Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Cruising for a Comparison

In case you were wondering, Harry Connick Jr. is not the Antichrist. Even if that title hadn't already been claimed by Johnny Rotten, another callow talent who got a lot of ink slagging rock and roll, Connick would be more like the Antieltonjohn. Take him at his word and he's Wynton Marsalis with vocals, delivering the masses from trivia and pretension. Scope out his place in the pop firmament, however, and you'll see that he's not exactly leading a movement--basically, he's a singer-songwriter with a concept and a market niche. Anyone who dreams Connick has escaped the rock era should have caught the second of his 15 sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden's 5600-capacity Paramount, which was festooned with a sharp Robert Plant impression, a fuzzy U2 burlesque, a valiant attempt at hollow-body Hendrix by a guitarist with the chops to know better, and a sorry facsimile of a James Brown beat. But listen with open ears to Blue Light, Red Light, his sixth album counting the breakthrough When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, and you'll find that he doesn't get over on image alone.

Up against his instrumental sources/parallels--Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, or his teacher James Booker, who he rightly calls "the only genius I've ever met"--Connick's touch and swing lack the finesse that will always send me back to someone else's piano record. Nevertheless, I think the kid gets too much guff from keepers of the jazz flame, who'll take any chance to disguise their aversion to the marketplace as an affinity for finesse. Give Connick this--unlike his New Orleans mentor Wynton, he doesn't pretend to genius or mouth off about art. Even doing his Monk thing he flashes a showman's brass. Without it he'd come off fake. It's his vulgarity itself, as opposed to its musical by-products, that's at the core of his appeal to an audience that craves unabashed entertainment far more than deliverance from trivia and pretension.

At the Paramount March 20, what distinguished that audience--which given the prices (my orchestra comps were marked $42.50) had to be upper middle-class, and which boasted a less paltry sprinkling of African Americans than the average rock concert--was its generational spread. Couples in their thirties predominated, but there were plenty of teenagers and grandparents and everything else. And without having done a survey I'll surmise that rather than prefiguring the retro trend that retro trendmongers crow about with every new fissure in the rock hegemony--come on, guys, Ronstadt's Nelson Riddle move was nine years ago--Connick has simply located yet another of the disgruntled minorities that hegemonies inevitably generate. Sure it's impressive that this minority includes 84,000 well-heeled greater New Yorkers from seven to 70. But when the Grateful Dead or Depeche Mode attract comparable hordes, nobody thinks the world is changing.

What the 24-year-old singer shares with these grown-ups of all ages is a general admiration for the values symbolized by the big band, an extremely elastic category that begins in the jumping mid-'30s and peters out about when Sinatra leaves Capitol and Nelson Riddle a quarter-century later. Needless to say, they're excited by the sound of swinging brass not because it breaks with an aural past of strings and parlor piano, as it did in the '30s, but because it evokes its own past--a past whose protective layer of gentility they've developed a taste for. Fans of craft and teamwork and discipline and precision and tuxedos, of entertainment that declares itself part of a civilized social order, they're not picky about sonic details. So like any postmodern entertainer, Marsalis included, Connick conflates like a motherfucker. Though his 17-piece band favors the screechy end of the sonic blackboard, with a persistent trumpet blare that recalls the benighted Maynard Ferguson, it couldn't be said to have a sound or style. In its opportunistic moods and rhythmic attack it's a generic show band--a singer's band.

The inevitable comparisons to the young Frank Sinatra do Connick a disservice, albeit one he's cruising for. Physically, Sinatra's voice is one of the marvels of the century. There's no way the marginally adenoidal Connick can match his Dorsey-era smoothness and depth, and as he matures I guarantee you he won't get near Sinatra's potent syntheses of high-pop diction and Hoboken swagger, conversational intimacy and singerly technique. But in a more mortal context--Vaughn Monroe's, say, or Elton John's--the way Connick's singing yokes high-pop aspiration to showbiz swagger seems pretty original. And it's also a canny solution to the most telling distinction between him and early Sinatra. Listen to the relatively sophisticated "Fools Rush In" or "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," cut like all Sinatra's Dorsey work when he was older than Connick, and you'll still hear an innocence that manifests itself as unquestioning middle-class politesse. Even covering young Frank's "Imagination," Connick sounds hiply world-weary--much more knowing than the Sinatra of 1940, a seasoned professional turning championship ass man and saloon cynic. In 1992 he has no choice--not only is information a virus and middle-class politesse as dead as the doily, but Connick's audience wants the middle-aged Sinatra more than the young one.

To me the chasm between the nostalgia Connick hawks and the media-saturated realities he's forced to address anyway make him an artist worth attending in 1992--certainly more so than Elton John, maybe more so than U2. I enjoy popwise kid-flick covers like "If I Only Had a Brain" and "The Bear Necessities" and Monk-by-numbers originals like "One Last Pitch" and "Hudson Bommer." I'm pleasantly surprised when he tops off a safely bawdy "Sheik of Araby" with the riskily grungy "Cut your toenails, you're ripping the sheets." And most of all I note that like any self-respecting singer-songwriter he writes good songs--more consistently than Bob Seger or Mariah Carey or recent John Mellencamp or you name him or her. With help from his own Bernie Taupin, New Orleans homeboy Ramsey McLean, at least half of those on Blue Light, Red Light hold their own, and with more musical originality than you get from such stalwarts as John Prine or Bonnie Raitt. McLean has the verbal flair, and his style of colorful--the garret-bohemian interlude of "Blue Light, Red Light (Someone's There)," the tall tales of "You Didn't Know Me When"--suits Connick's hip perfectly. But the prize is Connick's homage to his father. Harry Sr. has been the New Orleans D.A. for almost 20 years, not a terribly appealing career profile from a rock perspective, and "He Is They Are" hangs off a string of mostly complimentary adjectives. Yet I swear it will make anyone who doesn't loathe his or her own father think fond thoughts about the patriarchal family. Connick has based his career on the belief that even in 1992 most people love their dads. And whether you like it or not he's making something of it.

Village Voice, Apr. 7, 1992