Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Maximized Modesty

There's no denying that 1986 was a bleak year for black pop. With Whitney Houston's positive image leveling all before it and megatons of theoretical multiplatinum barreling down the hits-radio track even a guy who's admired Ray Parker Jr. and Ashford & Simpson as well as George Clinton and Prince (as well as Robert Cray and Black Uhuru as well as Bruce Springsteen and X) had reason to sink into despond. This was cultural manipulation that invited grand charges of musical Reaganomics, an overdetermined simulacrum of peace, prosperity and pleasure that diluted the needs and satisfactions of the black audience while puffing up the complacency of the white. As it happens, none of the more slavish product actually went multiplatinum: Patti LaBelle and Jeffrey Osborne and El DeBarge and even Tina Turner, who instigated crossover's multiproducer something-for-everyone strategy, all sold better than X ever did and suffered shortfall nevertheless, while gutsier artists like Janet Jackson and Run-D.M.C. and Anita Baker rang up surprising blockbusters. Unfortunately, guts didn't insure quality--implicit politics notwithstanding, Tina's maturity was sager than Anita's, Patti & Friend's autonomy healthier than Janet's. Like I said, despond.

So maybe it's only by comparison that I find the fluky success of Gregory Abbott so cheering. A thirtyish, Harlem-born psychology M.A. with lots of voice and piano training and most of a Ph.D. in English, Abbott has all his professional experience in academia and on Wall Street. Popwise, his track record consists of the vanity label he ran out of his home recording facility, Grabbitt Studios. Yet at year's end "Shake You Down," which he wrote, sang and produced, was coming off a 20-week residence on Billboard's black singles chart and four with a bullet pop. Now number one pop, "Shake You Down" is a deceptively slight slow burn, a come-on so unassuming that you don't notice you're being seduced until after you've slipped into something more comfortable, and most of his Columbia album works the same subliminally hooky con--harmless until it whispers gotcha, it's a model of shameless commercial calculation. The persona is green-eyed handsome man with the wherewithal to support his fine tastes and yours. The songs are tuneful ditties with chords and harmonies out of Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell. And the singing is generic Spinners, generic because Abbott can't match pipes with Pervis Jackson or Bobbie Smith, much less Henry Fambrough or John Edwards or the late great Phillippe Wynne.

Which latter is enough to cause the black pop devotee serious distress. Supposedly, the excuse for this kind of matinee-idol romanticism is the refuge it provides for the naked beauty of the male voice, from Al Green and Eugene Record to Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson. If he can't sing, the hell with him. But Abbott can sing, all right--he just doesn't have a great voice. In fact, he continues a somewhat brainier tradition exemplified by Bill Withers and Ray Parker Jr. Withers was an amateur and Parker a pro, but both came from nowhere with a self-assurance that was an artistic accomplishment in itself, and both deployed their pleasantly unmagnificent voices with notable smarts. At this point Abbott doesn't come near Withers's soul, Parker's yocks, or either's genius, and there's something all too '80s about his bid for the multiplatinum ring, which has been certified trendy by no less an authority than New York magazine's Fast Tracks section. If in 1971 Withers was a toilet installer expressing his higher self and in 1978 Parker was a bizwise craftsman selling his irrepressible formal exuberance, then in 1987 Abbott is a brokerage grunt looking to maximize his profitability. And that this process should get him to Shake You Down is just what makes him so cheering.

Though "generic Spinners" is a more accurate and I hope evocative description than New York's "Marvin Gaye-style pop," it's also crude shorthand. But while I can posit other influences, including every artist named in the previous paragraph, they've been so thoroughly reconstituted that I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint them. Abbott's synthesis is fully realized and hearteningly simple. By his own account, he studied black pop for years before perfecting his own formula, yet some combination of market instinct, aesthetic proclivity, and his own limitations assure the pared-down compression of the end result. There are a few of rap's street-rhyme hooks and an ersatz calypso that screams Lionel Richie even though Abbott's Antiguan-Venezuelan parentage gives him far better Caribbean credentials than that supreme apostle of pop simplicity. But not only does Abbott reject the elaborate arrangements and increasingly artificial dance beats of bigtime crossover, he also avoids the bravura swoops and exhibitionistic codas of such love men as Vandross and Jackson. No doubt he must--growling or crooning or letting his falsetto do the talking, his vocal trademark is an edgy strain he's learned to make the most of. And the upshot is the same regardless: Abbot has reinvented a black pop of modest means, the first step in returning the music to the people.

Please don't think I'm attributing to this minor artist humanitarian motives he clearly doesn't have, or to his minor art social benefits that remain entirely theoretical. Anybody who's written half a dissertation on black literature and can still make a hook out of "Roses are red/Violets are blue" is bound to have an interesting mind, but that doesn't mean we're bound to like it, and who knows where Abbott will take his score--his next album could move toward Jeffrey Osborne, which would end it right there, or Lionel Richie, which I doubt he could bring off, or that old lit student August Darnell, which mightn't be such a disaster, or some good, band or indifferent variation on Gregory Abbott. Similarly, his formula may augur nothing--there's no indication he's any less an aberration than Withers or Parker was. Still, it's a healthy sign that working in isolation and inspired by unmitigated ambition Abbott should update an honorable tradition so unpretentiously. Though I've heard it said he traffics in technique rather than form, to me he seems a curious counterpart to the thousands of American basement bands who've fiddled with your basic Beatles-Stones idea over the past decade. Since Abbott's ultimate source is Smokey Robinson, he's less "authentic"--he fabricates more than he expresses, which disqualifies him aesthetically for an underground of white collegians who couldn't tell Luther Vandross from Freddie Jackson in a fried chicken commercial. Me, I enjoy his tunes. I admire his clarity and his subtlety. I think his commercial success is inextricable from his formal acuity. And I know damn well I'll be playing his followup the day it comes out.

Village Voice, Jan. 20, 1987