Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

Music Processing

That was rock in the '80s, all right. But for better or worse, this isn't a book about rock in the '80s. It's a book about rock records--rock albums--in the '80s, and the '80s have taught us (hammered home the old truth, really) that records don't equal rock and roll. Which doesn't mean, unfortunately, that a book about the records of the '80s is immune to the aforementioned complications. There's no way any decent critic can respond to records without bumping up against every one of them now and then. But there's also no way a mere record reviewer can address them systematically. If this guide isn't fun, I should go into another line of work. But for sure it's always partial and often contradictory. And though I don't believe it's incomprehensible, I'd never claim it was comprehensive.

Every month I write capsule reviews of 20 albums and arrange them alphabetically by artist into a Village Voice column called the Consumer Guide. Those columns are the basis of this book. Mostly I cover "rock," but I've felt free to wander ever since falling for Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air in 1970, and in the '80s, with categories crumbling all around me, I wandered plenty: in addition to "accessible" "downtown" "classical" items, relevant (note fudge-word) jazz, and hard-edged or crossover-prone country, all of which I'd been paying some heed since the middle '70s, I dipped early and often into the international musics that trickled then flowed my way. But by no means did my tastes prove catholic or impartial--they wouldn't be tastes if they were. I've never really gotten salsa, and to this day the only Caribbean or Latin American music I know well is reggae, although albums from Trinidad and Cuba and the Antilles and Haiti and Brazil and Argentina and Colombia and Chile and El Salvador have won my heart. And though China and Algeria and various European countries are represented, you'll hardly notice them amid the dozens upon dozens of records from sub-Saharan Africa, which for me proved the decade's great untapped pop mine.

About three quarters of the nearly three thousand reviews appear pretty much as originally written. Those that don't fall into five categories: stuff I missed, stuff I botched, best-ofs, EPs, and 1980 (which is when I was crushing out the '70s book). To add contemporaneity and give myself a head start, I've tried to base new and rewritten reviews on scraps and exegeses from my other writing of the time--the Guide's Additional Consumer News appendix, longer Voice reviews and essays, regular work for Playboy and Video Review--but even so some five hundred are previously unpublished down to the last phrase.

So is almost everything in the back, divided once again into Subjects for Further Research (substantial artists meriting a paragraph of general comment), Distinctions Not Cost-Effective (minor or over-the-hill artists good for a one-liner), and Meltdown (bad artists worthy of opprobrium). I've also provided a brief glossary, cross-referenced the compilations and soundtracks that proved such quintessential '80s forms, and compiled a list called New Wave, two hundred postpunk bands and individuals whose hype, word-of-mouth, or good first impression induced me to give their LPs or EPs at least two (usually three or more) complete plays. To me this list seemed a symptom of the age. Some of these artists are well-regarded, others utterly obscure. Many toward the top gave me pleasure, a few toward the bottom made me mad. But in my opinion, not one wound up deserving more space than it took to spell their, his, or her name right.

Such calls are even more subjective than most critical judgments: picking twenty albums a month from the plethora of competent-plus professional and semiprofessional releases kept getting harder as the '80s proceeded. I worried constantly that I should give people one more try, but in a hundred individual instances the overproduction of self-expression made that impossible. So I did what I could to weigh the two decisive general criteria, importance and quality. Importance divided into cultural impact (commercial or occasionally just sociopolitical reach, which added panache preferred), subcultural acclaim (especially from rock criticism's producers and consumers, but also from alternative radio and dance DJs), and past performance (increasingly problematic as more and more artists truck on into middle age). Quality boiled down to my grading system. Consumer Guide reviews end with grades that in theory run from A+ down to E-, though grades below C- have always been rare and in the '80s virtually disappeared--I'd be surprised if there are more than three dozen in the book. The '70s edition offered an amusing table defining each grade, but this time I'd like to lay them out less schematically. I'd like to tell you about B+ records.

In school, B+ is a good grade--almost any student will settle for the near-excellence it implies. It's a compliment in the Consumer Guide too. No record gets a B+ unless half its tracks provide notable satisfaction; few get a B+ unless at some point I want to hear the thing when it's not on and I'm still enjoying it after five or so plays. B+ is my cutoff point--it's what I listen for. Any B+ record I find I write about. And I come up with a lot of them. B+ is the most common grade in this book--the mode, as statisticians say. It's also the median--as many records are B+ or above as B+ or below. In fact, B+'s are so numerous that at least 60 percent of the records reviewed herein get a B+ or better. This means I must not be such a contrary bastard, even if I have a funny way of handing out compliments--complaining about stuff that could be better or isn't as good as it's said to be. And it also means that close to two-thirds of the records I write about give me a charge. but before you get too jealous, recall that New Wave list, then ponder the thousand or so bands that didn't make the two-play cut--with "new wave" accounting for a third of my listening at most. More labels than I can count have me on their lists, and when I don't get something I phone or write away, occasionally even seek out imports and indie product retail. For more than twenty years, my worklife has been structured around an unromantically systematic weeding-out process. I'm a music processor.

Once upon a time I tried to listen to everything I got, but these days I divide the loot into a few items I hope to get to forthwith, many I'll try to play sooner or later, and even more that I stockpile lest my trend-seeking colleagues or the all-knowing public latch onto something I took for a piece of shit. Whenever I'm home I stack records on my elderly BIC record changer (pardon the vinyl fetishism for now--I'll get to cassettes and CDs in due time), usually from a special pile of 100-150 records under active consideration, often with something as yet unheard slipped in. As I go about my business I notice details and conduct a semiconscious sort. Most of the six records remain in current-play, but a few get shifted closer to limbo, or out into the reference collection, or into the heap awaiting my next visit to the warehouse, or onto the discard pile. And every once in a while I get a bead on something and write it up, although usually that phase takes more planning.

I try to play things that one way or another suit my mood, but only rarely while I'm working will I play a record solely because I feel like hearing it. If rock criticism wasn't such a good job--if I didn't enjoy my work--I wouldn't be able to do it at all, because I'd no longer be any kind of fan, and thus would have no feeling for the fans I write for. But it is a job, and one of my qualifications is that I don't bore easy. My chief complaint is that I don't have more time for the good stuff.

Forget B+'s. I've replayed a lot of B+'s over the past year, just to make sure I hadn't overrated anything, and most of them sounded fine. But unless duty calls or a visitor makes a request, chances are I'll never find the opportunity to listen to them again. And even if we climb up to A level, the bulk is overwhelming. An A- is a record with at least one intensely enjoyable or rewarding side, plus extra goodies when you turn it over. An A has two such sides, very convenient with the new prestige longform rendering the whole concept of the side obsolete. And an A+ is a record you want to play over and over--essentially, a record you never get tired of. In the '80s most A+'s were granted retrospectively, either to A records like Sign "O" the Times and Born in the U.S.A., which always sounded really great when I had occasion to play them again, or--and this is the big one--to A records like Omona Wapi and In a Special Way, which I actually wanted to play over and over once I was done writing about them.

I hope this strikes most of my readers as strange. I hope they're not just collectors or compulsive consumers--I hope they return often to the records they like best. But consider the numbers. In the '70s, I found more than 500 A-level albums; in the '80s, the figure was up 35 percent, to over 650. There's no such thing as speed listening, so at a modest estimated mean length of forth minutes it would take some 220 hours to get through every '80s A. Once. That's five-and-a-half forty-hour weeks, nine twelve-hour-a day weekends. It would be work--pleasure as work, more fun than my job and probably yours, but work nevertheless. This little piece of strange-but-true plays right into the theory of my colleague Simon Frith, who's fond of saying that the '80s turned leisure into responsibility--thus rendering it, let me add, contradictory and incomprehensible and sometimes not-fun. Even as a culture of supposed surfeit was transformed into a culture of supposed scarcity, option overload continued to fuck with our minds.

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


Decade Postpunk-Postdisco Fusion