling. It was taking the music seriously, investing any belief at all not just in its self-sufficiency, which is always worth challenging, but in its capacity to change lives or express truth. One result of this debate was that as the '80s ended, the hippest and most fruitful rockcrit fashion pumped functional pop that fetishizes its own status as aural construct over rock that just goes ahead and means. This schema was convenient in a couple of ways. For one thing, the blanker music is the more you can project on it--the more listeners, especially professional interpreters, can bend it to their own whimsies, fantasies, needs. And rarely has it been noted how blatantly the rockism debate that produced the fashion favored the growing nationalism/anti-Americanism of U.K. taste.

I mean, really--British rock has always been "pop." Irony, distance, and the pose have been its secret since the Beatles and the Stones, partly because that's the European way and partly because rock wasn't originally British music--having absorbed it secondhand, Brits who made too much of their authenticity generally looked like fools. This polarity was reversed briefly around 1976--American punk was an unbashed art pose, while the British variant carried the banner of class struggle. But when the Sex Pistols failed to usher in the millennium, lifelong skeptics who'd let their guard down for a historical moment vowed that they wouldn't get fooled again. Ergo, Rock Against Rockism.

For all the hybrids and exceptions, American rock really is more sincere, even today. Or anyway, American rockers act more sincere--they're so uncomfortable with the performer's role that they strive to minimize it. Often their modus operandi is a conscious, and rather joyless, fakery. But sometimes--and here's where the schema becomes a lie--they end up inhabiting amazing simulations of their real selves, whatever exactly those are. The early '80s proved an especially rich time for this aesthetic, especially in L.A., where singer-songwriter sincerity had been perfected a decade before. So roots-conscious postpunk Amerindies X, Los Lobos, and the Blasters, together with two Twin Cities bands, the virtuosically posthardcore Hüsker Dü and the roots/junk-inflected quasihardcore Replacements, were spearheading a U.S. rockism revival just as the New Pop was dwarfing a U.K. indie scene symbolized by Joy Division-styled gloom merchants.

Antirockism had no way of accounting for these bands, and now in effect claims that they never happened. After all, who did they reach? Sloppy American college boys and similar pretentious punters--not real people (or classy ones, either). I'm exaggerating, of course, although I do recall a U.K. Los Lobos review that took offense at their flannel-covered bellies. And certainly it's true that Amerindie garage orthodoxy, which is at least as narrow-minded as any more wittingly trendy musical ethos, seems close to the end of its rope. But Wild Gift and How Will the Wolf Survive? and Hard Line and Metal Circus and Let It Be remain. They impinged on me then, and they impinge on me now--I know, because I replayed every one while making this a book I can vouch for. For me, they hold up, stand the test of time, reveal new shades of meaning--all that stuff good art was supposed to do back in the modernist era. Rock lives.

Presumably, this comes as no news to my core readership. If the Consumer Guide has a typical consumer, he's a sloppy college boy or similar pretentious punter, and he treasures at least a couple of the albums just named. But that doesn't mean he knows exactly why, and especially since one nice thing about the past ten years is how elastic that "similar" has proven to be--my favorite fan letter of the decade was written by a thirty-seven-year-old black woman with an Italian surname and a newfound thirst for classic country music, and I hear from lots of postpunks who've kept the faith in his or her own fashion--I feel obliged to put the aesthetic in general terms before moving on to the exceptions that have made antirockism fruitful and necessary. Because the embarrassing truth is that the rock meaningfulness in which all the great Amerindie bands traffic is in the end a matter of words.

The canard that rock critics only care about words has a history so long that around the dawning of James Taylor there was a smidgen of truth to it. But the most genteel songpoetry shill always knew he or she was in it for the song, not the poetry, and since punk, critics no less than songwriters have been acutely aware of music and especially musicians. The '80s were replete with singer-songwriters who refused to stop there. The Replacements' Paul Westerberg (who's been keeping an ear on Bob Mould and Exene Cervenka since Hüsker Dü and X broke up) exemplifies the auteur quote unquote who prefers the expressive discipline and limitations of a band; so does John Cougar Mellencamp. Sting, that pompous ass, exemplifies the opposite (and so does Bob Mould, though Exene is hanging in there). Though the bands critics like best are rarely virtuosic, they generate their own unmistakable sounds: X and Hüsker Dü and the Smiths and Talking Heads and countless lesser entities can be ID'd without vocals inside of eight bars. Yet nobody would be interested in these bands without vocals.

This isn't just because the vocalists are essential and usually dominant musically--it's because they lyrics they articulate (or slur) make the music mean. They specify it, sharpen its bite. And at whatever level of change-your-life, cognitive dissonance, sound example, comforting half-truth, or craven banality, meaning--or anyway, the show of meaning--is something audiences still expect from popular music. So from garage to garret to private studio to pop factory, from Big Black to Red Crayola ro Al Green to Milli Vanilli, we're inundated with well-made songs--well-made not because they revitalize the European concert tradition with jazzy harmonic apercus, as polite little well-made songs are supposed to, but because they yoke sense and/or nonsense to sound and/or noise, often aided by a hook sending in mnemonic reinforcements. Original genius as highbrows define it isn't the point--that's one reason pop truth feels social. Hard-felt expressive lyrics as well as cynically crafted manipulative ones resuscitate clichés, and the basic compositional strategy is recycle and cut-and-paste, if not in the melody then in the arrangement, which as rhythm rises to the top is where the music lives.

One reason the '80s were so disquieting for rock-and-rollers, though, is that this perceptual process has gotten less reliable. Even the best songs don't always impact the way they used to. That's partly just fragmentation as a way of life--the sense that you share a song with an audience is another reason pop truth feels social. But it's also because there are so many great songs. Time was, only a few adepts and the occasional lucky duck knew how to bring one off, but remember, when Leiber & Stoller were coming up people wondered when some superman would finally high-jump seven feet. Now the high school record--by a kid from Athens, Georgia, of all places--is seven-six, and well-made rock and roll songs are commonplace, one more instance of the industrialized world's endemic cultural overproduction.

This means there's a sense in which the whole rockism debate was a response to overproduction--that in a much more vulgar way than was immediately apparent it was yet another chapter in the cycle of feverish excitement and premature boredom that has ruled Britannia's pop taste since the teddy boys. Nevertheless, the crisis is real, augmented by the formal exhaustion that becomes inevitable when thousands of skilled craftspeople poke around the same parameters at the same time. Granted that theories of formal exhaustion are too tautological to explain much, and that the right artist in the right place at the right time can make them look ridiculous--who would have believed that Neil Young would make one of 1989's best albums out of the same materials he'd been messing with for twenty-one years and throwing away for eight or nine? Of course there'll still be high-impact songs created as I've described above, in "rock" and sometimes in "pop" too. Utilizing the traditional verbal language of rock and roll, with its gauche blank patches and unliterary colloquial logic and sudden flashes of axiomatic plainspeech, some of them will impinge on our collective life, and many of them will affect individual lives. Many albums full of such songs are recommended in this book. But the fact remains that the game has changed--even sloppy college boys know there has to be something else out there. And there is.

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


Postpunk-Postdisco Fusion Music Gap