Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Doomed to Repeat It: Jesse Green, Meet Sidney Zion

On June 21, 1981, The New York Times Magazine published Sidney Zion's monumental "Outlasting Rock," which, impossible though it may seem, was almost as long as Jesse Green's June 2 follow-up, apparently timed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Zion's achievement. Granted, the thesis has evolved somewhat. Zion, an old-fashioned newsman who like many journalist fans rarely wrote about music, confidently predicted that--if only the barbarians and accountants at the record companies would cancel their contracts with Satan--the great hype of rock and roll would at long last be brought to its knees by "America's greatest contribution to popular culture," the songs of a Tin Pan Alley pantheon running from Irving Berlin to Jule Styne. In "The Song Is Ended," Green, a stylish Adam Moss favorite who also loves rather than covers music, lets fly with a pained portmortem rather than a battle cry. But when he wants to prove that the better rock and rollers do too love "classic standards," the raunch-hounds whose names he rolls out--"Willie Nelson, Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt"--are precisely those originally cited by Zion.

Can we make a few sane points and guide this silly business to its eternal resting place? As Green almost has the guts to say in so many words, the battle is over. Rock hasn't been "outlasted," although it's certainly changed and exfoliated, and all rock and rollers with ears and some leisure can relax their defenses and enjoy the terrific songs of Berlin and Porter and Rodgers (and Hart) (and even Hammerstein) (and plenty of others). We may not be so sure we like the way Green's beloved Barbara Cook sings them, but never mind that. First let's just establish the parameters of the Tin Pan Alley achievement, which Charles Hamm's Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (a far more authoritative study than Alec Wilder's ahistorical American Popular Song, dubbed by Green "the bible of the standard") identifies as atypical in two crucial respects. It divorced songwriting from performer and performance, which was not the case with Henry Russell or the Henderson Family in the pre-Civil War period any more than it has been in a rock and roll era that has now lasted 40 years. And it depended more than any pop composing before or since on the harmonic language of European classical music, although in time-tested middlebrow fashion, the usages it exploited were already old hat in a classical world beset by atonalism.

This hidden Euroconnection helps explain why Green recalls Allan Bloom when he gets going. Although the stupidest ideas in his piece come from rabid partisans quoted without comment, it's the author who asks: "When there are no community standards, no educational standards, can there be musical standards?" And while Green knows more about rock and roll than Zion did, that's obviously not saying much. His basic claims are the big lie that rock song isn't "literate," the dull misapprehension that rock song is always sincere rather than ironic, and the reasonable but fatally overstated observation that rock artists don't cover each other's songs. As an example of sincerity he cites "I Want to Hold Your Hand," ignoring all the other things teenagers knew the Beatles wanted to do. Letting the irony idea slip his mind, he cites Madonna's "Like a Virgin" as an example of uncoverability. And what would he have made of the Afghan Whigs' encore at Irving Plaza May 29--a medley of TLC's "Creep" and the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues"? First he would have had to have heard of the Afghan Whigs. And "Cocksucker Blues." Not to mention TLC. At least you know who Irving Berlin was, right? Guess educational standards have a ways to go after all.

Village Voice, 1996