Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Childish Things

Folks, please, let's not kid ourselves. Our new president is whip-smart and in a crucial sense one of us, but though he's certainly an intellectual, he's no aesthete. Be glad he relished the chance to read some novels when he lost that House race and knows the "whiskey and rye" part of "American Pie." Be very glad he can write, really write. He is nevertheless a pol, as in politics and also as in policy. So let's just can this talk of a cabinet-level arts position, shall we? First he orders a wage freeze, then he creates a new federal department. What a dumb idea.

Still, how could I not keep an ear on the music at Obama's three-day celebration? As Jon Pareles noted in the terrific overview he published Thursday, the Bush years didn't excite a whole lot of volunteerism in the music community--Wayne Newton, Ricky Martin, Brooks & Dunn, feh. I haven't seen any account of who paid whose expenses, but the musical volunteerism for Obama was pretty much at a level with the political volunteerism. The two-hour Sunday concert was an appropriately shameless celebration of American popular music at its most democratic. My old mate Stanley Crouch harrumphed, sadly and predictably, that it was "overstated," "severely limited," even "impenetrable," which pop songs can be if you're too big a muckamuck to know the words. But these are words many Americans know--that was clearly a goal--and every masscult song the organizers chose had a progressive political message, which in truth most don't bother with. My personal favorites were Mary J. Blige's typically off-key reinvention of Bill Withers's proudly bathetic "Lean on Me," the Garth Brooks medley that centered around Don McLean's aforementioned novelty classic "American Pie," the improbable duo of cult soul singer Bettye LaVette and would-be Democratic pol Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke's inevitable "A Change Is Gonna Come," the "Higher Ground" duet featuring Usher and the great Colombian citizen Shakira (with Stevie Wonder on keybs), U2's showboating "Pride," and the double-whammy finale: first a frail, underdressed, 88-year-old Pete Seeger, with powerful vocal aid from his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, leading the audience through a "This Land Is Your Land" that included the CP verse dissing "private property," which was somehow topped by Beyonce, of all people, owning a group-sung "America the Beautiful." I mean, my own tastes are artier, as they should be--I'm a critic, and in my way an aesthete. But the artiness I prefer applauds and enjoys masspop's beauty and utility at moments like this one.

I watched the Inaugural Day festivities with a less critical eye. All I've got in my RAM is Aretha Franklin's takeover of "My Country 'Tis of Me" at the inaugural ceremony, Stevie Wonder's mini-concert for the First Lady, and, once again, Beyonce's rendition of the Glenn Miller hit turned Etta James makeout standard "At Last," the Obamas' cannily suggestive choice for their slow-dance feature. In this regard I was struck by how many commentators--even Jamie Foxx--fell into the trap of making like our first black president was in the great tradition of Bill Bojangles Robinson. To me it was clear that, although Barack has a few moves, the dancer in this couple is Michelle. It's nurture not nature--check out the part of Obama's first memoir where he gets spend a month with his dad in Honolulu at 10 and finally gets some dance lessons. I loved the high-school-prom embrace the two fell into, and how they whispered as they danced. But where my fantasy was that they were saying something along the general lines of "Are you gonna get laid tonight," my wife thought it was more like, "You're doing fine, Barack, but maybe you should turn now."

Obama has a sense of humor and a sense of style; wisely and revealingly, the letter he wrote to his daughters cites their sense of mischief as one of the things he treasures in them. But in his inaugural address, his much-discussed biblical reference to putting away childish things is something arts advocates should ponder. This is a man with a world crisis on his shoulders, and he takes that burden seriously. You want a fun-loving president, go back to the frat-boy bully we just had.

All art is ludic--it presupposes a sense of play and generally requires leisure in its creation and consumption. The art I've devoted my life to goes further than that--rooted in adolescent hope, sexuality, confusion, and rebellion, it insists that having fun should be a lifelong goal. Unless Obama steers us out of the current economic crisis a lot sooner than looks realistic to me, I do not expect him to advocate for these virtues, although I still will. He values them--this is a man of impressive philosophical breadth and uncommon empathy--but they aren't priorities, probably wouldn't be even in prosperous times. Just be grateful he does make an arts-friendly priority of prosperity for all. Most politicians don't.

2 Comments

By Jones on January 25, 2009 8:42 AM

"So let's just can this talk of a cabinet-level arts position, shall we? First he orders a wage freeze, then he creates a new federal department. What a dumb idea." Talk of a cabinet-level arts position, or ordering a wage freeze and creating a new federal department, I didn't quite pick up which was the dumb idea (?).

"The time has come to set aside childish things," sounds all encompassing, from arts to politics, pragmatic in the context of world crises, but doesn't it also afford the fortitude and exactness of bi-partisanship, both the keystone of his campaign and of his political life?

As for whatever Michelle suggested to her husband, after 10 official inauguration balls, I'm sure they were pretty exhausted. But let's keep the dream alive, shall we?

By Robert Christgau on January 25, 2009 9:02 AM

Just to be clear, the dumb idea is the creation of a cabinet-level arts positions, with its attendant staffing, in a time of belt-tightening. Just to be clear, I loved the austerity of Obama's inaugural address, not least as a way of deflating expectations both economic and rhetorical. Just to be clear, I thought my wife's theory at least as plausible as mine--and also, it was more austere. But in my fantasy, the speaker is deliberately unspecified.

Articles, Jan. 24, 2009


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