Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Obvious Believers

Brian Raftery has been a staffer at Spin, EW, and GQ, which means he's a smart guy who knows how to make writing go down easy. More recently he was an editor at Idolator, which didn't work out, as it hasn't worked out for a lot of people--good luck Maura, see you in a later post. Now he's published a memoiristic cultural history called Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life, and the fact that it goes down easy--as befits his training, Raftery is partial to chapters that function as sidebars and chapters constructed as lists--doesn't mean it has nothing to say. In fact, it's one of the more substantial documents of the rise of the song aesthetic, a subject that's generated a great deal of piffle over the past five years.

I've been pro-karaoke ever since I read Charles Keil's 1984 essay about it a decade late in his great Music Grooves collection--anything that helps fans take control of music is good by definition, although sometimes only in theory. Raftery's book--together with the fact that my daughter and her best friend, a native of the karaoke-crazy Philippines, are into it--has certainly intensified my curiosity. One thing you can say for karaoke song connoisseurs as opposed to MP3-blog song connoisseurs is that for them songs are anything but disposable--they value a durable melody and a clever structure. One thing you can say against them is that their performance needs are hell on extended instrumentals and strophic forms. Like Raftery, who really shouldn't take Rolling Stone so seriously, I scoff at the idea that "Like a Rolling Stone" is the greatest single of the modern era. It's not in my top 500. But that doesn't mean I don't like it. I wonder how many karaoke obsessives can see, I mean hear, its virtues as clearly as Raftery claims he does.

This is one of several critical issues that Raftery glances off rather than exploring. It always saddens me when a smart guy who knows music has a book to write and avoids putting any criticism in it. For sure he could have shortened the takeout on the esoteric realm of karaoke video to make room. Most interesting to me is a question he never really addresses at all, which is--what is a "good singing voice," anyway? Wasn't rock and roll out on earth not to obliterate that notion but to broaden it so the pitchmongers could never grab hold of it again? Does karaoke contravene conventional notions of the good voice? Or does it reinforce them with its choice of material, the presentational gifts of the karaoke-specific local stars it produces, and its sometimes candid, sometimes ironic admissions of amateurism and the professionalism that amateurism implies? I wish I thought there was much doubt.

2 Comments

By Theon on May 30, 2009 8:57 AM

I appreciate the rock-n-roll theory of Unorthodox Individuality, but really if you want to know what a "bad singing voice" is, go to a karaoke bar.

By David Schweitzer on June 13, 2009 7:38 AM

I haven't read the book -- or heard of it until now. So I want to know - does the author put karaoke into a larger history -- people singing in bars collectively and perhaps spontaneously without accompaniment (which I believe existed and may still somewhere), and people singing around a piano in homes, which I experienced as a child courtesy my dad (80 this week!) and do again courtesy a dear friend's periodic "hootenannies" in his living room -- a few people who can play guitar and keyboard, and up to a dozen or so people hitting various percussion instruments (pro, kiddie, and improvised) and singing if you know the words (with lyric sheets if somebody bothered -- this party started pre-internet lyric sites, so now it's easier), with repetoire from Beatles to Donna Summer to John Hiatt to the Mekons.

And then there's American Idol, which in theory could be a good show, or at least a bastion of tolerance and good vibes, rather than musical Survivor with dubious criteria (I mean, why not invite an actual rock & roll as permanent panelist? Chuck Eddy would be a hoot, but I'd settle for Jack Black, but I admit I still probably wouldn't watch more than twice.)

But in response to your basic wonderings, Bob, I suspect that karaoke song choice overlaps a lot with what its participants would listen to anyway, and I fear that way too many alt- rockers and hip-hoppers may think they're too "cool" to sing along to their favorites. And then there's Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which made video gaming (which I care little for) a boisterous party-group activity and rock & roll participatory. Especially if you play with people who don't get all snobby about "good voices" and think that the instrumentalists fucking up a lot is part of the fun, it can really liven up a party. If Raftery's book takes all this into account, it could be worth something. If it doesn't, what's David Toop up to these days?

Articles, May 29, 2009


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