Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Who the Fuck Knows

Covering music in Drumpfjahr II.

Whatever else you were doing the last three weeks of November, chances are you weren't sleeping enough. Chances are you felt trapped in the same nightmare that had been waking most of us up all year. To fend that nightmare off, I'd phonebanked and canvassed for Hillary, although not enough, and published my first Village Voice piece in a decade urging readers to pitch in--or at least see through the sit-this-one-out dodge and the third-party scam. After the nightmare came true, I spent long breakfasts splitting hairs with my obsessed wife, called and emailed many old friends, and tried to figure out how to cover music while devoting my working hours to Twitter and Talking Points Memo. The only thing that cheered me up was my daughter's new kittens.

My gig with Noisey requires me to find three or more albums worth praising each Friday, but I file earlier--which meant I'd written my November 11 post before the election proper, a dilemma I finessed by saving up five artists of seventy-five or older, all explicitly on the left, including the unbowed eighty-eight-year-old communist Barbara Dane. I'd stockpiled Tanya Tagaq and Pussy Riot for a post-election fallback. After that came the Tribe Called Quest comeback keyed to the rallying cry "it's time to go left and not right," and after that Southern progressive Mose Allison, dead exactly a week after electoral Kristallnacht, and his anti-imperialist "Western Man," plus old music master Hoagy Carmichael, who I informed my readers was a liberal Republican back when there still was such a thing. And then I ran out of propaganda and had to ease up.

If rock criticism is to be a political calling, which has always been my angle, that's obviously not because it's a fountainhead of protest songs. In fact, many rock critics look askance at explicitly political lyrics, which I think is pretty stupid, without denying that some political lyrics are also pretty stupid. Thing is, to quote the recantation of the devout contrarian Simon Reynolds in the politics-themed eleventh and final issue of The Pitchfork Review: "Why was I so down on the idea of preaching to the converted? When history is against them, the converted need to have their morale maintained, their spirits kept stalwart."

But it can't end there, and it shouldn't begin there, either. Ultimately, to insist that rock criticism be political is first to insist that the humans who make and enjoy music are embroiled in politics whether they like it or not--and whether they know it or not. And second, it's to remain aware that formally, the musical upheavals of the fifties, and many that followed, were demotic, so that a class component was built into the form. No wonder rock and roll had things to tell us about oppressed African Americans and the young white seekers who dug them; and then also about hippies and punks and hipsters and other politically simpatico bohemian riffraff whose class status is murky; and then gays as of disco, defiant to militant blacks as of hip-hop; and, most saliently in the past decade, though with many earlier pioneers and with crucial origins in punk, women.

So when, in subsequent weeks, I predicted that the Smithsonian Folkways label was doomed, or observed that the Sheer Mag advisory "So hold fast to the ones you love" "signifie[d] more acutely in this ripped-apart time," or pinpointed Johnny Rodriguez nailing Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" on a Highwaymen comp, or isolated the one-hundred-second interlude when the Phoenix party rappers Injury Reserve "dispatch anti-black bias, anti-Native American bias, consumer fetishism, global warming, and the trans bathroom perplex," or even when I characterized Populous's "Brasilia" as "a multilayered, multivocal urban showcase worth building in the right savannah," I was sticking to my lifelong critical-political program by locating music in a social context. That's why I began researching Trump-era music coverage, seeking out similar subversions in the year-end lists with which every mag brands itself--in Rolling Stone, where hidebound music coverage has underwritten progressive political coverage for decades; in its usurper Pitchfork, which has slowly earned our musical trust while making a principle of covering nothing else; and in Noisey, an online descendant of Creem with the Oral Roberts dropout Eric Sundermann as its Dave Marsh, the brash punk Dan Ozzi its Lester Bangs, and the extreme-metal feminist Kim Kelly its Jaan Uhelszki.

Beyond Anohni's Hopelessness, which made all three lists and is impossible to describe apolitically, fewer writers seized the opportunity than I hoped. Nonetheless, kudos to Rolling Stone's Richard Gehr for sprinkling in some propaganda, not just on Bonnie Raitt but on the fucking Monkees. And cheers to Joe Levy for hanging an "annus horribilus" on Paul Simon; to Mosi Reeves for putting Quest's and Alicia Keys's politics in the lead; to Chris Weingarten for calling Coloring Book's Chicago "a city in crisis"; to Rob Sheffield for calling Lemonade's America "a nation in flames." At Pitchfork, Minna Zhou shoehorned murdered-by-cop Alton Sterling and Philando Castile into her Jamila Woods lede, Quinn Moreland named "capitalism" as Jenny Hval's nemesis, Sheldon Pearce had YG "coolly star[ing] down the barrel" of DT's state, Jayson Greene politicized Esperanza Spalding and went full ideological on Quest, Vanessa Okoth-Obbo claimed Solange's A Place at the Table as a protest record, and Amanda Petrusich insisted that Lemonade demanded "a colossal re-think of what we mean by protest music." Note that at Pitchfork, notorious just a decade ago as a white boys' club, every writer I've cited except for Greene is female, of color, or both.

At Noisey, meanwhile, there was less subtlety--because subtlety isn't Noisey's way, targeting as it does alienated teens not unlike Sundermann before he departed western Iowa for the Christianist education he soon fled. So when the intro to their top 100 designated 2016 a "catastrophically atrocious shitstain of a year," it was on, including many metal-punk-whatever records I'd never heard of, and hip-hop new to me as well: Fat White Family's "grand piece of deliriously unpleasant art" for "a desolate and unpleasant year," Kodak Black addressing "systematic racism, oppression, and PTSD," or G.L.O.S.S.'s Trans Day of Revenge: "It was needed on June 12, it's still needed now, and it'll be needed in the years to come." I can't be sure how much of this music I'd like, much less need. But I'm definitely okay with Zeal & Ardor's sixth-ranked Devil Is Fine, the project of a Swiss-born biracial New Yorker who was challenged on 4chan to fuse quote "black metal" with quote "nigger music." It begins with a devil-worshipping field chant.

But record reviews are scrawny things up against a patently racist regime designed to gull the down-pressed middle class into underwriting the oppressive superrich--a regime that in under a week was officially masterminded not by the ignoramus-elect but by a Goldman Sachs profiteer turned white-nationalist media mogul set on replacing the federal government with something much worse. If music can keep spirits stalwart, music journalism should try to specify to what end. Pitchfork's Mark Richardson, a CPA's son from Lansing, Michigan, couldn't stop reading Politico before November 8, or after. But he remained committed to the music-only business model. So first he invited staffers to celebrate records that had helped them "move forward," with picks ranging from Albert Ayler and Leonard Cohen to Shy Glizzy and Pure Disgust, black artists outnumbering black respondents, and much essential talk about how we need each other. On November 10, he ran a Greil Marcus Real Life Top 10 that quoted Walter Benjamin using the word "trumpery" and hypothesized that Trump was Putin's agent long before it became a commonplace. And he also ran Daphne Carr's November 23 report on indie artists like Rebel Diaz, Downtown Boys, Titus Andronicus's Amy Klein, and Grizzly Bear's Ed Droste protesting, educating, and even electioneering. In contrast, the politically explicit Rolling Stone was hobbled by the typesetting lags of yesteryear, so that most of its postelection edition was set preelection, with a chagrined Matt Taibbi postmortem inserted just before close. Nor did its online edition leap into the breach--editor Christian Hoard, a truck driver's son from Battle Creek, Michigan, told me he was so bummed it took him weeks to snap out of his funk, although soon enough he was pushing for a preinaugural piece that ran online. Noisey recovered much faster, with a November 14 manifesto headlined "And Now We Fight": "He is a bigot. He is a fascist. He is a misogynist. He is a white supremacist. He is a fraud," it noted--before climaxing with a defiant graf that employed the idiom "fight like fuck" six times.

Overshadowing all this was a cliché in play long before the ever-hustling Amanda Palmer branded it in late December: the numbskull Trump-will-be-good-for-punk theory. "We're on the edge of descending into actual fascism, and you're thinking about your record collection?!" fumed Noisey's Kim Kelly in a November 10 essay that urged those suckered by the fallacy to attend instead the abortion-rights Haven Project, Black Lives Matters's People's Mondays, or unionizing their workplaces. On November 15, The Ringer's Rob Harvilla squeezed out a nuanced if tortuous think piece that aspired to an art-politics balance--the hard work of activism eased by the compensatory "forms of play" that can "grow to feel like some of the most important work of all." And representing for MTV on November 11, Jessica Hopper recalled an Iraq war that had withstood oodles of obtuse indie-rock irony, reminded us how much musicians needed the ACA, and shouted what should have been obvious: that with Obama up top African Americans had generated "a vast body of personal-political music" more likely to be squelched than sparked by Trumpist repression. In other words, the Trump-will-be-good-for-punk meme was racist at its core.

What Trump was good for even before his electoral coup was anti-Trump songs. Too many of these are flaccid as opposed to stupid, but not the John Misty-Tim Heidecker "I Am a Rock" remake "I Am a Cuck," Fiona Apple's "We don't want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants" chant, Mac McCaughan's hair-of-the-dog "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)," Le Tigre's Clinton fight song "I'm With Her," or the best by a landslide of the full dozen Spotify songs entitled either "Fuck Donald Trump" or "Fuck You Donald Trump," YG and Nipsey Hussle's August-released, Bloods-, Crips-, and Nation of Islam--rallying "FDT." Then there was the Christmas release of Run the Jewels' kindest and smartest album, which built to the crucial Dr. King quote, "A riot is the language of the unheard." As this music accumulated, legions of pop acts were refusing to play DC on Inauguration Day, which Quasi marked by releasing the recommended Portland-scene charity comp Battle Hymns, buy it now. And then, the very next day, millions of mostly female humans rose before dawn for January 21's epochal women's marches--concrete evidence that the resistance was even bigger and deeper than we'd dared hope. It was more momentous than anything I experienced in the sixties--and more inspiring than any song I've ever heard.

Within days our nightmare would come truer with the Sessions, DeVos, and Price fast-tracks and the initial travel bans. But soon we saw that we could actually get things undone. Airport actions forestalled hundreds if not thousands of injustices, and though all the town meetings and phone campaigns didn't stop Sessions or DeVos, they did help topple Labor nominee Andrew Puzder while putting the fear of their constituents into Democratic pols in the ongoing ACA struggle where we won the first round. Our morale maintained. Our spirits were stalwart. And in both matters, face it, music was beside the point. But beside the point isn't the same as irrelevant, not if you care about music even while wishing songs about freedom didn't come so much easier than songs about proportional representation.

And it obviously wasn't irrelevant at Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, or Noisey. Stone led its February 9 music section with an anti-Trump superstar roundup, an anti-Trump playlist, and a deft, woke Jonah Weiner Migos profile that unearthed Quavo's unreleased "I don't fuck with Donald Trump" line. But the mag's strength truly is politics proper, which the Macomb County native Marc Binelli had already demonstrated with the best by far of the many let's-have-a-few-beers-in-Youngstown Trump-voter thumbsuckers I've speed-read. And that same issue proved it with a Tim Dickinson demographic breakdown far solider than Matt Taibbi's extry-extry "The End of Facts" screed; an embedded portrait of American anarchists combatting ISIS with the Kurds in Iraq; and a Lena Dunham one-pager complementing a Rolling Stone interview with the most articulate political voice in American popular culture, green-card holder John Oliver.

Marcus's far-ranging monthly columns aside, Pitchfork stuck to its all-music program but made an effort to conceive and cover legitimate music-under-Trump stories, the bailiwick of reviewer-turned-staff-writer Marc Hogan, an experienced investigative reporter with a grasp of basic political reality. In the first three months of 2017, Hogan filed compact, meaty features on alt-rockers campaigning to save their ACA healthcare, Republican hostility to the National Endowment for the Arts, Muslim musicians beset by ICE goons, the mini-furor over South by Southwest's immigration guidelines, and the ties between Neil Gorsuch and Coachella-owner Philip Anschutz. I say give Hogan a column that would spur him to dig up as much such stuff as he can.

Noisey, meanwhile, remained a megaphone to disgruntled fifteen- to twenty-five-year-olds, with explicitly anti-Trump stories a conscious goal. Am I altogether convinced that the future president threw One Direction out of his hotel for declining to socialize with his daughter, or that a chain of Southern radio stations was hacked to play YG's "FDT" on a loop? Not just because it said so in Noisey--but I love these stories regardless. My favorite Noisey gambit was a Q & A between Julia Cumming, of the Brooklyn band Sunflower Bean, and the Iranian American singer Rahill about the latter's volunteer stint as a Farsi translator at JFK. Rahill was so impressed by the immigration lawyers she met that she mused about a career change. Cameron responded: "This is one thing that's really hard. I feel powerless because I don't have the knowledge of what you can actually do, because I'm not in college, I'm not a lawyer, I went straight into music."

Such engagement extended only occasionally to album reviews. Thanks to Pitchfork's Stuart Berman for unearthing the political subtext of what still sounds to me like one more dull British Sea Power record, and to Laura Snapes for trumpeting Priests' opposition to "corrupt power hierarchies" even if I think they're apolitically amelodic. Thanks, too, for the dropped hints in re Ramadan, the Thirteenth Amendment, and subliminal feminism I found in other Pitchfork reviews when I downed two weeks of them at a sitting. Good for Rolling Stone's Will Hermes putting women-of-color Rhiannon Giddens, Valerie June, and Alynda Segarra in a single folk-themed review atop the mag's wizened record section. And if those few examples aren't enough, which they aren't, there were still relevant music stories all over the place. Halsey gave a hundred grand to Planned Parenthood. Tegan and Sara set up an LGBTQ foundation. The indie songbird Sufjan Stevens placed a WaPo op-ed titled "Stop Repeating the Heresy of Declaring the United States a 'Christian Nation.'" The indie percussionist Thor Harris posted an instructional video titled "How to Punch a Nazi." Ice-T convened Body Count to articulate some scabrously intelligent politics and praise Slayer. Slayer complained about "snowflakes commenting their distaste for the new president." Roger Daltrey and John Lydon each professed himself very much pro-Brexit and pretty much anti-Trump. Adele failed to dispose properly of the Grammy she'd prayed Beyoncé would get. Lady Gaga failed to foment revolution at the Super Bowl.

A few months ago, who the fuck knew what Drumpfjahr II politics would entail? Now, at least, we have an inkling. We know that Trump is every bit as ignorant and narcissistic as we believed without seeming altogether incapable of learning on the job. We know he's greedier than we thought to worry about. We know he defaults to the vilest Republicans about most of the many things he doesn't know. We know Clinton wasn't the real Wall Street candidate or war candidate after all. We know Obama's nuclear-button argument was no joke. We know there's worse to come. But we also know the resistance is stronger than we'd dreamed. We know the deep state is more resilient than those who had hopes for it feared and more humane than those who feared it assumed. We know that what are called demonstrations have concrete consequences. We know the Democratic Party is the single blunt instrument at our disposal, to repurpose the barb Steve Bannon used on DT last summer. We know that effective politics must be at least in part electoral politics. And we also know that music remains at the center of our lives.

"What are the key issues for music criticism in 2017?" a fan recently asked Greil Marcus, who replied: "I can't speak for anyone but myself. For me, what's crucial is not to write about music, or anything else, without a sense of tyranny surrounding any attempt at communication, expression, or free speech of any sort." While more committed than ever in my life to being a nag--to highlighting themes and sneaking in side comments that will harsh escapist mellows--I think that's too stark. There's a moment in that Noisey interview that's stuck with me, when the musician who wishes she'd gone to college says: "There's definitely that burnout, that activist burnout, or just general burnout. You have to take a little bit of time for yourself, to open up . . . that frilly little way of being the people who make the work that is being consumed--hopefully so life is a bit more bearable." That's what Rob Harvilla was getting at with "forms of play." And I agree.

A month or so after the coup, I took a cue from Nina's rescue kittens and began trying out the strange notion that it was our political duty to be happy. My wife had her doubts, but I say I was onto something, because I don't know how we can resist effectively as depressives. Not that there isn't always something new to stress about. But music doesn't have to be relevant to make me happy these days, and when it does make me happy, I tell the world about it. That's part of the job--and it may be part of the struggle, too.


The above essay was originally delivered last month at the 2017 MoPop Pop Conference at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

The Paris Review, May 2, 2017