Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Journalism and/or Criticism and/or Musicology and/or Sociology (and/or Writing)

This is the keynote I delivered at "Studying Music--An International Conference in Honour of Simon Frith," a retirement tribute to my longtime colleague at the University of Edinburgh April 10-12, 2014. Although it includes language from my "Preface: An Essay on Journalism" in Simon's festschrift, Popular Music Matters: Essays in Honour of Simon Frith as well as other published work, most of it is unique to this presentation.


Simon Frith is my old friend. But for geographical reasons complicated by the late parenthood we share, I've only seen him a couple of times since 1988. And although we did talk on the phone once a month to edit his Britbeat column at The Village Voice in the early '90s, conversations he claims terrified him, it's the earlier memories that stuck with me. For nearly a decade beginning in 1975 we saw a lot of each other for two guys from opposite sides of the pond--visiting Oxford and Birminghman from Coventry, touring Virginia and the Carolinas, walking the Midlands, sharing a New York Christmas so cold my mother-and-law had to dig winter coats out of her de facto thrift shop for our Gulfstream-coddled friends. Simon and I had plenty to talk about culturally, politically, and personally--rock critics stuck together in that era--and needless to say, popular music and its ballooning discourse was always at the center of our conversations. Yet though I remember many details of that Southern vacation--the waitress so impressed by Simon's accent she asked for an autograph, the chess pie we discovered near a settlement called Natural Bridge, how Simon always carried two books just in case he finished the first one--and though I'm sure I was packing the suitcase stereo I always took on car trips back then, I don't remember ever playing music with, for, or at him.

Not that Simon didn't, as one might say, take listening seriously. Few rock critics have insisted so actively or theorized so proactively that music is a physical experience, something you hear, and if I can't prove that by recalling our listening sessions, I can by quoting his early reviews. The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her," 1973: "The joy of the record lies in the way [Eugene] Record milks this sob story--talk-in intro, clanging guitar and, above all, the magical use of the Chi-Lites group voice, ooing and bupping behind the action." The Moody Blues, 1973: "The Moodies (or at least their producer) have a feeling for sound qualities which can't be sneered away. Every track has its stirring moments (especially in the use of the guitar as a genuinely electronic instrument)." The Miracles' "Love Machine," 1976: "At home, in the armchair, you hear the beat and its insistence is numbing and mindless. But on the dance floor it's taken for granted by your feet, and your head, freed by the haze of movement, can notice everything else--the snatches of instrument, the cross-vocals, the mutters and murmurs of machines. That's when you can hear a good disco sound and it's suddenly gripping, complex, surprising."

For their time, these passages are distinguished both descriptively, by their vernacular attention to musical detail, and content-wise, by the music they cover. Although the U.K. maintained its phalanx of soul specialists, the early rock critics proper, especially in the U.S., almost never extended their respect to the likes of the Chi-Lites or the post-Smokey Miracles--to what I still call black music whether Philip Tagg likes it or not. The major exception descriptively is Greil Marcus, as in his great lost 1971 opus "Rock-a-Hula Clarified," or later that year his Creem review of Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment, which celebrated the idiosyncratic mesh of Stewart's studio band with a particularity devoid of technicality. And along with Dave Marsh and to an extent Jon Landau, the major exception content-wise happens to be me. In 1972, three months into my tour at the Long Island tabloid Newsday, I undertook a column about the Chi-Lites that turned into a defense of Top 40 radio and continued on for a second week as a thousand-word critical profile of the group. Yet the profile led by recalling how much I'd first despised the very song Simon extols, "Have You Seen Her." Instead, my way into the group was their biggest American hit, which Simon's piece doesn't mention: "Oh Girl," with its wacky harmonica and earworm melody finished off by the quotable quote "All my friends call me a fool/They say let the woman take care of you." The collected version of the AM radio half is now entitled "All My Friends Call Me a Fool." The central argument of the Chi-Lites half posited a trend I called "Soul Music Meets the Women's Movement," and my piece was among other things a rather ideological celebration of the connubial love few rock critics or feminists of the time were down with.

Looking back I expect one reason I don't remember playing music for, with, or at Simon was that, despite the interest in black music we shared and my guess that I'm where he found out about Tom T. Hall, he never enjoyed my discoveries the way I wanted him to. But mostly it was that, however intense and specific Simon's appetite for musical experience, his capacity for musical theorization kept me too busy. The late '70s were when he was conceiving and realizing 1978's The Sociology of Rock, which I read in its substantially revised and by all accounts improved 1981 American iteration, Sound Effects, published by the prestigious commercial house Pantheon. My Village Voice review led: "Simon Frith is such a good friend of mine that I couldn't review Sound Effects if I loved it as much as I wish I did." But what that meant was that I preferred Marcus's Mystery Train, as I still do, and Geoffrey Stokes's Star-Making Machinery, which someone ought to reprint. I didn't agree with all of Simon's ideas then and I don't now. But every one of them set me thinking. So I'd like to remind you of a few, including truisms that many have forgotten and some never dreamed might not be truisms if Simon hadn't put them on paper.

Foremost among these were two observations about lyrics. First was that lyrics are physical as well as verbal signifiers, always inextricable from the sound of a human voice (and also, as he might have gone into a little more, the contour of a melody), and contextualized by such "nonverbal devices" as "accents, sighs, emphases, hesitations, changes of tone." Second was that in not just rock and roll but the Tin Pan Alley that preceded it--to demonstrate which Simon cheats a little by deploying Ira Gershwin's atypically colloquial "Nice Work if You Can Get It"--the basic poetic strategy of the pop lyric is to freshen familiar language rather than heightening it crimson-flames-tied-through-my-ears style. It's not as if these and related insights were bolts from the empyrean. I'd made an early pass at several of them in a piece called "Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe)." But in my Village Voice review I put it this way: "though I've also spent years thinking about the aesthetics of lyrics, it was the chapter this sociology Ph.D. calls 'Pop Music' that solved their riddle for me."

Sound Effects was like that. As a cool-headed academic who made the most of his library privileges and an engaged fan who had a good time listening, Simon's knowledge of pop music fact and theory were unequalled. And so he was equipped to explain how Tin Pan Alley's conception of romance as a means to a connubial end evolved into rock's conception of sexual relationships as an ongoing engagement with serial identity. To argue strenuously that the inevitable failure of rock pleasure to be as innocent as it pretended didn't render its consumption merely passive. To distinguish briefly and clearly way back in 1980 (only this one has changed a lot since) between the differing functions of the American indie label and the British indie label. To balefully observe way back in 1980 that rock had become "old people's youth music." And he saved his most memorable stroke for last. Rock's history, he concluded, "like the history of America itself, is a history of class struggle--the struggle for fun." I've always thought "the struggle for fun" was the best phrase of Simon's life. As the Beastie Boys put it a few years later, and don't bet they hadn't read Sound Effects, "You've got to fight for your right to party." After which Chuck D. said, "Party for your right to fight." And Atmosphere 10 years after that: "Party for the fight to write."

Given all that, the main reason I didn't love Sound Effects as much as I would have preferred was Simon's version of academic prose--what I called "language worn dull by overuse." I granted with pleasure that "Frith is one of those rare academics whose prose always achieves lucidity and a serviceable grace," and looking back over Sound Effects after 35 years of jargon-besotted and -beclotted theory, I appreciate that skill even more. But I still think "commercial needs of rock" should be "commercial imperatives of rock." I still dissent from phraseology like "the folk emphasis," which really should be "the folk movement's emphasis," especially given the built-in peril of using the unmodified "folk" as if it means something. Et cetera. And I recommend to your attention how in the passage about lyrics I just cited such non-Latinates as "sighs," "jokes," and "mouth" take their stand against scholarly journalese and social science boilerplate.

Just as important, I also continue to regret Simon's reluctance to extend or augment the analysis of Sound Effects by describing individual artists and their audiences, which would surely have beefed up the prose a bit. So I was delighted when he followed with 1988's Music for Pleasure. Published by Routledge, the go-to trade house for left-leaning professors seeking readers outside the university, this collection got less ink than Sound Effects, and is now further out of print. Formally, it's unusual, mixing seven properly footnoted scholarly essays, four of which run over 20 closely printed pages, with 27 much shorter journalistic pieces including seven Britbeat columns he wrote for the Voice. Simon aimed Sound Effects at pop intellectuals broadly conceived, what I would call the semi-popular audience, and blended his tone accordingly. In Music for Pleasure the scholarly essays are designed for scholars, for whom essays are jobs to be buckled down to, not read or written for pleasure. But this is hardly to suggest that the journalism in the collection is all light entertainment, or even succinctly described, sharp-witted, thought-provoking concert and record reviews.

That's partly because this thing we call journalism can rope in such a variety of audiences. Not only wasn't Marxism Today the Sunday Times, but the punk-intellectual New York Rocker wasn't the world-music-plus fanzine-qua-little-magazine Collusion, where the five-page essays on Gracie Fields and Ennio Morricone first appeared. Nor was the aesthetically alert but soberly center-left New Society The Village Voice, where the arts-covering back of the book was more radical than the politics-covering front of the book and the culture hounds made such a principle of hedonism that few up front gave them much respect. Forget music for pleasure--the Voice's arts coverage, with its pop music criticism in the vanguard, was all about, you know, "the struggle for fun."

Having overseen only one of the seven Britbeats reprinted in Music for Pleasure, I've got a right to read them consecutively and conclude that Simon has never written better. These are two-pagers that exemplify what the great American book reviewer John Leonard once called "the 800-word mind." But they range further than Leonard's dense, well-informed precis. It helps that in these little pieces Simon, whose Anglocentrism is taken for granted in the U.K., feels obliged to explicate context to Anglophones with scant knowledge of British culture, occasioning deft lead generalizations like "In Britain 1984 turned out to be the year of the miners' strike and Frankie Goes to Hollywood" and "The central myth of British pop is style." But as these sentences suggest, what's really happening in Music for Pleasure's journalism is that Simon is seldom just a reviewer--he writes criticism as an academically trained sociologist. He's far more sophisticated, responsive, and interested in art than most sociologists. But he evokes musical details primarily to illustrate larger points and shows no interest in establishing canons--his introduction reports that having praised some of the records he described, and with palpable pleasure too, he never played them again.

As a journalist who started out a mere journalism fan, I'm partial to a form publishers and book reviewers disdain: the collection. It was in the introduction to one such that I found John Leonard's invaluable notion of "the 800-word mind." Simon doesn't share this proclivity. In Sound Effects he politely exempted my own Any Old Way You Choose It on the grounds of its "political sensitivity," but reviewing Jon Landau's It's Too Late to Stop Now in 1973, he generalized his impatience with Landau's pedestrian prose, stolid taste, and auteurism-once-removed into the dubious theorem that "Music grows new meanings in new times, criticism doesn't." For me, this has certainly not been true of Illuminations, The Sweet Science, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Stranded, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Air Guitar, or, come to that, Music for Pleasure.

One way to justify collections is to ease their flow from patch of prose to patch of prose not just with sequencing tricks but by conceptualizing the totality as Simon appears to by declaring Music for Pleasure "determinedly post-punk." By 1988, his musical taste has changed so much that he finds "something essentially tedious these days about that 4:4 beat and the hoarse (mostly male) cries for freedom." Thus, I expect, the omission of his superb dissection of the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, which originally appeared in Greil Marcus's desert-island anthology Stranded.

Although by 1979 Simon's kind of musical description had caught on, in his Beggars Banquet breakdown he excels as usual at that part of the job. The contrasting grooves of "Parachute Woman" and "Salt of the Earth," the distinct vocal affects of "No Expectations" and "Prodigal Son," aren't just vividly rendered. They're put in words so as to buttress Simon's larger purpose: explaining how the Stones' intellectual (which from Simon is a compliment) bohemianism (which from Simon is less a compliment) "celebrates the reality of capitalist pleasure and denies its illusions." The Stones' commitment to this kind of double consciousness, he argues, is what makes them politically germane--devoid of "commitment to party or class, but powerful and critical all the same." As with lyrics, this was a conundrum I'd put a lot of thought into myself. And as with lyrics, he'd solved it more completely and coherently than I ever had.

Yet ten years later it was becoming clear that this sort of elucidation wouldn't be Simon's path as a writer. Read today, Music for Pleasure has a leave-taking air. While the collection left him feeling, and I quote, "more intrigued by the old journalism than by the `lasting' scholarship," without naming the enemy Simon also makes clear that he's had it with rock criticism's political presumption, in those days wheezing on as if Margaret Thatcher didn't hold the winning hand. While he's never taken in by the intellectually vacuous anti-"rockist" battle that transfixed British music journalism in the '80s, his sympathies were nevertheless with music that slotted pop, which is why he's delighted to reprint pieces about records no one remembers if they noticed them in the first place. And soon afterward he will devote himself fulltime to enterprises that change the landscape in a field of battle where he's confident he can remain relevant: the academy.

I suspect these enterprises are what most of you know best about Simon Frith, and I'm certain they're what I know least. I find academic politics so mystifying that I don't fully understand how any sociology Ph.D., however overqualified, lands big jobs in English and music departments. But the evidence indicates that he was telling the truth in 2002, when rockcritics.com asked him how he'd achieved what he'd achieved had and he answered "hard work and never saying no." And in 1996, eight years after he relocated to Glasgow and also eight years after our last extended face time, ensued Performing Rites, clearly his masterwork by the standards of the career he chose--and also the book of his I have the most trouble warming to.

Fortunately, I enjoyed it better when I read it again so I could write this lecture, and better still when I went back to take notes. Much more than Sound Effects, Performing Rites is an academic book. Having made his decision for the university, Simon writes to the university--if not exclusively, for sure primarily. Hence the obligation he feels to address the postmodernism that was such a byword in the humanities departments of the mid '90s, and also to address theory--although there, except for one stealthy parenthetical where he gets Derrida in the neck, Simon cannily and discreetly sticks to Barthes and Bourdieu, both of whom I agree are essential to any book subtitled "On the Value of Popular Music." Hence, although I'd guess it also extends some belated respect to an upbringing I myself do not share, his extended attention to what I know I'm not supposed to call classical music so let's make it highbrow music, the 19th-century-rooted tradition still firmly ensconced in the academy. Hence the chapter on music and time, the second shortest in the book and the hardest for me to get through, and when I did understood it no better than I have any of the other disquistions on music and time through which I've labored as I pursued my muse. And hence too, in sum, an analysis in which sociological ways of thinking subsume those of cultural studies, literary theory, and highbrow musicology. In fact, maybe it even defeats them.

Performing Rites is not on the surface a polemical work. Even more than his journalism, Simon's academic writing strives for a plainness of style that's quiet and unshowy, attracting attention only with the subtle crackle of ideas that come faster than his tone and syntax prepare you for. Without warning you're stopped short by a sentence like: "The point is that as speakers we create meaning through stress; therefore, music creates meaning." Or: "Amplification has enabled us to hear the detail of loud sound in quite new ways, and if the distinction between music and noise depends on our ears being able to find order in chaos, then technology, in allowing us to attend to previously indistinguishable sonic detail, has greatly expanded our sense of what music is and can be." Or: "Student music (as record companies realize) must fit student life, fit the student rhythm of collective indulgence and lonely regret, boorishness and angst, and also draw on shared teen memories and the sense of exclusiveness that being a student (at least in Britain) still entails." Or: "It has always seemed to me ironic that the academic effect of Jacques Derrida's musings on what it means to treat a text as an event has been the systematic study of events as texts."

By similar stratagems, Performing Rites comes to praise various academic shibboleths and ends up demolishing them. After many bows to postmodern politesse, and directly after that Derrida parenthetical, Simon observes: "I'm sure, similarly, that postmodern theorists (also much concerned with performance issues) have more to learn from a study of popular music than popular music theorists have to learn from postmodernism." He goes on to point out that the "instability and questioning" for which one postmodernist extols avant-garde dance and theater have already been established in this very book as hallmarks of "popular performance--something as much to do with the social basis of the event as with the intentions or principles of the performers." And the respects Simon pays highbrow music, which you come to realize are extended more freely to its audience than to its creators, much less its guardians, function as feints. They establish his right to dismiss the philistine elitism of those guardians and to eviscerate the 19th-century ideology of Eduard Hanslick, embodied in the 20th century by Roman Ingarden--an ideology in which Hanslick combats "the tyranny of the ear" by declaring that true music is the score you read not the performance you hear, and in which Ingarden posits that "so-called dance music" designed "for keeping dancers in step" probably isn't music at all.

All that said, I believe Performing Rites both overstates and fudges the firmness and clarity of so-called genre identities and especially taste communities, as established most convincingly by a book Simon is down with, Charles Keil, Daniel Cavicchi, and Susan Crafts's My Music, where many respondents freely testify to the promiscuity of their genre hookups. And although I agree that "the rhythm-focused experience of music-in-the-process-of-production . . . explains the appeal of African-American music and not its supposed 'direct' sensuality," I'm not therefore convinced that African-based rhythms lack any sexual homology or component whatsoever--the fact that playing a harpsichord is no less physical an act than dancing to soukous doesn't mean both are physical in equally sexual ways. Similarly, when Simon asserts with uncharacteristic finality that "No listener could have thought that either [Jerry Lee] Lewis or [Mick] Jagger was black; every listener realized that they wanted to be," I can only jump up and down and say not me buster. Later for self-proclaimed "stylist" Jerry Lee, but since long before I put it in writing in 1972 I've argued that Jagger's vocal strategy was to ape blackness with an exaggeration whose distance from its model was a joke everyone was in on--although it became evident not everybody got it as soon as Tom Wolfe, in his white plantation-massuh suit, averred that Jagger sang like "a bull Negro." And although I'm almost as inclined as Simon is to bear down on the key concepts of voice and performance, my emphasis as regards both is rather different.

Simon analyzes the voice under four, to use his rather imprecise term, headings: as instrument, body, person, character. I think he short-changes body and is surprisingly uncritical about person and character. Addressing Barthes's "grain of the voice" under body, he suggests briefly that perhaps a grained voice might simply be one "with which, for whatever reasons, we have physical sympathy" and then proceeds. To me, capturing the details of such sympathies in language, and trying to explain their relative reach and spread, among other things, is one of the great tasks of popular music criticism. If anyone knows of a coherent or even credibly poetic explanation of why so many find Aretha Franklin's voice irresistible, for instance, please pass it on--I've looked hard, to no avail. And although Simon may just be leading readers on with his talk of voices as persons and then characters, it takes him too long to let the cat out of the bag about "layers of interpretation" on page 199: "in pop it is therefore all but impossible to disentangle vocal realism, on the one hand, from vocal irony, on the other"--that is, to pinpoint the difference between an expression and an enactment when the chances are excellent that you're hearing some incalculable combination of both. Take as an example the supposedly unmediated nakedness of John Lennon's singing on Plastic Ono Band, which is in fact both cunningly varied in timbre and affect--solemn, conversational, delicate, agonized, childlike--and magnified by echo tricks we're sometimes unsure are there, and also on occasion doubled outright, to especially double-edged effect at the end of "Isolation." Or if you prefer, take as an example Katy Perry asking to see your peacock.

And then in a linchpin chapter called "Performance" Simon says that for him--personally! in his mind! and I quote!--"to hear music is to see it performed, on stage, with all the trappings," and then immediately makes clear that this vision coexists with a "full knowledge that what I hear is something that never existed." I honestly don't know whether this particular variation on double consciousness bespeaks brilliance, taste, or sheer oddity. But I can say that I almost never do this, not even with a live album. The assumption that performance means something done onstage rather than a more general kind of self-making strikes me as a very sociological kind of perception. In fact, much of Performing Rites seems fundamentally that way. Simon comes to Scotland with his rock critic's hat and his sociology degree and by processes I know nothing of gets these big jobs in English and music--both of which accrue after Performing Rites, I know that, but still, there it is. In Performing Rites, Simon Frith quietly and unshowily imposes on the so-called "humanities" his life-defining social scientist's conviction that nothing is more important than what happens between human beings--that as he told rockcritics.com "people are as instinctively social as individual, sociable as competitive." That "curiosity is a more important human motivator than fear."

When I first got involved with this affair I was pleased to learn that Performing Rites was not Simon Frith's final book--and dismayed to learn that its successor was going for over 200 bucks on Amazon, sign of the beast included. So I'm happy to report that I got a free copy just for writing this lecture. Published in 2007, Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays is part of the Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Musicology Series, and as a connoisseur of collections I found it a redolently poetic object--the offset reproductions of the 19 pieces of writing singled out, each in the typeface of the journal where it first appeared with the periodical page as well as the book page indicated, say so much about the increasingly esoteric marginality of the critical essay and print itself. But as a non-British non-academic, I'd read only a small portion of this material before, and it proved an excellent warmup for my reread of Performing Rites--the perfect way to reacquaint myself with the sly, putatively modest way Simon's mind works. Once again I can't resist quoting the prose, not all of it musically focused. There's suburbia as "a place where people live but don't work; rest but don't play," disorienting the offspring who so rarely get to leave it; there's "leisure as an experience of freedom so intense that it becomes, simultaneously, an experience of loneliness"; there's "youth experienced . . . as an intense presence, through an impatience for time to pass and a regret that it is doing so, in a series of speeding, physically insistent moments that have nostalgia coded into them." There's a poetry and empathy to such passages that I associate with literature, not historical sociology.

My favorite of these essays, however, isn't very sociological at all: "Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music," published in Music and Society nine years before Performing Rites and, I'd say, compatible rather than congruent with it. Maybe Simon thinks he outgrew it, but given its placement toward the end I view it as an alternate mix. It begins with a switcheroo designed to undo the rhetoric prevalent in both traditional mass culture theory and academic musicology, to wit: "In analyzing serious music"--that is, what I've labeled highbrow music because I think most music is serious one way or another--"In analyzing serious music we have to uncover the social forces concealed in the talk of `transcendent' values; in analyzing pop, we have to take seriously the values scoffed at in the talk of social functions." Don't think Simon isn't aware those two uses of "serious" are cheek by jowl there--the program he's espousing is to interpret pop music aesthetically and highbrow music sociologically. And then he goes on to develop an idea articulated but left undeveloped in Performing Rites: "Everyone in the pop world is aware of the social forces that determine 'normal' pop music--a good record, song, or sound is precisely one that transcends those forces!" Exclamation point in original.

A guy can dream. At the very start of Performing Rites, Simon takes out of the closet what he himself calls his "rock critic's hat," that's where I came across that phrase, and devotes two pages to a detailed, specific, and occasionally quite witty critique of what I'd guess is his favorite band of all time, the Pet Shop Boys--a band masterminded by a rock critic, as it happens. This passage is an uncharacteristically spectacular demonstration of the critic's craft, and one of the few times since he made his decision for academia that he's done what I was missing as long ago as Sound Effects: describe individual artists and their audiences. In his contribution to my own festschrift a dozen years ago, Simon wondered whether part of me still pined for the academic path I'd happily forsworn as a student in 1962 and 1966 and a teacher in 1972 and allowed as how "the epic energy" I'd expended on what now adds up to over 13,000 album reviews reminded him of the outpourings of a soapbox preacher in Hyde Park regaling a few loopy converts and a bunch of bystanders who will quickly move on. And indeed, journalism has become such an ill-paid job in the digital era that it's possible that after many years of adjunct dabbling I may be taking my first full-time college teaching job just as Simon retires from his last one. So my modest proposal is this: that Simon, free at last from his institutional travails, devote a portion of his golden years to writing about favored bands and musicians. Album reviews would be my personal preference. But if he insists on defining performance as live shows where the social is of the essence, that would be OK too.

April 2014