Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Agitrock

The overanticipation and preemptive cynicism surrounding the idea of "Sun City" were inevitable, and so were the excessive praise and moderate commercial success that greeted the fact. None of them should prevent sensible sympathizers from understanding (and enjoying) what Steve Van Zandt accomplished when he threw down the gauntlet at apartheid's showcase of meaningless integration in the worse than meaningless black "homeland" of Bophuthatswana. In the year of do-gooder pop, he told those with ears to hear that changing the world for the better necessarily involves political struggle--while at the same time stepping up his own musical commitment.

Although Van Zandt has always been more effective as Bruce Springsteen's sideman than as Southside Johnny's mastermind or Little Steven the agit-rocker, this time he's convincing as mastermind, agit-rocker, and sideman all at once. "Sun City" isn't quite the groundbreaking masterpiece his claque claims, but with the considerable help of Arthur Baker, an experienced hand at this sort of thing, Van Zandt has created what he had to create: a showcase of meaningful integration. Finally Joey Ramone meets George Clinton! Finally Miles Davis lends his oft-misunderstood pop talents to a full-fledged pop record! Finally rap gets on MTV!

And there's more. Those who complain that entertainment can't change the world should note that "Sun City" is a specifically showbiz issue, and that since the record appeared Elton John, one of the rock and rollers who lent legitimacy to South African oppression by playing the resort, has publicly admitted his mistake. The point is to make people think, not to make money, but Van Zandt is to be commended for directing proceeds not to some specially devised above-it-all foundation, but to the tax-exempt leftists at the Africa Fund. And the video (directed by Jonathan Demme, edited by Godley & Creme, a sharp division of labor) not only brings apartheid home but makes the essential rock and roll equation between celebration and revolt. Formally acute, that Little Steven. Avant-pop indeed.

Village Voice, Jan. 7, 1986